Sound and vision blog

112 posts categorized "Sound recording history"

29 August 2022

Recording of the week: Learning garden birdsong with Charles and Heather Myers

This week's selection comes from Greg Green, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage.

Charles and Heather Myers

Above: Charles and Heather Myers, used with permission from the Wildlife Sound Recording Society. Photographer unknown.

Charles and Heather Myers were a husband-and-wife recording duo. They met through their shared love of nature and sound recordings. Their impressive collection here at the library (BL shelfmark: WA 2010/017) consists of a whopping 559 open reel tapes and over 5,000 recordings. All are meticulously edited, catalogued, and organised by species and subject. The duo’s dedication and technical prowess make every recording in this collection a joy to listen to, and the time they spent organising and documenting made it a pleasure to digitise and catalogue as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project. Any recordist should aspire to have a collection half as good as this!

Charles and Heather were both active members of the Wildlife Sound Recording Society (WSRS) and regularly met at field meetings before they got married and set up home together in Shropshire. They were always more than happy to share their knowledge and recordings with anyone interested, and often sent in material to the WSRS journals and members’ recording compilations, as well as entering, and often winning, the society’s annual recording competition. Heather took over as the society’s secretary from 1983 to 1994. Both Charles and Heather’s obituaries in the Wildlife Sound journals are filled with kind tributes from members who saw them as friends and mentors.

Heather with reflector

Above: Heather Myers with reflector, used with permission from the Wildlife Sound Recording Society. Photographer unknown.

As well as contributing to the WSRS, they often submitted recordings and prepared pieces to their local talking newspaper for the blind. Many of these submissions are preserved in the collection, including this piece titled ‘Garden Birds No. 3’. In it, Mr and Mrs Myers welcome the listener into their garden in Shrewsbury, and introduce them to some of the regular avian visitors and their vocalisations. In this excerpt, Charles explains the difference between song thrush and mistle thrush songs. The full-length recording, archived here as British Library call number WA 2010/017/502 C6, also features the sounds of magpies, crows, house sparrows and dunnocks, with the latter two introduced by Heather. This is one of many precious recordings from the collection in which Heather and Charles’s passion and personality shines through.

Listen to Garden Birds No. 3

Download Charles and Heather Myers transcript

Charles with reflector

Above: Charles Myers with reflector, used with permission from the Wildlife Sound Recording Society. Photographer unknown.

Sadly the recording ends abruptly. The piece is incomplete, and neither ‘Garden Birds No.1’ nor ‘Garden Birds No. 2’ can be found elsewhere in the archive.

If you enjoyed this recording and would like to hear more from Charles and Heather Myers, a 60-minute mix of ambient sounds and talk from the collection can be found in the NTS Radio archive.

14 April 2022

Between the Orange Tree and the Lime

Between the Orange Tree and the Lime (2017) is a short film by artist Duncan Whitley, dedicated to the memory of flamenco singer and tabernero José Pérez Blanco, also known as Pepe Peregil. The film forms part of the Duncan Whitley Collection [BL REF C1338], which documents Seville’s Easter Week processions and is available in British Library Reading Rooms.

For two years there were no Easter processions on the streets of Seville due to the global pandemic. In this blog post, Duncan Whitley marks the renewal of the tradition with some words on his short film:

I was introduced to Pepe Peregil in 2010, thanks to friends in one of Seville’s brass bands who insisted I meet him. Peregil was one of Seville's eminent saeteros (singers of the saeta, a type of flamenco song). He was also known to many people as the affable owner of a bar called Quitapesares, located in Seville’s city centre. I interviewed Peregil in 2010 and the following year he invited me to join him in the Plaza del Museo, where he sang as the penitentiary Easter procession El Museo returned to its chapel. I recorded Peregil singing saetas at an incredibly intimate distance, so much so that I could vividly hear the sounds of his breath through my microphone.

The film Between the Orange Tree and the Lime transports viewers into the Plaza del Museo, Seville, on the night of Lunes Santo (the Monday after Palm Sunday). The film is a poetic meditation on presence and absence through flamenco song in Seville's Semana Santa. It focuses on the saeta, derived from the Latin word sagitta meaning arrow, a flamenco poem or prayer sung acapella to the effigies of Christ or the Virgin Mary as they are carried in procession during Easter Week.

The film’s title1, takes the opening lines of a saeta sung by Pepe Peregil in the Plaza del Museo, where he sang each year without fail from 1967 through to 2011: “Between the orange tree and the lime, is my Virgin of the Museum”. Peregil passed away in 2012 and so this film also captures his last public saetas.

Pepe Peregil singing a saeta

Pepe Peregil singing a saeta in the Plaza del Museo in Seville. Duncan Whitley, 2011

I have been studying the soundscapes of Seville’s Holy Week through my field recording practice since 2006. A fascination for the vernacular world of acoustic communication in Seville’s major fiesta, embracing music, voice and other mechanical sound-making eventually led me to focus on recording the saetas flamencas. At the time there weren’t many published recordings of saetas performed live in the street, beyond those recorded in Jerez de la Frontera in 1993 and published in Saetas: Cante de la Semana Santa Andaluza (BL REF 1CD0111003).

There are however many studio recordings of saetas. Many are performed by the great singers of cante jondo (a vocal style in flamenco) in the 1920's such as La Niña de los Peines, Tomás Pavón or Manuel Vallejo. The controlled environment of the recording studio preserves and magnifies the quality of the voice but what we don’t hear, is the saeta in context: the acoustics of the narrow streets, the murmurs of the public, the screaming of the swifts overhead at dusk. I became interested in the challenge of trying to capture quality sound recordings of contemporary saetas sung in their live, public and religious context: in the streets of Seville or from balconies, addressed to the images of Christ or the Virgin depicted in mourning.

Transcription and translation of the saeta:

Se hinque de Rodillas [Fall to your knees!]
La Giralda2 si hace falta [Even the Giralda finds herself obliged]
Y se vista de mantilla [And she dresses in mourning]
Cuando por su vera pasa [When the Last Breath of Seville]
La Expiración de Sevilla [Passes by her side]

The saeta featured in this extract from the film was written for Pepe Peregil by Pascual González, a singer, composer and poet mainly associated with sevillanas (a lively form of flamenco song and dance from Seville). Peregil’s son, José Juan, tells me that Peregil asked Pascual González to write him a saeta whilst they stood on a balcony in the Plaza del Museo one Lunes Santo, awaiting the arrival of the effigy of Christ of the Last Breath. Remarkably, González improvised these lyrics moments before the arrival of the procession, and stood behind Peregil reading him the lines as he sang, as there was not enough time for Peregil to memorise the words.

Following Peregil’s death in January 2012 I returned to Seville during Easter Week, with the intention of recording in the Plaza del Museo but the processions of Holy Monday were cancelled due to heavy rain. I returned to the plaza again in Easter 2013, and this time opted to wait beneath a balcony at the entrance to the square from which Pilár Velázquez Martínez, artistic name Pili del Castillo, and Peregil sang alongside each other for many years. I had recently interviewed Pili, so I knew she would sing to the effigies of El Museo but she hadn’t told me that she had specially prepared her own saeta to the Virgin of the Waters (colloquially known as the Virgin of the Museum) in dedication to her friend Pepe Peregil.

This saeta, an emotional farewell of sorts, references the absence of Peregil in the plaza:

Madre Mía de las Aguas [My Mother of the Waters]
Tienes la cara divina [Your face is divine]
Pero es tanta tu hermosura [But such is your beauty]
Que no la quiebra la pena [That sadness doesn't break it]
Ni el llanto te desfigura [Nor does crying disfigure you]

Si al llegar a tu capilla [If upon arriving at your chapel]
Notas que te falta algo [You notice that you're missing something]
No llores tú Madre Mía [Don't cry Mother of mine]
Que Peregil desde el cielo [That Peregil from the sky]
Seguro que te está cantando [Is surely singing to you]

Between the Orange Tree and the Lime was first screened in 2017 at the Whitechapel Gallery (London), at the EMASESA (Seville) with the Association of Friends of Peregil, and the Consejo de Hermandades y Cofradías de Sevilla (the governing organisation of Seville’s processional brotherhoods) in an event in honour of Pili del Castillo. Special thanks to Simon Day for working with me as camera operator 2011-2013, and to José Juan Medina for assisting with research.

 

Footnotes:

1. The 'lime' in the title refers to the white, rendered surfaces of the walls of buildings typical of Seville’s historic centre. Orange trees would be in blossom during Easter week and so the title builds a sensory evocation of the Virgin of the Museum carried into the plaza.

2. The Giralda is the iconic tower of Seville’s cathedral. The mantilla is a black lace veil, typically worn over a high comb. It is traditionally worn by women during the Easter Week processions in Andalucia, especially on Palm Sunday and Good Friday. 

27 December 2021

Recording of the week: 'Kuli milimo', there is work in the house of the Lord

This week’s selection comes from Edoardo Marcarini, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

Inspired by the festive atmosphere, I bring you not one but two recordings this week. These are meant to be appreciated together just like the turkey and gravy some people will have indulged themselves with this Christmas.

It’s 1973 and we are in Zambia, Brian Stubbings is currently spending his second year among the Tonga people of Kafue and surrounding areas. Over the course of seven years Stubbings will record many traditional songs sung on different occasions. This is the case of our first recording, a kutwa song sung by two women pounding grains using a mortar and pestle.

Women pound maize with a pestle in a mortar Women pounding grains with a pestle in Kalabaya village, Chief Sinadambwe chieftancy, Gwembe Valley, Zambia, 1973. Photo by Brian Stubbings.

They sing:

Kuli milimo (4x), kun'ganda ya ba nasi kulimilimo, alimwi cilabilikita yalila, wailesi njemilimo

[There is work, there is work in the house of the nurse there is work]

Kutwa Song [BL REF C1417/2 BD1]

The pounding of the mortar provides a rhythmical framework for the song, while singing makes the pounding more regular and the workload lighter.
You would probably be surprised to hear the same tune sung in a church, yet, that same melody was arranged into a Christian song by the Kafue Composer's Club, a group of dedicated students who worked closely with Stubbings.

The lyrics have been changed, and the rhythmical pounding of the mortar has been replaced by handclaps and single notes played on a kalimba, a wooden idiophone – not to be confused with the homonym lamellophone!

Here, they sing:

There is work, there is work in the house of the Lord there is work

Christian song based on a pounding tune [BL REF C1417/2 BD2]

Re-arranging popular and traditional melodies for religious purposes is a fairly common practice around the world. In fact, I was very surprised when, as a child, I found out Simon and Garfunkel’s 'The Sound of Silence' wasn’t originally an Italian Catholic song.

In this specific case the use of a traditional tune is rather important, as it signals a necessary transition from a purely European form to a more grassroots approach to Christian music that uses local tunes.

UOSH_Footer_2019_Magenta (004)

Follow @BL_WorldTrad@BLSoundHeritage, and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

21 December 2021

Ian Rawes and the London Sound Survey

By Steve Cleary, Lead Curator, Literary and Creative Recordings.

In October this year many of us at the British Library were distressed to hear of the death of Ian Rawes. Best known to the wider world for his field recording project London Sound Survey, Ian once worked at the Library. He was here for a period of 13 years, leaving in 2014.

Sound and Vision Acquisitions Officer Ian Macaskill remembers Ian from the early days:

In earlier times, when some of us were based in the British Library building in Micawber Street, Ian worked as a Sound Archive Vaultkeeper. He was unfailingly hard-working and helpful to all. A great loss.

After he left, Ian returned as a researcher, working in the Reading Rooms on projects such as his 2016 book of 'forgotten sound-words' Honk, Conk and Squacket. Ian was well-liked among his former colleagues and would often join some of us for a pint in the Boot or the Skinners Arms on a Friday night, after work had finished and the Reading Rooms had closed.

The London Sound Survey is a web resource presenting over 2,000 recordings of everyday life in London and beyond. Most were made by Ian between 2008 and 2020. Some guest recordists are also featured, including Richard Beard, with a selection of his Hackney wildlife recordings. The site also includes many related articles on the theme of urban sound.

Ian used a variety of techniques to make his recordings. I recall him demonstrating his headworn binaural microphones. To the casual observer, these looked much like headphones, and didn't attract public attention. These were used to make stereo recordings in many different urban environments. Here is one from 2010, made at an anti-capitalist protest encampment by St Paul's Cathedral. And here is another, featuring the gentlemen who stand outside the restaurants in Brick Lane trying to drum up custom.

Discretion was advisable in certain settings, but other kinds of recordings, such as these environmental recordings made along the Kent and Essex sides of the Thames Estuary used a more traditional field recording approach. The now-disappeared sound of the Coryton Oil Refinery siren served as a moment of reflection during Ian's memorial service.

Some highlights from the collection - among them the memorably titled 'Cigarette Ponce' - were issued on vinyl on the Vitelli label under the title 'These Are the Good Times'. The collection itself is archived permanently at London Metropolitan Archives

Ian's second published LP Thames was issued by the Persistence of Sound label. This contained a mixture of industrial and environmental recordings, from the inner workings of Tower Bridge to the sounds of the Essex shore. There are plans for the label to release some of Ian's last recordings on a new LP in 2022.

Online tributes to Ian included a very well-informed piece by Tony Herrington in The Wire and another from Susannah Butter in the Evening Standard, and there were many comments on both public and professional forums from those who had worked with Ian and/or known him personally. All testified to his generous, affable nature and healthy sense of humour. Ian was great company and was never in the slightest pompous or pretentious about his work. He will be very much missed.

Ian Rawes in a pub in Cambridge in 2017

Above: Ian in a pub in Cambridge in 2017. Photo: Steve Cleary.

14 December 2021

A Mengelberg discovery – Mengelberg in London

Mengelberg in 1919 by Jacob MerkelbachMengelberg in 1919 by Jacob Merkelbach

By Jonathan Summers Curator, Classical Music

Willem Mengelberg (1871-1951) was one of the greatest conductors of the first half of the twentieth century.  A friend of Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss, Mengelberg championed their works with his expertly disciplined orchestra, the Concertgebouw, in Amsterdam.  As their chief conductor, which he became at the age of twenty four, he reigned supreme from 1895 to 1945 creating one of the finest orchestras in the world.  His success was so great that he was also appointed conductor of the New York Philharmonic during the 1920s. 

It is 150 years ago this year that Mengelberg was born, so why is his name so little known today?  When EMI/IMG produced their CD series ‘Great Conductors of the Twentieth Century’ in 2002, some forty conductors were represented on sets of two CDs, but not Mengelberg.  Could it be due to the fact that Mengelberg stayed in Holland at the helm of the Concertgebouw Orchestra when the country was occupied by the Germans during the Second World War?  Wilhelm Furtwangler conducted for the Nazis in Germany, yet his complete studio recordings have just been released again by Warner Classics.  Mengelberg’s Columbia and Telefunken recordings have not been systematically re-issued by the companies who own them.  Could it be that Mengelberg’s style of conducting is out of fashion at the moment?  It took a recent letter from the music librarian of the Barbican Music Library to prompt Gramophone magazine to publish a short article this month on Mengelberg and his recordings.  There is, however, a definitive 1300 page two volume biography of the conductor by Frits Zwart, recently translated into English, published by Amsterdam University Press.

One only has to hear Mengelberg’s studio recordings or broadcasts to realise that here is a conductor that galvanized his orchestra to give their all - and more.  Mengelberg, like Fritz Reiner with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra or George Szell with the Cleveland Orchestra, knew that an orchestra is an army of musicians that need commanding in order to get the best out of them; the conductor is the general in charge, the orchestra his troops. Mengelberg had strongly held convictions about the way a work should be interpreted, even ‘improving’ upon the composer’s directions and sometimes, the orchestration. 

Studio recordings of ‘Les Preludes’ by Liszt, Tchaikovsky’s Overture to ‘Romeo and Juliet’, or Wagner’s ‘Tannhauser’ Overture amply reveal this.  Many of Mengelberg's performances have intense emotional impact, refined orchestral playing of the highest order, and, in certain repertoire, a flexibility of tempo and line that makes the music sound organic - as if it is living and breathing.

The recordings have value on many levels today.  His close relationship with Gustav Mahler gives authority to his interpretations of the composer’s music.  A live broadcast from 1939 of the Symphony No. 4 has a genuine freshness about it while the tempo he takes for the famous Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony makes one realise that this movement has got slower and slower over the decades, particularly since it was used in the Visconti film ‘Death in Venice.’  Mengelberg wrote on his score that Mahler told him that it was a love letter to his wife Alma and that is what the movement represented. 

Composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949) was so impressed with Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra that he dedicated one of his major tone poems – ‘Ein Heldenleben’ (a Hero’s Life) – to the conductor and orchestra.  Mengelberg’s 1928 recording of this work with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra is still regarded by critics and musicians as one of the best, more than 90 years after it was recorded. 

While Mengelberg spent the Second World War in Holland, some of his concerts were broadcast by the Dutch broadcasting system AVRO (Algemene Vereniging Radio Omroep) by whom they were recorded and archived.  It is therefore possible to hear some of these concerts which have been released on CD by various labels.  Unfortunately, the BBC did not record and archive broadcasts at this time, but the British Library Sound Archive holds the collection of Kenneth Leech, an engineer who recorded at home on a disc cutting machine from 1936 onwards.  Although Mengelberg had performed in London previously, it was in 1936 that he was invited to conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra for the first time, and Mr Leech captured extracts from the broadcast of the 4th November 1936 concert. 

Radio Times 4th November 1936

The concert, which included Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 played by English pianist Myra Hess and ‘Ein Heldenleben’ by Richard Strauss was to take place at the Queen’s Hall, and Mengelberg and his party stayed in the Langham Hotel opposite.  Adrian Boult, conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, took Mengelberg to the BBC’s studios at Maida Vale for the first rehearsal.  (Incidentally, Boult was invited to conduct Mengelberg’s orchestra at the Concertgebouw Hall in February 1940 when he gave a performance of Elgar’s Enigma Variations which was recorded and archived by AVRO).  However, at the Maida Vale studios in London, Mengelberg was not happy with the acoustic of the hall, according to orchestra leader Paul Beard, who found Mengelberg to be ‘awful and unpleasant’ to work with, but described him as ‘unquestionably the greatest musician working on the podium at the time.’ 

Rehearsing the BBC Symphony OrchestraFrom 'The Sphere' November 1936

A highly detailed account of the rehearsal was published by principal violist Bernard Shore in his book ‘The Orchestra Speaks.’  Here are some extracts.

When he conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra for the first time, he bowed to the exigencies of broadcasting, and only grumbled a little at having his basses and ‘celli separated. 

Tuning with him is a ceremony that may take anything from five minutes to (in extreme cases) two hours….On the first occasion this tuning took twenty-five minutes, and gave rise to his first dissertation.

This little matter of time apart, his great experience enables him to solve every orchestral problem.  In a difficult work like ‘Heldenleben’ he hears everything and sees at the same time; instantly puts his finger on a weak spot, and proceeds to clear it up without losing his temper; and never resorts to sarcasm, or the time-honoured remark that every other orchestra “plays this easily.”

His unremitting attention to technical details of every kind, as they arise, results in magnificent and confident playing, which it is doubtful whether any conductor can surpass. 

Mostly he rehearses from memory.  The whole of his first rehearsal with the BBC Orchestra was devoted to the opening portion of ‘Heldenleben’ as far as the entry of the solo violin.

Thoroughly characteristic of his methods was the way in which he tackled the great opening phrase.  Each note of the arpeggio had to be detached, in spite of the composer’s direction, because, he said, the audience should hear every note, “and if they are all slurred by the strings, there will be no definition, and the passage will only sound like a chord of E flat,” whereas he wants it to make the terrific effect of a brilliantly clear arpeggio.

He rehearses the opening as far as fig. 2 at great length.  First of all taking the violas, ‘celli and horns, until there is complete unanimity in ensemble, phrasing, intonation and style, and all traces of untidiness is removed.

Queen's Hall microphoneQueen's Hall in the early 1930s showing the single BBC microphone (circled in blue)

Leech recorded two five minute segments - the opening of ‘Ein Heldenleben’ (‘The Hero’), the very opening section that had been rehearsed extensively and described above.  He also recorded the section ‘The Hero's Retirement from this World and Completion’ near the end of the work.  This is an eighty-five year old home recording taken off-air, but the sound is remarkably good from the single microphone the BBC used at this time suspended over the violin section.  At once, one can hear the almost visceral attack from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, very similar to the way the Concertgebouw and New York Philharmonic commenced the work under the same conductor.

Ein Heldenleben ex 1 1936

Heldenleben disc labelThe cellulose nitrate on aluminium disc recorded by Kenneth Leech

Shore goes on to say:

Not only is this opening passage typical of his genius for producing superb playing, but it also shows his attitude to the composition he is interpreting.  Nothing will induce him to obey blindly the composer’s directions if his own experience tells him that they could be made more effective by a slight alteration.

In the concluding scene, a Mengelberg of extreme gentleness appears, capable of exquisite tenderness; and the lovely interjectory phrases on the first and second violins, during the cor anglais solo, are made to sound as if there was all humanity in them. 

Ein Heldenleben ex 2 1936

But if he cannot obtain what he wants from an artist, he will be as hard as iron and may seem to oppose rather than aid.  He has the true virtuoso’s intolerance of inadequate playing; he expects to be able to start his rehearsing from scratch, without having to nurse any weakness amongst his players.  His ear detects everything.  His particular genius is for hearing from the point of view of the man at the back of the hall.  Besides satisfying him, this redoubles the clarity for the rest of the audience.

As exciting as this discovery is, I was delighted to find that Mr Leech recorded another portion of a Mengelberg concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra two years later on 19th January 1938.  Unfortunately, the surfaces of the discs are noisier and there is less clarity of orchestral sound.  However, the recording is important for the fact that it documents another tone poem by his friend Richard Strauss that Mengelberg did not record commercially, nor does a radio broadcast survive of him conducting this work, so this is the only recorded example currently known.  The opening of ‘Also Sprach Zarathrustra’ later lodged itself in the public consciousness when it was used in the Arthur C. Clarke film ‘2001 – a Space Odyssey.’  Mr Leech probably realized that the famous opening would be difficult to record and that his cutter head would be overloaded at the climax.  He chose to record the following beautiful string section ‘Of the Backworldsmen’, then parts of ‘The Convalescent’, and finally the end of ‘The Dance Song’ followed by the final section of the work ‘Song of the Night Wanderer’.  While the recording may not be as thrilling to hear as ‘Ein Heldenleben’ it is none the less an important aural document from more than eighty years ago.  The last few notes are missing.

Zarathustra ex 1 1938

Zarathustra ex 2 1938

Zarathustra disc labelThe cellulose nitrate on aluminium disc recorded by Kenneth Leech

In addition to the Strauss tone poem, the concert included music from Gluck’s ‘Alceste’, the Third Symphony of Brahms and Hindemith’s Variations for Orchestra.  The Radio Times noted that:

Richard Strauss has enjoyed Mengelberg’s continued interest and championship.  In 1903 Mengelberg brought the Concertgebouw Orchestra to London and directed a Strauss Festival, and in 1924 he organised a Strauss Festival in Amsterdam.  Listeners will remember the magnificent reading he gave of ‘Ein Heldenleben’, which is dedicated to him, when he last conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra on November 4, 1936. It will be interesting to hear his performance of the less frequently heard ‘Zarathustra’.

Willelm Mengelberg deserves a higher profile today as one of the most important conductors of the first half of the twentieth century.  As Scott Goddard wrote in 1938:

Willem Mengelberg, who has conducted much in America and has been often heard here at the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s concerts and at those of the London Symphony Orchestra, is among the first flight, the upper ten of virtuoso conductors of the day, a position that he has won for himself mainly because he is an unbending disciplinarian and a scrupulous trainer.

It is that discipline and scrupulous training along with a strongly held musical conviction that produces the results we hear in Mengelberg’s recordings and the two newly discovered ones here amply prove that.

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

13 December 2021

Recording of the week: Recollections from a political activist

This week’s selection comes from Georgia Dack, Web Content Developer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

The British Library recently launched its new website Speaking Out, an online learning resource exploring the power of public speaking, protest and debate through its sound archive.

Featured in Speaking Out, is an interview with Lou Kenton (1908 – 2012), captured by Louise Brodie and Roy Gore as part of the Labour Oral History Project. Kenton was a big player in the campaign to suppress fascism and anti-Semitism in interwar Britain. As someone who knew little about the British anti-fascism movement in the 1930s, I found it fascinating to listen to Kenton’s recollection of events, and learn about his rich and intriguing life of political activism.

In the 1930s, British fascism had a short-lived rise that mirrored that of Nazi Germany, but lost momentum and died out at the beginning of the Second World War. The fascist movement was ushered in by Oswald Mosly, a Conservative-then-Labour MP who, taking inspiration from Hitler and Mussolini, formed the British Union of Fascists (BUF) in 1932. The party similarly adopted virulent anti-Semitism and exploited widespread unemployment and poverty to gain traction. Its uniformed paramilitary group, the Blackshirts, brought violence and intimidation to the BUF rallies often in held in London’s Jewish neighbourhoods.

Lou Kenton, born in Stepney to Ukrainian Jewish parents, left school at 14 to work in a paper factory, where he experienced such anti-Semitism first hand. This led him to join the Communist Party in 1929. As a printer, he also galvanised his trade union in anti-fascist work. As far-right sentiment grew, Kenton participated in two major events that helped to stifle the rise of the BUF. In the clip below Kenton talks about an attempt to disrupt a rally at the Kensington Olympia in June 1934. The Blackshirts responded to hecklers brutally, but they received a torrent of negative press as a result.

Lou Kenton on the BUF rally at Kensington Olympia

Download Transcript

Woman being violently arrested by police in political protestImage © Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

On 4 October 1936, Mosly had planned a march in the East End of London, an area with a distinct Jewish community. This led to the Battle of Cable Street, in which 6000 Metropolitan Police officers worked to clear a path for the BUF’s march of some 3000 people – but thousands of anti-fascists and local people outnumbered them and successfully blocked their route. Kenton was one of the people behind organising this, and during the event, he sped on his motorcycle to relay police movements to the crowds.

Lou Kenton describes the Battle of Cable Street

Download Transcript

Mosley called the march off, and the Public Order Act of 1937 was passed, which banned the wearing of political uniforms in public. The British Government finally banned the BUF in 1940.

Kenton continued to be a remarkably dedicated campaigner and activist for the rest of his life. In 1937, he rode his motorcycle to Spain during the civil war and joined the International Brigades (IB) as an ambulance driver on the front lines; in 2009, he was awarded Spanish citizenship for his contribution. Following the brutal Nazi massacre of the village of Lidice, Kenton joined the ‘Lidice Shall Live’ campaign and served as its chairman.

After the Second World War, he helped organise the Homes for Heroes campaign, which helped homeless veterans and their families take residence in unoccupied properties. He worked for the communist party until the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, after which he was a member of the Labour party for the rest of his life. He worked for the Financial Times as a proofreader into his 70s, but even well into retirement, Kenton supported his causes, creating commemorative pottery for trade unions.

Speaking Out has been delivered as part of Unlocking Our Sound Heritage, a UK-wide project supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, that will help save the nation’s sounds and open them up to everyone.

UOSH_Footer_2019_Magenta (004)

Follow @BLSoundHeritage and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

29 November 2021

Recording of the Week: The musical pillars of a medieval Indian temple

This week's selection comes from Jim Hickson, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

In the British Library's sound archive collections, we have a lot of recordings of temple music – various types of song and music in dedication to any number of religions across the world, performed in a holy space.

Today’s Recording of the Week is temple music with a slight difference –music performed not only in a temple, but also on a temple.

Hampi030Some of the musical pillars of the Vittala Temple. Photo by Tom Vater’s travel companion Aroon Thaewchatturat.

The Shri Vijaya Vittala Temple sits among the breath-taking and sprawling ruins of the ancient city of Hampi, in Karnataka, India. Dedicated to Vittala, a manifestation of the god Vishnu and his avatar Krishna, the temple began construction sometime in the 15th or 16th centuries but was never finished – the city was destroyed in 1565.

The impressive temple is famous for many reasons, including a giant stone shrine in the shape of a chariot, which is pictured on the ₹50 note. It is also known for its 56 musical pillars.

Each of the temple’s eight main pillars are surrounded by seven smaller pillars. When these small pillars are struck with the hand or a wooden beater, they ring in a clear, bell-like tone. Not only that, but each pillar in a set is tuned to a different note, meaning that together they sound a scale on which music can be performed.

Vittala Temple C799/6 S1 C2 [BL REF]

The pillars are made from solid granite, with minute differences in size and shape to give them their clear and perfectly-tuned tones. Different pillars are also said to represent different instruments, some representing melody instruments such as the veena and some representing percussion such as the mridangam.

This recording – which can be found in the sound archive's catalogue, was made by Tom Vater in 1995, and it’s one of the clearest and most detailed recording of a ‘performance’ of the Vittala Temple pillars. While most other recordings demonstrate the sound of just one or two pillars, Vater’s captures the sound of several sets of notes, while insects and birds fill the soundscape behind.

The entirety of the ruined city of Hampi is a UNESCO Heritage Site, and in order to protect the temple and its pillars, it is no longer permitted to play the musical pillars. Vater’s recording gives a valuable insight into this fascinating monument of the medieval world as well as being an outstanding and intriguing document in its own right: where temple music meets 'architecturomusicology'!

UOSH_Footer_2019_Magenta (004)

Follow @BL_WorldTrad@BLSoundHeritage, and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

18 November 2021

Introducing the Collections in Dialogue commission with Leeds Art Gallery and the British Library

Written by Jill McKnight, Artist-in-Residence. Jill McKnight’s commissioned work is on display at Leeds Art Gallery until 16 October 2022. Plan your visit on the Gallery’s website.

I am an artist based in Leeds working across sculpture, writing, installation, drawing and print and I’ve been selected as the artist in residency for Collections in Dialogue, a co-commission project by the British Library and Leeds Art Gallery. The project brief particularly interested me because it focused on cultural identity which is one of my central artistic concerns, particularly the representation of working-class people in Northern England and lesser-heard voices that would otherwise be lost or overlooked. This opportunity has been incredibly timely, enabling me to develop these interests through researching the Library’s and Leeds Art Gallery’s digitised collections. My research will culminate in an exhibition of new artwork at Leeds Art Gallery next year.

I am exploring specific areas of the two collections; World & Traditional Music and Accents and Dialects collections in the British Library’s sound archive and Works on Paper at Leeds Art Gallery. As both collections are vast – 6.5 million recordings in the sound archive, and over 10,000 works on paper – I established key themes to direct my research. As an artist working in the city, I chose to explore how people in the Leeds region have represented themselves and others in the two collections. Where there are gaps in representation in one collection, particularly of people traditionally underrepresented in the arts, I plan to bring them into conversation with representations in the other collection through my work.

Following meetings with British Library Curators Jonnie Robinson and Andrea Zarza and the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage team, I have been searching the Library’s Sound & Moving Image Catalogue to identify relevant recordings.

The Opie Collection of Children’s Games & Songs fascinates me because rhymes passed down by word of mouth tell collective stories about society. Rowland Kellet was a folklorist born in Leeds, who I learned about from this collection. Kellet collected children’s games, songs and jingles from across the UK, including variations of the same song in different parts of Leeds. Although many different versions of folk songs exist, each version is unique to the performer. These communal songs share a relationship with work songs and folk songs, which connect with Leeds’ industrial history.

Kellett comments on the timelessness of these songs in his interview with Iona Opie, saying, ‘There is no life, there’s no deaths of these songs. To me they are eternal. You can’t kill them because, because if you try to kill it you bring a different variant of it.’ I have been fortunate to view some of Kellet’s paper archives held at Leeds Central Library, and will be listening to folk songs performed by Kellet, recently catalogued as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project.

Leeds is a city that has thrived due to the diversity of its population. In recordings like 'Conversation in Leeds about accent, dialect and attitudes to language', part of BBC Voices, six interviewees from Moortown, Leeds, talk about their own accents, Yorkshire dialect and the Punjabi language – one interviewee recognises both regions as being rooted in common industrial identities, saying, ‘you could say they were twin cities basically, twin states Yorkshire and Punjab.’

In 'Leeds - Millennium Memory Bank' six teenagers from South Leeds talk about being proud of working-class, with one explaining, ‘Even when my dad gives me pocket money I don’t like it, because you know like I ending washing up for him or something, because I like earning money because then I know I’ve worked for it.’ This same work ethic in 1999 connects with lines from folk song The Maid’s Lament, performed by Mrs Johnstone and recorded in 1967, by Fred Hamer.

Excerpt of The Maid's Lament sung by Mrs Johnstone [BL REF C433/7]

At Leeds Art Gallery, I chose to focus on the works on paper collection due to its range – from sketches to finished compositions; watercolours to photography; large quantity and conservation considerations that have meant some works have never been on display.

Works of art on paper spread out across a wooden table.            Selection of works on paper that I viewed in person at Leeds Art Gallery © Jill McKnight

I met with Assistant Curator Laura Claveria to discuss key words and themes, including working-class culture, women, children and Leeds-related artists, from which Laura sent an initial longlist of relevant works from the collection. From this, I made a shortlist to view in person. It was fantastic to see the works up close, where intricacies and details conveying the hand of the artist often jump out more directly than in digital form.

Artist sitting at a wooden table consulting paper files and writing with pencil in notebook.                 Researching Edna Lumb’s artist file archive at Leeds Art Gallery © Jill McKnight

So far I have discovered a number of artists unknown to me, including Edna Lumb (1931-1992) and Effie Hummerston (1891-1982). Both artists were born and studied in Leeds and went on to capture some of the area’s male-dominated industrial landscapes in their paintings. Edna Lumb’s work achieved national recognition during her lifetime. This is reflected in the large amount of material in Lumb’s artist file. However, critics noted that it was the scientific community, rather than artistic, who more frequently celebrated the work due to its realist depiction of industrial technology.

Painting of Tingley Gas Works in the distant horizon above green fields.                Edna Lumb, Tingley Gas Works, oil on canvas, 1964. © Leeds Museums & Galleries.

Another fascinating part of the collection are works on paper by seven artists that were ideas for a mural scheme for Leeds Town Hall, a commission in 1920 led by Michael Sadler, which was also intended as a commemorative response to the First World War. Artists selected were local and national including Percy Hague Jowett, Jacob Kramer and Albert Rutherston. The mural designs took into account the architecture of the Town Hall, with features such as doorways represented by blank spaces. The majority of the works feature industrial or pastoral scenes of Leeds, including woollen mills, the canal and Kirkstall Abbey. Perhaps this is how the artists thought the people of Leeds would want their city represented, however the designs were heavily criticised and the murals were never realised, providing an insight into the politics of that time.

My first few weeks of research have unearthed an abundance of stories, which I am now responding to through initial sketches and writing of my own. This will further direct my ongoing research and inform my final proposal at the start of next year for the exhibition in spring.

Collections in Dialogue

Collections in Dialogue is a new artist co-commission project between Leeds Art Gallery and the British Library.

It is formed around the commissioning an artist based in the North of England to work with collections at both institutions as a catalyst to produce new work that creates a dialogue between them. Following a recruitment process, the commission was awarded to Jill McKnight in summer 2021. The work Jill creates will be exhibited at Leeds Art Gallery from March – October 2022 with some digital elements shown online.

Collections in Dialogue is part of the British Library’s growing culture programme in Leeds and the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) project.

Sound and vision blog recent posts

Archives

Tags

Other British Library blogs