Sound and vision blog

20 posts categorized "Visual arts"

11 July 2016

Embedded Live

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Since autumn 2015, the British Library Sound Archive has hosted Aleks Kolkowski and Larry Achiampong as composers in residence through Sound & Music's Embedded Residency scheme. Larry and Aleks will be performing live on Tuesday 12 July at 18:30 as a way of showcasing their progress in the first half of the residency. You can book your free tickets here but space is limited!

Embedded is a Sound and Music creative development programme funded by The Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and the PRS for Music Foundation which places composers from a range of disciplines into extended relationships with leading national organisations.

The 12 month residency is an ideal duration for the British Library Sound Archive to host artists, allowing them to engage with the rhythm of the archive, far from the immediacy with which the digital domain has accustomed us to consuming music. In an archive, the journey a listener takes with a sound recording – often on an analogue carrier – can be as long and circuitous as the initial route taken to make the recording.

In their collaborative live performance, Larry and Aleks will draw upon their respective explorations of the sound collections whilst also demonstrating historic sound recording formats, such as wax cylinders, 78rpm, acetate and vinyl records on phonographs and gramophones in combination with contemporary beat making machines and electro-acoustic manipulations.


The artists have seen what takes place 'behind the scenes' during their residency at the sound archive


During the residency, Aleks Kolkowski has been focussing on early cylinder recordings and the Bishop Collection, which gathers the sound effects made for theatre by the Bishop Sound and Electrical Company which operated in Soho during the the 1940s and ‘50s. Kolkowski’s work engages with Save our Sounds, the Library's programme to preserve the nation's sound heritage by playfully employing analogue technology and obsolete formats in a contemporary setting. His impressions about creating work within the sound archive give us some insight into what sorts of sounds and artefacts he has been exposed to:

I was prepared for the vastness of the sound collections and familiar with some of the categories but there are always plenty of surprises, many brought to light by the curators. The quantity of home recordings, for instance, dating back to the early 1900s on cylinders is very impressive and are a delight to listen too, as are the domestic open reel magnetic tapes and acetate discs from the 1950s such as the A.W.E. Perkins Collection. To listen to these voices and sounds from the past is to experience social history brought alive. I am also very taken with the large collection of broken records that brings out both the audio archaeologist and the hands-on experimenter in me. I would love to spend time piecing these rare recordings back together and rescuing their sounds, or playfully rearranging them in the style of Milan Knízák’s Broken Music.

Larry Achiampong, an artist with a background in visual arts, has been developing a new body of work stemming from two previous projects, which explore his Ghanaian heritage. ‘Meh Mogya’, which means 'my blood' in Twi, a Ghanaian language, and ‘More Mogya’, meaning ‘more blood’, are the origin for his current exploration of field recordings from wider West Africa. He was particularly inspired by the selection of music present in the recent British Library exhibition West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song and will be re-mixing excerpts in his performance. As part of his residency, Larry participated in Ghana Beats, one of the ‘Late at the British Library’ events alongside artists such as Yaaba Funk and Volta 45.


The Swiss-made "Mikiphone", patented in 1924, is the smallest talking machine ever placed on the market and is part of the sound archive's artefact collection


Beyond Embedded, the sound archive is committed to supporting the creation of new work by artists, composers, academics, record labels, and curators. Through annual opportunities such as the Edison Fellowship or one-off commissions, we guide listeners through our collections and enable new research and creative practices, such as with Hidden Traces. This installation functions as an audio map of the Kings Cross area, layering interviews with local residents and archival recordings from King’s Cross Voices interviews to create a narrated journey that reveals how the area has changed. Realised by choreographer and urbanist Gabriele Reuter and sound designer Mattef Kuhlmey, it was commissioned by The Place and supported by the British Library.

The British Library Sound Archive has been pivotal to various artistic productions since its origins in 1955 as the British Institute of Recorded Sound, including Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. In 1983, Martin Scorsese discussed ideas for the musical soundtrack of his film with musician Peter Gabriel, who recently described how the National Sound Archive was crucial to the creation of this soundtrack –

In my research for Passion, many people mentioned the wonderful resources in the NSA (National Sound Archive) and in particular introduced me to Lucy Duran, who both understood what I was hoping to achieve and made lots of great suggestions. Scorsese had asked for a new type of score that was neither ancient nor modern, that was not a pastiche but had clear references to the region, traditions and atmospheres, but was in itself a living thing. 

The soundtrack, which was further developed and released as the album Passion on his record label Real World Records in 1989, brought together Middle Eastern and North African traditions and included appearances by musicians like Baaba Maal, Jon Hassell, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Bill Cobham who were just becoming big names in the world music genre.

Peter Gabriel’s creative process for the soundtrack and album is captured in a compilation record entitled Passion – Sources, which was released shortly after Passion, also by Real World Records. This album includes the “sources of inspiration” – some of the recordings of traditional music he listened to at the National Sound Archive alongside location recordings made during the filming process. For Gabriel, the archive is still a relevant source of inspiration: “There is so much great stuff there, most of which you can’t reach by googling.”

The inexhaustibility of the archive makes it an ideal setting for creation, limited only by the time and patience it can take to search and listen through the sound recordings available. Through the Embedded residency the Sound Archive is able to support the creative process of contemporary artists, acknowledging the ways in which past works can be explicitly influential. The mobile process of creating original work is given new possibilities within the archive, a unique opportunity to work amongst one’s sources, and engage with them in greater depth. As the sound recordings in the archive are re-contextualised into new events and compositions, their meaning is extended and their historicity brought into the present.

08 April 2016

Contemporary British performance: Natasha Davis interview

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The British Library’s new Contemporary British Collections department has launched its own web page, illustrated with a banner image featuring artist Natasha Davis performing her show Internal Terrains at Chelsea Theatre, London 2013.

Natasha Davis Internal Terrains Chelsea Theatre 2013 blogInternal Terrains, Chelsea Theatre 2013. Video available to view at the British Library.

The show was videoed for the Library’s live theatre recordings archive as part of the Chelsea Theatre’s sixth Sacred season of live art and contemporary performance.

Natasha Davis is a Croatian-born British artist based in London. Her work addresses issues of identity, cultural memory, migration and body through performance. She also works with archive materials, creating installations and engaging with audiences by organizing workshops on the theme of personal stories.

To provide some context to the image Natasha has kindly let us use for our website, I asked her some questions last November 2015 via email about the show, her work and her thoughts on performance.

1) Could you please say something about Internal Terrains?

Internal Terrains explores identity and situations in life when identity may be at stake or be seriously challenged for different reasons. It is structured around the decades of life and looks at the past, present and the ways we might perceive the future. It puts personal histories in a political and historical context and focuses more specifically on stories around migration.

The performance uses film, installations, original sound and text. As is usual in my work, the objects and installations I create are ‘interdisciplinary’. Each one is an independent, often mixed-media work of art, which adds to the layers of meaning of the performance.

In addition, there is a continuous soundscape created in collaboration with composer Bob Karper, 
who has made original music and sound for all my performances so far. The sound relates on a deep level to the subjects explored and the materials used to make installations and objects, and occasionally overlaps with sonic effects created by me live on stage.

2) How does Internal Terrains relate to your previous trilogy of solo works?

The trilogy of Rupture, Asphyxia and Suspended investigated the impact of the trauma of enforced migration on the body and memory. Rupture was about the nature and materiality of endurance against the decay of the body and decay of the land, in this case due to a civil war. I conducted research for Asphyxia, the second part of the trilogy, in South America at high altitude where it was literally difficult to breathe. I experimented with stretching the boundaries of what a body can do under such conditions to explore metaphorically the situations in life when we feel out of breath. The final piece in the trilogy, Suspended, was focused on the state of being in between or out of balance as a fertile place and made the audience share the performance space with me. All three pieces examine how migratory identity is shaped and preserved and ask: If dust ever settles on the past, does grass grow over it?

Internal Terrains capitalizes on the concepts of repetitive returns to the past, the fragmentary nature of our memory and the feeling of being off balance, which were central to the trilogy, however this time the starting point is not the body of the performer but objects. I am interested in the mnemonic power of objects, the specific associations they bring to mind and what these may mean to a migrant. The whole set of Internal Terrains is an object: an installation, consisting of twenty cables spreading out of a dimmer, with a light bulb at the end of each cable, demarcating an imaginary home on stage. The objects hanging from chains in that setting reside in their own shadows, like our memories do, until I start interacting with them. If we also think of the objects as imaginary rooms in a home, they provide access to architectures of memory, in this case common to people who have had to cross borders and move between homes a lot in their lives.

The trilogy paid close attention to time and the temporal aspect of migration, while Internal Terrains, due to the nature of its exploration of home and belonging through objects, extended this to include space and made me consider mise-en-scène in new ways and perhaps more cinematically. This way of working asked for precise attention to the relationships evolving between the various layers, such as objects, sound, film and text, rather than the layers themselves describing, clarifying or adding to the material generated in and from the body.

Natasha Davis_Suspended 2010 blogSuspended, Chelsea Theatre 2010. Third solo show performed by the artist as part of her trilogy on body identity and migration. Video available to view at the British Library.

3) Your performances explore body, memory and identity. Do you have a view on how performance transmits cultural memory and identity?

As a site of resistance and a site from where one can speak out, performance can offer an empowering space for sharing memories. If the sharing and exchanges with the audience in the performance space are emphatic and meaningful, they can contribute to resolving painful memories – in the performer and the audience alike. I believe that performing (traumatic) memories can be a powerful way to reinsert the ability to take an active role in the process of the (re)construction of the self on the personal and collective level.

4) What does contemporary performance offer that other mediums may not?

In a recent article I wrote for Performance Research, with Yana Meerzon, amongst other things we talk about how, through a ‘theatrical encounter with an artist repeating and experiencing anew personal states of imbalance and displacement, an audience member, who may or may not have experienced such a condition themselves, can approximate the pain of the other’. If we think of the body as a site of memory and accept that embodied, autobiographical knowledge can be mapped through telling of the stories, such performative encounters can become communal acts that we can map and work through, individually and collectively, to gain better understanding of ourselves and each other.

Performance art as a form has often provided a home for marginalized women’s, queer, non-white and other underprivileged voices to stage their personal material that carries political and representational value. Through my practice I aim to contribute to the existing body of practical and critical work that offers this possibility by using performance art, practice-as-research and autobiographical material to speak as a migrant voice, as a person displaced by a civil war, who is living and making work about it at a time of unprecedented migration. In that way, through reflecting on current issues, performance material can - and I strive for this - offer a democratic space to engage actively, poetically, personally and politically with the current, complex political present.

5) What are you working on at the moment?

I am beginning to make a new multi-media cross-disciplinary performance Fifty Rooms about the spaces and times in life between breaking and repairing, about ageing and about being ‘infected’ – the latter could be with new ideas, with utopian dreams and resolutions or with a surge of newcomers in the space that otherwise 'belongs' to others. The performance will also explore ideas of home, belonging and in-between spaces within three categories: house-body-island. In this project, in addition to my regular key collaborators Bob Karper (sound), Lucy Cash (choreography) and Marty Langthorne (lighting), I will also work with a martial arts choreographer, a stem-cell scientist and a bio-identical hormones specialist. I am beginning to develop it in Melbourne in March with an Australian-based dramaturge Alyson Campbell and with support from the Arts Council and British Council. I am also planning to create an immersive sound and film installation to accompany this piece.

In the meantime I am presenting a series of talks and workshops in Canada in January (Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto) and in Prague in April. My latest performance Teeth Show is going to South Africa in February (Rhodes University, Grahamstown), Melbourne in March (VCA) and then Sydney (the Creative Practice Lab at UNSW).  Internal Terrains is going to Warwick University, Coventry in January and to Theatre Works, Melbourne as part of the biannual festival of live art in Melbourne. It’s busy, in a wonderful way!

Find more about the British Library's Drama and Literature Recordings and keep up with our activities on @BL_DramaSound

Read about the British Library's Sound Archive preservation programme to digitise the nation's rare and unique sound recordings at Save Our Sounds programme and #SaveOurSounds.

11 December 2015

Audio-Visual Resources and The Academic Book of the Future

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In early 2015 I was fortunate enough to catch Bex Lyons giving a presentation on The Academic Book of the Future. This is a research project sponsored by the British Library and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and delivered by a research team led by Dr Samantha Rayner at UCL. The project seeks to explore the future of academic books in the context of open access publishing and digital change.


Aside from the fascinating debates about what constitutes ‘academic’, what constitutes a ‘book’, and what an ‘academic book’ might be in the current research landscape – I was struck by the potential applications of the project to the collection I am vested in at The British Library: sound.

The British Library sound archive is an extraordinary collection of over 6.5 million recordings dating back to the birth of recorded sound in the early 19th century. If you were to listen to our entire collection back to back, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with no holidays or breaks, it would take you over 140 years – plus the collection is growing daily! It is a unique research resource, comparable only to the Library of Congress sound collections in the USA. Find out more about our collection here 

Sound recordings are the closest thing to time travel that we have as a research tool. Take for instance this audio clip of JRR Tolkien visiting a tobacco shop. We are instantly transported to 1929 when the recording was made, and it is easy to feel that you are being addressed directly. The time that has passed between then and now seems to vanish. (image:

The Save Our Sounds project

Professional reel-to-reel player being maintainedMany of the British Library’s recordings are under threat of disappearing as technologies change and some formats begin to naturally decay, and in response to this challenge the Library has launched a major campaign to digitise our historic sound collections.

As well as enabling us to future-proof our collections, the Save Our Sounds campaign is a unique opportunity for us to take stock of our role as audio heritage archivists, cataloguers, librarians, and collectors. Part of this includes considering access and the ways in which our collections are used by researchers. It is here, at the crossroads of research and engagement, that linking up with The Academic Book of the Future project becomes very exciting.

At the moment, if an ‘academic text’ includes audio or visual resources these tend to be included as DVDs, CDs, and perhaps even CD-ROMs (yes, they are still floating around out there!). As the technological landscape of the world changes, the ability to access and play CDs, DVDs and most definitely CD-ROMs will become increasingly limited. From the initial survey work that has been done for the Save Our Sounds project, the main preservation concern is not that the recordings themselves are at risk of disappearing, but the obsolescence of the playback equipment.

So, how will audio-visual resources be included in academic books of the future?

In current and emerging contexts in which content is increasingly digitised and media-rich, how will the ability to incorporate audio-visual research directly into research outputs change the way in which these outputs are created, accessed, and referenced?

We hope that working with The Academic Book of the Future project to address some of these questions will offer important insights into how researchers are using sound and moving image resources, and highlight common issues and concerns across disciplines.

If you are or have used sound and/or audio-visual materials for research do please complete our short survey. The closing date is Friday 1st April.

A symposium has been arranged to discuss the findings of the survey & hear presentations by publishing houses, app developers, and researchers. The symposium will address and encourage discussing ways of working together to fully explore the potential of audio-visual components in the academic book of the future. Save the date – 23rd May 2016 at The British Library, London.

Find out more about Save our Sounds at, follow @SoundHeritage for live updates from our digitisation studio, @SoundArchive for tweets from the sound team, and use #SaveOurSounds to join the conversation on Twitter.

Steven Dryden - Sound & Vision Reference Specialist