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60 posts categorized "Sound recording history"

17 September 2019

Beginnings: Arabic music in the Emile Cohen Collection

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Hazem Jamjoum joined the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership Project in April 2019 as Gulf Audio Curator and Cataloguer. Over the next 2-3 years he will be working on the Library's audio collections connected with the Gulf region to scope, catalogue and research them, to manage their preservation and access and to write about them. In this blog Hazem talks of his introduction to the collections.

It was at the very beginning, less than three weeks into my role as Gulf History Audio Curator that I found myself with British Library Sound Archive doyen Ian Macaskill in the disc and tape-bestrewn room through which newly acquired sound and moving image materials enter the British Library’s collections. At the end of this audio-cataloguer rite of passage, one foot already out the door, I was beckoned back into the room to describe my role at the Library to another veteran of the accessioning team. As if awaiting confirmation that I would work with Arabic language materials, a bemused Jowan Collier rose from his seat and began the dance around the stacks of CDs to the other end of the room. “I imagine there’s a box that’s been sitting here that might just pique your interest.” A few dozen shellacs in an assortment of discrepant sleeves lay in a dark wooden box marked “532: Emile Cohen Collection.” A yellow sticky note, curled up like a delaminated lacquer disc on the side of the box announced October 25, 2016 as the donation date.

Image of Emile Cohen Box
“…there’s a box that’s been sitting here that might just pique your interest.”


I eventually found out that it was my predecessor on the British Library-Qatar Foundation partnership, Rolf Killius, who had arranged for this gift. Rolf had delivered a lecture about Iraqi music at the British Institute for the Study of Iraq after which an elderly gentleman introduced himself, and soon thereafter offered to donate his collection of shellacs to the British Library. This was Emile Cohen. Born in Baghdad in 1943 to a secular scion of a rabbinical family, Emile spent the evenings of his youth listening to the dozens of guests who would assemble at his grandfather’s house for edifying conversation. Given the centrality of Baghdad’s Jewish community to the city’s musical life, much of this conversation centred on things musical. It didn’t hurt that from the roof of their house they could eavesdrop on the regular musical performances at the nightclub next door.

Emile narrates much about these and other stories in an oral history interview conducted by Richard Green and held at the Library as part of the Sephardi Voices UK Collection (C1638), and which comprises oral history testimony about the settlement of Jews from West Asia and North Africa in the UK.

Image of Emile Cohen with Collection – photo by Rolf Killius 2016
Emile Cohen just before a trip to the British Library to donate his shellac collection. Photo: Rolf Killius, 2016.

Much can be said about what was in that little box, but ‘beginnings’ might be ‘a very good place to start’ given how many of the recordings contained in that box of wonders embodied career-launching events in the contributing artists’ biographies. At the very top of the box’s stack of discs lay two Baidaphon records by the legendary Laylā Murād (1918-1995). Though Murād had achieved enough fame as a teenager in one of Cairo’s top music halls to be cast in one of the earliest full length Egyptian films (al-Dhaḥāyā [The Victims], 1932, dir. Bahija Hafez and Ibrahim Lama), hers was a minor role in the silent film. She achieved a bit more notoriety when that film was reissued as a ‘talkie’ a few years later, landing her a recording deal with Baidaphon that resulted in Ḥabbayt w shuft ktīr (I've loved and seen a great deal), which was also in Mr. Cohen’s collection. But it was not until her 1938 collaboration with Moḥammad ʻAbd al-Wahhāb on the film Yaḥyā al-Ḥubb (Long Live Love, dir. Moḥammad Karīm) that her career as a superstar singer and actor began. Indeed, the two records at the top of the delightful box were Yā mā ʼaraqq al-nasīm (oh how soft the breeze) and Yā qalbī mālak (oh my heart, what is the matter), both written by Aḥmad Rāmī and composed by ʻAbd al-Wahhāb, and both from that film’s soundtrack.

Image of Habbayt w shuft kteer on the Baidaphon label
“Ḥabbayt w shuft ktīr” on the Baidaphon label. Recorded when she was 19 years of age, it was one of Layla Murad’s very first recordings.

Nestled among the shellacs in the box of wonders was a little 17cm disc in its original sleeve proclaiming the artist as “Om Kalsoum”, one of more than a dozen variations on the Egyptian diva’s name. The recording is “Enta fein wel ḥobb fein” which roughly translates as “love is here, and you are way over there”, a song much better known after its opening verse "ḥubb eh illi-inta gayy tʼūl 'aleh" (what love is it that you speak of). By 1960, when this song was first performed, Um Kulthūm was already well established as the pre-eminent Arab artist across the region. Indeed, at that time Egypt and Syria had united into the United Arab Republic, and Um Kulthūm had been chosen to sing the union’s national anthem. But it was the largely unknown composer of this runaway hit who skyrocketed to regional fame when it was first performed. Balīgh Ḥamdī (1931-1993) had studied music since the age of nine, spending his college years between law school and the music academy before trying his hand as a singer in the late 1950s. It was around this time that Um Kulthūm was looking for a new sound, meeting Ḥamdī at the recommendation of singer (and Misrphon label owner) Moḥamad Fawzī. In the two decades that followed the success of ḥubb eh, Ḥamdī became one of the most sought after composers in the Arab world, composing for every major artist of the mid-twentieth century as well as for radio, television, theatre and the cinema. Hip hop aficionados will be very familiar with Timbaland’s sampling of the melody from Ḥamdī’s Khusāra khusāra on Jay Z’s first major hit single, Big Pimpin’. Intellectual property enthusiasts are likely also familiar with it after Ḥamdī’s nephew sued Jay Z, Timbaland and EMI in 2007 for copyright infringement. The court summarily dismissed the case in 2015, finding that Egyptian law was not applicable, and that as a result the artists and the recording company were under no obligation to seek the permission of Ḥamdī’s family for what the family considered a debauched use of Balīgh Ḥamdī’s work.

Image of Um Kulthūm on the cover of Enta Fein wel Hobb Fein
The original sleeve of Um Kulthūm’s ḥubb eh, composed by Balīgh Ḥamdī


In addition to a host of other career-making recordings, Emile Cohen’s collection can tell the tale of another sort of beginning; the beginning of Egyptian music’s regional dominance in the interwar period. Many of those involved in the development of cultural production in Egypt since the nineteenth century were artists whose families had moved to Egypt from Greater Syria, a trend that continued well into the twentieth century. From the Cohen collection alone, some names that stand out include:

  • Ṣabāḥ, who was brought to Egypt from Mount Lebanon by filmmaker ’Āssia Dāgher and ultimately recorded over 3000 songs and performed in over 100 plays and films;
  • Moḥammad Salmān, who moved to Cairo from Mt. Lebanon to pursue a career in music but would later find his passion as an actor and filmmaker in the Egyptian capital;
  • Ḥalīm al-Rūmī, who grew up in Palestine performing as an amateur until he was sent to study at the music academy in Cairo in 1937. There, he became deeply involved in composing and performing for radio audiences before eventually becoming head of music programming at the Near East Broadcasting Service in Palestine until the expulsion of, and denial of return to, two-thirds of the Palestinian population in 1947-1948. After a few years with the broadcast service which had moved to Cyprus, he moved to Lebanon to head the music department at the Lebanese radio service al-Sharq al-Awsat;
  • Najāḥ Salām’s Beiruti father was a well-known composer and ‘ūd player and took the chanteuse, already known in Lebanon, to Cairo in 1948 to meet many of the leading musical figures of the Egyptian capital. This, of course, did wonders for her career. So much so that by the mid-1970s she was granted honorary Egyptian citizenship.
  • Sihām Rifqī who moved from Syria to Egypt for a music and film career, recording over a dozen hits before an early retirement;
    and of course
  • Farīd al-‘Aṭrash and Amal al-‘Aṭrash (aka Asmahān), brother and sister born to a notable Druze family that had led the resistance against the French occupation of Syria, moving to Egypt because of the anticolonial connections between their family and that of the Egyptian independence movement’s leader Sa‘d Zaghlūl. The siblings rose to dominate the music and musical film scene in Cairo by the 1940s.
Image of Baidaphon sleeve featuring their top recording artists
Baidaphon was a Beirut-based record label, and possibly the first homegrown music recording company in the Arab world. This sleeve from the 1940s showcases the company’s top recording artists. It is notable that all of these artists hail from Greater Syria, and all of them launched their stardom and regional celebrity in Egypt. Clockwise from the top: Asmahān, Najāḥ Salām, Ḥalīm al-Rūmī, Sihām Rifqī, Moḥammad Salmān, Ḥanān. The record in the photograph is by an Egyptian dancer of Syrian origin, Bibā ʻIzz al-Dīn, who achieved far more notoriety for her live shows in Cairo’s music halls than she did for her recorded output.

Those familiar with postcolonial dynamics will be particularly aware of just how politicised cultural battles between former coloniser and colonised can be. In the case of Arab states emerging from British, French and Italian colonial rule, and in light of the centrality of Cairo described above, the battle over national culture was also waged with an eye to Egypt. Whether in Tunisia, Iraq, or elsewhere, the mid-twentieth century witnessed an immense amount of activity that practically accepted Egyptian cultural production as the language of Arabic culture, but each of these fledgling nation-states sought to develop and elevate their own dialect within that. The dynamic between language and dialect is not only metaphor; any composer in the interwar period who wanted to produce 'serious' music had to do so in either classical Arabic or an Egyptian dialect, while other dialects were reserved for their own folklore. After the post-WWII wave of postcolonial independence, composers and lyricists beyond the confines of Cairo sought a legitimacy for their own dialects, including other Egyptian dialects, as ones that could convey a cultivated urbanity.

The recordings in the Emile Cohen collection help tell that story as it unfolded in Lebanon. The early recordings by Ṣabāḥ and Wadī‘ al-Ṣāf ī in the collection typify the folkloric bent of the music recorded in Lebanon well into the 1940s. One of the more significant recordings in the collection is the song Waynik yā Laylā (Where are you Layla) by Sāmī al-Ṣaydāwī, who originally composed the song for Lebanese singer Kamāl al-Ṭawīl. Both Ṣaydāwī and Ṭawīl had built careers performing in the Egyptian dialect to audiences in both Egypt and Greater Syria; Waynik yā Laylā was one of the early non-folkloric songs performed and recorded in the Syro-Lebanese dialect, forming part of a trend that would continue and grow over the decades that followed.

Image of the iconic cover art of Fairūz and the Raḥbānī brothers’ 1952 hit: ʻItāb (reproach)
The iconic cover art of Fairūz and the Raḥbānī brothers’ 1952 hit: ʻItāb (reproach)



The artists who did the most to propel Lebanese song into the more exalted register regionally all had a part to play in yet another item in the box of wonders. The song ʻItāb (reproach), appearing on the Zodephone label in the early 1950s, was an instant hit, one that proved momentous for the emergence of Beirut as Cairo’s main musical rival. The vocalist, Nuhād Haddād, had been 'discovered' a few years earlier by Mohamad Flayfel, composer of such songs as Mawṭini (‘my homeland’, the popularly accepted national anthem of Palestine, and the post-2003-occupation anthem of Iraq) and Ḥumāt al-Diyār (‘defenders of the home,’ the national anthem of Syria). Flayfel encouraged Haddād to study music at the conservatory, and to immerse herself in that repository of vocal technique at the heart of ecstatic Arabic song: Qur’anic recitation (tajwīd). While at the conservatory, Ḥalīm al-Rūmī heard her sing and decided to take her under his wing, introducing her to his friends the Raḥbānī brothers, ‘Assī and Manṣūr. Rūmī also decided to pick out a stage name for her, one that means turquoise, and that millions of people now associate with their morning coffee: Fairūz.

As a romance blossomed between ‘Assī Raḥbānī and Nuhād (they married in 1955), so did their creative collaboration, the first fruit of which was the song ʻItāb that is on this recording. The airing of this song on Lebanese and then Syrian radio in late 1952 launched Fairūz’s regional fame, enabling her to sign her first recording contract with Zodephone. Indeed, Zodephone's early success as a record company was based on the company's recordings of Fairuz songs.

All that’s left to say is a big warm thank you to Mr. Cohen for such wonderful beginnings!

 

Written by Hazem Jamjoum, Gulf Audio Curator and Cataloguer, British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership Project (BLQF), which produces the Qatar Digital Library. Follow the BLQF Project @BLQatar

Follow The British Library’s World and Traditional Music team @BL_WorldTrad

Follow Unlocking Our Sound Heritage updates @BLSoundHeritage

06 September 2019

Ernest Shackleton and the Farthest South

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The ‘Nimrod’ expedition (1907-1909) was the first of three expeditions to the Antarctic led by Sir Ernest Shackleton. The mission was very much a private affair and at the time didn’t receive the support of the major scientific organisations. The ship itself didn’t meet Shackleton’s expectations, as we can tell from his appraisal when he first caught sight of it on the Thames on 15 June 1907:

I must confess that I was disappointed when I first examined the little ship, to which I was about to commit the hopes and aspirations of many years. She was dilapidated and smelt strongly of seal-oil, and an inspection in dock showed that she required caulking and that her masts would have to be renewed.1

Nimrod sailed from England on 7 August 1907. This was the first attempt made by the British to reach the Antarctic. However the Nimrod (named after a great biblical figure ‘the first on earth to be a mighty man’2, as written in Genesis) didn’t actually make it to the South Pole. The most southern point was reached on 9 January 1909 at latitude 88ᵒ23’S and longitude 162ᵒE.

Listen to the voice of Shackleton recorded on 23 June 1909 (Bl ref. 1CL0029071)

The Nimrod, having the party of the British Antarctic Expedition, left New Zealand on 1 January 1908. We landed at Cape Royds in the Antarctic under the great volcano Mount Erebus at the beginning of February. On 3 March a party ascended that mountain, encountering severe blizzards, and for the first time in human history the great Erebus, 13,350 feet high, was ascended by men.

The Southern journey started from Cape Royds on 28 October 1908 and on January 9 of this year, 1909, the British flag was hoisted in latitude 88 23 South and longitude 162 East. We retraced our steps over crevasses through soft snow encountering blizzards till eventually on 1 March of 1909 we arrived at winter quarters, having covered 1,708 miles on the journey...

Black and white photograph of the ship Nimrod off Cape RoydsPhoto of Nimrod off Cape Royds. From Shackleton, E. H. “Some Results of the British Antarctic Expedition, 1907-9.” The Geographical Journal, vol. 34, no. 5, 1909, pp. 481–500. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1777278.

The dash to the South Pole is certainly the central episode of the whole expedition.3 Even though the main target of reaching the South Pole was not attained, the expedition represents the first ever registered record to reach the South Magnetic Pole.

The expedition was also a product of the Empire: the British flag was now flying over the Northern and Southern Poles for the first time.

Eric Marshall, Frank Wild and Ernest Shackleton at their Farthest South latitudePhotograph of Eric Marshall, Frank Wild and Ernest Shackleton at their Farthest South latitude, 88°23'S, Nimrod expedition 9 January 1909. From the book The Heart of the Antarctic by Sir Ernest Shackleton.

Men go out unto the void spaces of the world for various reasons. Some are actuated simply by a love of adventure, some have taken thirst for scientific knowledge, and others again are drawn away from the trodden paths by the ‘lure of little voices’, the mysterious fascination of the unknown. I think that in my own case it was a combination of these factors that determined me to try my fortune once again in the frozen south.4

This recording is part of the UCL Phonetics Collection (British Library ref.: 1CL0029071), original issue: Gramophone (HMV) D 377. The collection was acquired by the British Library Sound Archive from the UCL Department of Phonetics and Linguistics.

Blogpost by Giulia Baldorilli, Sound and Vision Reference Specialist, British Library

[1] Shackleton, E. (1909). The Heart of the Antarctic, etc.

[2] Riffenburgh, B. (2004). Nimrod: Ernest Shackleton and the extraordinary story of the 1907-09 British Antarctic Expedition, Beau Riffenburgh. London: Bloomsbury.

[3] British Newspaper Archive, Globe - Wednesday 10 November 1909.

[4] Shackleton, E. (1909). The Heart of the Antarctic, etc.

05 September 2019

Sir Isaac Pitman – phonography and the phonograph

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Isaac Pitman

Sir Isaac Pitman (The Pitman Collection, University of Bath)

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

When Isaac Pitman delivered a speech to the Phonographic Association in 1891 one would think it was to an assembled gathering of enthusiasts of Edison’s discovery of sound recording in the form of the newly invented phonograph.  However, Pitman was the inventor of phonography – a system of phonetic shorthand that he developed in 1837 which came to be known as Pitman’s shorthand.  By 1886 he had sold one million copies of his Phonographic Teacher in Britain.  

Book cover 1900

Pitman Shorthand 1900 edition

Indeed, for most of the twentieth century hundreds of thousands of women learnt to read and write shorthand and use a typewriter to gain employment as secretaries. 

Book cover 1970Pitman Shorthand 1970 edition

Isaac Pitman was born in 1813 in Trowbridge, Wiltshire.  In 1835 he became a teacher, married a widow twenty years his senior and opened a small school in Bath.  He married again in 1861 a woman twelve years his junior.  By the age of thirty Pitman, an advocate of spelling reform for the English language, had his own publishing firm and gave up teaching.  His system of shorthand was used worldwide and during the 1840s he originated the idea of correspondence courses due to the uniform postal rate adopted in the United Kingdom at that time.  He set up the Phonetic Institute at Bath – a printing office and publishing house for the dispatch of books to all parts of the world, a business managed by his two sons.

In 1894 Pitman was knighted by Queen Victoria and he died in 1897 at the age of eighty-four.

Although similar names, but completely different scientific paths, it seems that Pitman’s phonography and the phonograph actually were brought together, for by 1891, when he was nearing eighty, Pitman was unable to travel from Bath to London to give his lectures at the National Phonographic Society meetings. 

The London Daily News reported on 20th October 1891 that the Earl of Albemarle would preside over the meeting and that

The speech of Sir Isaac Pitman, who is unable to attend personally, will be delivered by the phonograph, a special messenger having been dispatched by Colonel Gouraud to Bath for the purpose of recording it.

Two days later the Aberdeen Free Press reported that

The two ingenious inventions for mastering the human voice were brought in contact tonight at the annual meeting of the London District of the Phonographic Society.  Mr Isaac Pitman was unable to be present in the flesh, yet his spoken message was entrusted in Bath yesterday to Edison’s phonograph, and was delivered tonight in London to his disciples.  Before the phonograph delivered Mr Pitman’s speech, Colonel Gouraud explained on its behalf that, in order to be heard in the hall, it was not necessary to speak loudly into the instrument, but that one ought rather to pronounce one’s words clearly and deliberately.  Mr Pitman, knowing that his remarks were to be uttered in a large hall, had attempted to raise his voice in proportion, with the result that his speech came in a somewhat vague and husky manner from the phonograph.  Nevertheless, it could be heard by an attentive listener at the back of the building.  The diplomas of the Phonographic Society were afterwards distributed, and there was an exhibition of typewriting, which is becoming a vast industry for young women in the Metropolis.

However, the correspondent of the Coventry Evening Telegraph disagreed about the quality of the recording and thought that

Phonography and the phonograph were in pleasant companionship last night.  The occasion was the first annual meeting of the National Phonographic Society – an association founded to advance a well-known system of shorthand writing, and to test, and attest by diplomas, the efficiency of public teachers of the art.  The venerable founder – Mr Isaac Pitman – was unable to be present, but the speech that he would have delivered was spoken by him at Bath on the previous day, and recorded by one of Edison’s phonographs.  By this means it was reproduced with such clearness that every word was heard by the audience which filled the Memorial Hall, London.

Cylinder box lid

Cylinder box lid

The first cylinder of Pitman’s recorded speech has survived so we can now hear the voice of a man born more than two hundred years ago.  Here is the commencement where he thanks the Earl of Albemarle, a transcript of which is below.

Isaac Pitman opening speech

Isaac Pitman, to the phonographers speaking here tonight.  My Lord Albermarle, Ladies and Gentlemen, phonographers all, I greet you right heartily.  I would be present in person if I could leave my desk with a clear conscience so that, even from a hundred miles from London, I can speak to you without writing thanks to Mr Edison, Colonel Gouraud and his assistance.   And especial thanks are due from the, the disassociation for obtaining thus my invisible presence.

And here is the least worn part of the cylinder where he speaks about phonographers are phonography bringing him into contact with people across the world.

Isaac Pitman closing remarks

Their labours, by extending phonography to all parts of the earth where the English language is spoken have brought me into communication with a great number of people who reside in distant countries extending from California in the West to Japan in the East and Tasmania in the South.

There is a memorial plaque to Pitman in Bath Abbey the inscription of which reads:

Inventor of Pitman’s shorthand.  His aims were steadfast, his mind original, his work prodigious, the achievement worldwide.  His life was ordered in service to God and duty to man.

Bath Abbey - Memorial plaque of Isaac PitmanMemorial Plaque to Sir Issac Pitman, Bath Abbey (By GraceKelly - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

16 July 2019

Magnetic Tape Alert Project

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The Magnetic Tape Alert Project is an initiative of the Information for All Programme (IFAP) Working Group on Information Preservation.

Magnetic tape formats and replay equipment are dying out. Photo: Bernhard Graf, Vienna Phonogrammarchiv
Photo: Bernhard Graf, Vienna Phonogrammarchiv

 

Today’s knowledge of the linguistic and cultural diversity of humanity is widely based on magnetic tape recordings produced over the past 60 years. Magnetic audio and video tape formats are now obsolete, replay equipment in working condition is disappearing rapidly and the supply and service of spare parts is fading. As a result, the routine transfer of magnetic tape recordings is likely to cease around 2025. The only way to preserve these sounds and images in the long term, and to keep them accessible for future generations, is to digitize them and transfer to them to safe digital repositories.

While many professional memory institutions have already secured their audiovisual holdings, or have plans to do so in time, a great number of audio and video recordings are still in their original state, kept in small academic or cultural institutions, or in private hands.

With the Magnetic Tape Alert Project, the Information for All Programme (IFAP) of UNESCO, in cooperation with the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives (IASA), aims to alert stakeholders to the imminent risk of losing access to their audiovisual documents.

Part of this is to conduct a survey, focusing on unique recordings, to assess the scale of the risk. The information obtained through the survey will serve as a basis for future planning for the safeguarding of these irreplaceable original documents in the long-term. Information gathered will be used to compile a report that will be made publicly available.

For further information and to respond to the questionnaire, please go to the project website.

Deadline for completion: 30 September 2019

The project coordinator, Andrew Pace, can be contacted at: MTAP@iasa-web.org

IFAP logo IASA logo

24 May 2019

Bicentenary of Queen Victoria – is this her voice?

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Queen Victoria by Bassano 1882Queen Victoria in 1882 by Alexander Bassano

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

Queen Victoria was born two hundred years ago on 24th May 1819.  The most famous and, until recently, the most long reigning of British monarchs, Victoria represented a whole century of development and achievement where Britons were at the forefront of science, engineering and the arts.

It is known that she was persuaded to record a cylinder of greeting on 8th August 1898 to send to Emperor Menelik of Ethiopia but insisted that it be destroyed after he had heard it.  In return, the Emperor and his Queen recorded greetings to Victoria in 1899 and these have survived (BL shelfmark M 1865; digital access via BL reading rooms). 

There are references in letters and first-hand accounts of hearing a recording made by Queen Victoria reported in the book by Paul Tritton The Lost Voice of Queen Victoria (1991 Academy Books).  With the circumstantial evidence it would appear that the recording is probably Queen Victoria, but the unfortunate fact is that the few sentences she speaks are barely decipherable.  There are various interpretations of the spoken text, but she seems to say:

Britons restless for their Queen to speak,

let me answer,

if can be,

XX,

that I have never forgotten.

The fourth line is unintelligible and has been variously interpreted as ‘we all had a wonderful festival’ and ‘towards the end of a wonderful gift to me’, referring to her Golden Jubilee.  It sounds like neither to my ear, but we have subjected the National Sound Archive’s original 1991 transfer by Peter Copland of the Bell-Tainter Graphophone cylinder owned by the Science Museum to the latest restoration technology.  The wax coated cardboard cylinder is believed to have been recorded by Sidney Morse at Balmoral in 1888.

Queen Victoria

While the sound of that recording is poor, we can hear the Queen’s cousin and contemporary Prince George, Duke of Cambridge (1819-1904) in better quality, recorded by Edison’s agent Colonel Gouraud on 22nd December 1888.  His message to Thomas Edison, the inventor of sound recording, is as follows:

I congratulate you on the marvelous success of this invention which I think will produce singular results in the future.

The recording comes from the Alan Cooban collection (C1398) digitised with funding from the Saga Trust.

Duke of Cambridge

George - Duke of Cambridge 1855Collodion of Prince George by Roger Fenton 1855

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

29 October 2018

Recording of the week: a high fidelity direct recording

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This week's selection comes from audio engineer Robert Cowlin.

Instantaneous lacquer discs frequently contain unique or rare recordings and, due to the instability of their sound carrying layer, are a preservation priority at the British Library Sound Archive. Also known as acetate discs, they generally consist of a metal substrate coated in a lacquer of cellulose nitrate which is modulated by a cutting stylus. The process is still in use today, comprising the first step in the manufacture of vinyl records. Many of the lacquers in the British Library’s collection were cut ‘on demand’ – direct to disc from radio broadcasts for patrons by independent cutters, such as W. H. Troutbeck of Twickenham. Today’s disc contains excerpts from “Visions of Saint Godric”, by Peter Crossley-Holland, cut on 17 October 1959.

Photograph of a Troutbeck lacquer disc cut on 17 October 1959

Cellulose nitrate degrades continuously over time, as it reacts with water vapour and oxygen, resulting in the eventual shrinkage of the lacquer layer. As the metal substrate cannot shrink, the lacquer cracks and flakes off resulting in the inevitable and irreversible loss of the sound carrying layer, hence their preservation priority status.

Lacquers from the 1950s onwards can be played like any other microgroove disc, with a lightweight elliptical or line contact pickup tracking at around 1.5 grams. Coarse groove lacquers also exist, so playback parameters may need to be modified to accommodate a wider groove. Test with a microgroove stylus first though.

This disc was cleaned in an ultrasonic bath using a solution of 1 parts photographic wetting agent to 70 parts deionised water. Like shellac discs, lacquers should not be cleaned with alcohol. Some instantaneous discs were coated with gelatine rather than cellulose nitrate. Gelatine reacts badly when exposed to water. I always perform a patch test on a non-modulated area before cleaning. Apart from digitising, one should avoid playing lacquer discs due to their fragility.

The disc in question is in very good condition considering its age, with no signs of delamination and only minor scuffing, it retains its deep shine when held to the light. Apart from some pops and intermittent surface noise, the sound quality is excellent. I’ve chosen a short passage that highlights the format’s ability to convey low-level detail – listen out for the audience!

Excerpt from Visions of Saint Godric by Peter Crossley-Holland (BL shelfmark 1LS0001183)

I’m giving a presentation on signal extraction from lacquer discs at this year’s British & Irish Sound Archives conference at the National Library of Wales on 17 November. More information about the conference can be found at http://www.bisa-web.org/next-event

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

01 October 2018

Recording of the week: a Tamil lullaby

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This week's selection comes from Christian Poske, AHRC Collaborative PhD candidate and Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

The English musicologist Arthur Henry Fox Strangways recorded this Tamil lullaby with the title Lālishrīta in South India during a recording trip through the Indian subcontinent in 1910-11. An outcome of his research in India was his book The Music of Hindostan (1914) which featured transcriptions and translations of many of the songs he recorded, bringing Indian music closer to European audiences. In the book, he translates the first stanza of the song as: "Baby mine, light of my eyes, here in thy cradle bright with flowers, through sunny hours I bring thee sleep, I rock thee and sing thee to sleep, on the wings of my melodies."

Fox Strangways C72/872, song 2: Lālishrīta

Fox Strangways transcription of a Tamil lullaby

Fox Strangways also included a photo of the performer, a school teacher from Tanjore.

Photograph of the performer of the Tamil lullaby

Professor Martin Clayton (1999: 104-112) reanalysed the song and Fox Strangways’ transcription of it, noticing that the six-beat scheme of the notation did not correspond to the rhythm of the song, which appears to be sung in a free metre. Fox Strangways may have assigned this rhythm to the piece to improve understanding for Western readers familiar with lullabies in 3/4 and 6/8 time. His inclusion in the book of only the English translation of the lyrics may also be attributed to the same reason.

Additional recordings from the Fox Strangways collection are available at https://sounds.bl.uk/World-and-traditional-music/Ethnographic-wax-cylinders

[Footnote: Clayton, Martin (1999). 'A. H. Fox Strangways and the Music of Hindostan: revisiting historical field recordings'. Journal of the Royal Musical Association 124: 86-118.]

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

19 September 2018

Seeing sound: What is a spectrogram?

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Greg Green, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage writes:

In this digital age, most of us are familiar with audio waveforms, the ‘wavy’ images that represent the dynamic course of a particular sound recording. Waveforms are in fact a type of graph, with time on the X axis and amplitude (or loudness) on the Y.

Waveform exampleFigure 1: a waveform represents a sound recording by showing amplitude over time

Waveforms are very useful for conveying basic information about a recording e.g. where the loud bits are, where the quiet bits are, and how dynamic the recording is. If you were listening to an interview, a waveform can clearly show you where someone is speaking. Unfortunately, waveforms cannot tell us much about the pitch, frequency, or harmonic content of a recording. For that we can use a different visual representation of sound… say hello to the spectrogram!

How to read a spectrogram

Spectrograms keep time on the X axis but place frequency on the Y axis. Amplitude is also represented as a sort of heat map or scale of colour saturation. Spectrograms were originally produced as black and white diagrams on paper by a device called a sound spectrograph, whereas nowadays they are created by software and can be any range of colours imaginable!

Wave form v spectragramFigure 2: waveform and spectrogram of the same recording. An oscillating low frequency buzz dominates the waveform, only the spectrogram reveals where the bird is calling

Spectrograms map out sound in a similar way to a musical score, only mapping frequency rather than musical notes. Seeing frequency energy distributed over time in this way allows us to clearly distinguish each of the sound elements in a recording, and their harmonic structure. This is especially useful in acoustic studies when analysing sounds such as bird song and musical instruments. So not only do these graphs look really cool, but they can tell us a lot about the sound without even listening.

Spectrogram example (whooper swan)Figure 3: a spectrogram showing the harmonically rich calls of whooper swans

Whooper Swan calls recorded by John Corbett (BL shelfmark WS1734 C5)

In the above example, we can see the calls of a Whooper Swan represented in a spectrogram. The fundamental frequency of the calls is at about 750Hz, which is the frequency with the most energy (usually the lowest frequency of a sound), and gives the sound its perceived pitch. Above that are the harmonics - additional, quieter frequencies that give the sound its ‘colour’ and make up a sort of sonic signature – a Whooper Swan singing a perfect ‘G’ note will have a very different harmonic structure to a piano playing that same note. This information could be used to analyse bird songs and calls in different locations, or to understand the vocabulary of a species.

Creative uses for spectrograms

Clearly spectrograms can tell us a lot about the acoustic elements of a sound, but they are not just used for scientific studies. Audio editing is most often performed with waveforms as it's easier to make cuts or process a selected time range. When editing software uses spectrograms however, it opens up a whole new realm of possibilities! With this spectral editing, we are able to look into the microscopic details of a sound and apply processes to very specific time and frequency ranges. For example, an obtrusive footstep, or car alarm could be identified and removed from a recording, just like ‘photoshopping’ sound!

Spectral repair exampleFigure 4: a recording of a robin singing was ruined by a dog barking and some low end noise – a spectrogram reveals the unwanted noises and allows the recordist to remove them.

Spectral repair BEFORE

Spectral repair AFTER

Musicians can also use spectral editing to compose and generate sounds that could not be made any other way. Patterns and shapes can be ‘drawn’ into spectrograms and played back as frequency content. In some cases, detailed graphic images can be hidden within spectrograms. Aphex Twin used this technique to hide an image of a face within the second track of his ‘Windowlicker’ EP (1999).

Aphex Face

You can find some more examples of images hidden in the spectral content of popular songs here: https://twistedsifter.com/2013/01/hidden-images-embedded-into-songs-spectrographs/

So now you know what spectrograms are, how to read them, and some of their many scientific, creative, and bizarre uses. Keep an eye out for our #SpectrogramSunday @BLSoundHeritage tweets, starting this weekend!

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