14 November 2012

Documenting music in Nepal

Seto Machindranath festival, Nepal 1955-56

At the British Library we have been digitising some of our film and video collection. It’s a collection that has been built up not with an overall moving image resource in mind, but rather as a reflection of the interest of particular curators. So the collection does not cover all subjects, instead specialising in certain areas, often relating to sound because the videos were traditionally collected by the Library’s sound archive. So it is that highlights of the collection include experimental theatre recordings, oral history intervies, a large number of pop videos, and ethnomusicological recordings collected by our World and Traditional Music section.

Films from the latter are among the first batch of films that we have digitised, and four extracts have just gone up on YouTube, on a new British Library playlist, Sound and moving image collections. They are films taken by the celebrated Dutch ethnomusicologist Arnold Adriaan Bake (1899-1963). Bake documented music and dance in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka from the 1920s to the 1950s, primarily in audio format (reel-to-reel tapes, wax cylinders and Tefiphone recordings on 35mm film) but occasionally on 16mm film as well. He served as Lecturer in Indian Music at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and wrote widely on Indian music. His advocates and acolytes are scattered across the globe; likewise his sound and film collections. At the BL we have many sound recordings he made on field trips in 1925-1928, 1931-1934, and 1939-1941, and the greater part of his film legacy, with 16mm material from the 1930s and 1950s.

Indra Jaatra Festival Kathmandu, 1931

It has to be said that Bake was probably happier with an audio recorder than with a camera. The films are erratically shot and sometimes clumsily composed, with many of the flaws in production and technique associated with the amateur. The footage is unedited, and little information survives on what was shot, when, and where. Consequently the identification and coherent presentation of the films has been quite an undertaking. We’re still working on the collection, but we have released four preview edited extracts that bring together Bake’s films (which were shot silent) with some of his sound recordings (which were made around the same time but not intended as synchronous accompaniments to the films).

We’re not interested in such films as art (though it’s always welcome when one encounters a little artistry) – we’re interested in the content, in what the film documents, and in this case its mean for a particular community. Each video is accompanied by this important message on the respect due to works that document traditional practices:

The British Library has made these recordings available purely for the purposes of non-commercial research, study and private enjoyment. These recordings should not be altered or used in ways that might be derogatory to the indigenous and local communities who are traditional custodians of the traditional music, lyrics, knowledge, stories, performances and other creative materials embodied in the recordings.

An important aspect of the preservation and digitisation of the films has been a repatriation project with the Music Museum of Nepal (half of the films were shot in that country). We sent the digitised films to the museum, they supplied us with detailed documentation, which we have incorporated in our catalogue records and which helped inform the further preservation work and production of edited extracts (more of which will follow in due course).

Matayaa festival, 1955-56

I know nothing of the music of Nepal, and I’m very much aware that what I see in the films is purely surface, while for others they are rich in meaning and significance. It’s a marvellous experience to sit with those who do have that knowledge and to learn from them what what can be seen (and heard) by those who have the eyes (and ears) to see (and hear). We hope that in publishing these short extracts that we will attract those with expert knowledge to help us document the films that much more accurately. We will be publishing further extracts, as well as other examples from our collections, on the YouTube playlist, ahead of making greater amount of archive film and video available in our reading rooms in 2013.

Even if I don;t know much about the music of Nepal, I think the films have an unpretentious beauty about them. I am enthralled by the shot of vertiginous crowds attending the Indra Jaatra festival in Kathmandu in 1931, intrigued by the chariot that needs to be taller than the buildings around it so as not to displease the God in the colour film of the Seto Machindranath festival, and it is such a delight to see the young boy so earnestly playing his drum along with the Newar musicians in 1955-56. As even these short extracts make clear, Bake had a most sympathetic eye.

Matayaa festival, Nepal 1955-56


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01 October 2012

New moving image service at the British Library


Today, 1 October 2012, sees the piloting of the British Library's moving image services. We've provided access to our specialist moving image collections as an appointment service before now, but from today we are offering two new, instant access services for anyone researching in one of our Reading Rooms (at St Pancras, Colindale or Boston Spa) and special access to a huge television and radio database. In combination with our existing sound collections we can provide instant access to nearly a million sound and moving image items onsite, supported by data for over 20 million sound and moving image recordings.

The three services are:

BBC Pilot Service

This is a trial service produced by the BBC in collaboration with the British Library. It brings together the BBC's programme catalogue, Radio Times data and BBC television and radio programmes recorded off-air from mid-2007 to the end of 2011. There are approximately 2.2 million catalogue records and 190,000 playable programmes, both television and radio. The Pilot Service is being made available in the Library's Reading Rooms on a trial basis between October 2012 and March 2013, and users should look on the catalogue as a platform on which we hope to build further services in the future.

Broadcast News

This service provides access to daily television and radio news programmes from seventeen channels (fifteen TV, two radio) broadcast in the UK since May 2010, recorded off-air by the British Library. The programmes will be almost instantly available, with new programmes available in our Reading Rooms within hours of broadcast. We currently record forty-six hours per day, including BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Sky News, Al-Jazeera English, NHK World, CNN, France 24, Bloomberg, Russia Today and China's CCTV News. Many of the programmes come with subtitles, which we have made word-searchable, greatly enhancing Broadcast News as a research resource.

TRILT (Television & Radio Index for Learning & Teaching)

TRILT is a database of all UK television and radio broadcasts since 2001 (and selectively back to 1995). It covers every channel, every broadcast and every repeat, some 15 million records so far and growing by a million per year. Produced by the British Universities Film & Video Council (BUFVC) it is regularly used by many universities but has never before been available to general users.

Broadcast News - Front page


For reasons of copyright and licence, the three services can only be made available in our Reading Rooms for registered British Library users. The sound and moving image items can be accessed at dedicated multimedia terminals (equipped with non-sound leakage headphones) of which there will be at least one in every Reading Room. We're starting with twenty-five terminals and will soon raise this to sixty. Eventually - if things develop as we hope they will - every terminal that we provide for users in our Reading Rooms should be equipped for multimedia access.

To find the services, just follow the link to Sound and Moving services from the front page of any Reading Room terminal - but remember you'll need to pick one equipped with headphones to hear any of it (you can't plug in your own headphones, please note).

We are keen to have feedback from users, and you will find a link to a survey at each of the multimedia terminals. Do fill it in and let us know your thoughts on the services and how you think we can be developing things further.

We have more in the pipeline, not least the first fruits of our film and video digitisation projects, but that you'll be seing in the new year, when we will formally launch the new sound and moving image services. For now we're putting them out for a test drive - and we'd love to know what you think.

There's more information on all our moving image holdings and services on the Library's Help for Researchers pages.

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29 July 2012

Pandaemonium and the Isles of Wonder


Pandaemonium is the Palace of All the Devils. Its building began c.1660. It will never be finished – it has to be transformed into Jerusalem. The building of Pandaemonium is the real history of Britain for the last three hundred years.

Frank Cottrell Boyce, the writer behind ‘Isles of Wonder', the extraordinary and widely acclaimed opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympic Games, has revealed in a Guardian article that a major inspiration for the work was Humphrey Jennings’ Pandaemonium.  Of the creative process with director Danny Boyle he writes:

We shared the things we loved about Britain – the Industrial Revolution, the digital revolution, the NHS, pop music, children's literature, genius engineers. I bought Danny a copy of Humphrey Jennings's astonishing book Pandemonium for Christmas and soon everyone seemed to have it. The show's opening section ended up named "Pandemonium".

'Pandaemonium', as the BBC commentary noted on the night, was the name that John Milton gave to the capital of Hell in his epic poem 'Paradise Lost'. It is also the title of Humphrey Jennings’ posthumously published book which is a collection of nearly 400 contemporary texts dating 1660-1886 that, as the book’s subtitle puts it, illustrate ‘the coming of the machine as seen by contemporary observers’.

Humphrey Jennings (1907-1950) is generally recognised to be among the greatest of all British documentary filmmakers. In films such as London Can Take It! (1940, co-directed with Harry Watt), Listen to Britain (1942, co-directed with Stewart McAllister), Fires Were Started (1943) and A Diary for Timothy (1946), Jennings documented the relevance of the British experience of war to history, art, society and culture. Often described as a poet among filmmakers, he applied a poet’s synthetic vision to the British condition at a time of national crisis. If you have not knowingly seen one of his films, you will have undoubtedly come across sequences from them, because they have been ceaselessly plundered by television for footage illustrating the impact of the war on Britain. For example, Andrew Marr’s piece on the history of London that featured as part of the BBC’s build-up programme ahead of the opening ceremony used several shots from London Can Take It!

That poet’s synthetic vision was also applied to Pandaemonium, a collection of texts (or Images, as Jennings described them) which he worked on between 1937 and his accidental death in 1950, without ever shaping the material into a finished manuscript or finding a publisher. It was not until 1985 that his daughter Mary-Lou Jennings and Charles Madge (like Jennings a co-founder of the social investigation organisation Mass-Observation) edited a version of the work that was close as could be hoped to Jennings’ conception.

Pandaemonium comprises texts from poets, diarists, scientists, industrialists, politicians, novelists and social commentators who wittingly or unwittingly document the great changes wrought in British society by the industrial revolution. It begins with Milton’s description (written c.1660) of the building of Pandaemonium, and anyone who saw Boyle and Boyce’ vision of Glastonbury Tor, from which burst forth fire as the tree at its top was uprooted, ushering in the industrial revolution will recognise its inspiration in Milton’s opening words:

There stood a Hill not far whose grisly top
Belch’d fire and rowling smoak; the rest entire
Shon with a glossie scurff, undoubted sign
That in his womb was hid metallic Ore,
The work of Sulphur. Thither wing’d with speed
A numerous Brigad hastens. As when bands
Of Pioners with Spade and Pickaxe arm’d
Forerun the Royal Camp, to trench a Field,
Or cast a Rampart. Mammon led them on,
Mammon, the least erectd Spirit that fell
From heav’n, for eve’n his looks and thoughts
Were always downwards bent, admiring ore
The riches of Heav’ns pavements, trod’n Gold ...

The quotation at the head of this post comes from notes Jennings wrote for an introduction to the work, and it confirms the influence Pandaemonium had on Danny Boyle and his creative team (not least in their sly critique of the corporately-sponsored Olympics themselves, with the Olympic rings being forged in the furnaces of the dark Satanic mills). Pandaemonium has been built, and continues to be built – the task is to transform it into Jerusalem. So Boyle and Boyce do not look for a return to that green and pleasant land portrayed at the start of ‘Isles of Wonder’. Instead they look with hopes toward what has and can still be built out of it, to fulfil the vision expressed in William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’.

Vision is the operative word. In his introduction (as reconstructed by Charles Madge), Jennings says that his Images, whose construction he likens to 'an unrolling film', illustrate ‘the Means of Vision and the Means of Production’. The Industrial Revolution he sees as the victory of Production over Vision, of materialism over poetry, which has failed to keep up with, or to master, the changes brought about by industrialisation:

It would take a large work on its own to show, in the great period of English poets 1570-1750, the desperate struggle that poets had to keep poetry’s head into the wind: to keep it facing life. But by 1750 the struggle – like that of the peasants – was over. In other words poetry has been expropriated.

Boyle and Boyce were inspired by Jennings, but they also sought to show how the argument has moved on since Jennings’ time, to show that there could be a greater balance between production and vision. ‘Isles of Wonder’ was divided into three main sections (with comic interludes featuring the Queen and Mr Bean). The first, 'Pandaemonium', showed the march of industrial society over the green and pleasant land, but also the changes in society that the process unwittingly led to – women’s suffrage, Jarrow marchers, the Empire Windrush, the Beatles. The second, ‘Second Star on the Right and Straight on Till Morning’ took children’s literature as its theme, pitting its villains (Cruella De Vil, Lord Voldemort) again the forces of collective good, represented by the NHS and a host of Mary Poppinses. It can also be seen as representing the revival of poetic sensibility and responsibility, the human urge towards the greater good, defeating the forces of Mammon. From thesis to antithesis to synthesis, and the third part, 'Frankie & June say …Thanks Tim' finds great hope in another revolution, the digital revolution (Tim being Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web). Here an interconnected society, themes from which we had seen prefigured in the earlier parts, overrides the forces that have divided it in the past, moving forward to – perhaps – Jerusalem.


Extract from Listen to Britain

Humphrey Jennings could never have conceived of such a spectacle as ‘Isles of Wonder’, but he might have understood the technique, not least with reference to his own documentary films. Listen to Britain (which could almost have been a subtitle for ‘Isles of Wonder’) is a portrait of national unity illustrated through the songs and sounds of a country at war. There is no narration, only images of the different corners of the land and different strata of society, bound together by effort and by sound (factories, Myra Hess playing piano at the National Gallery, variety entertainers Flanagan and Allen). Spare Time (1939), a film closest in conception to Jennings’ brief involvement with Mass-Observation, shows how Britain’s working class enjoys its leisure time, from pubs to wrestling matches, from allotments to marching kazoo bands. Such films succeed through a subtle association of ideas, one image illuminating the next by association. As with his films, so it was with the unrolling film of Images in Pandaemonium, and now with ‘Isles of Wonder’

If you're trying to celebrate a nation's identity, you have to take things that are familiar parts of the landscape and make them wonderful.

So writes Frank Cotterell Boyce, and they are words to explain the art of Humphrey Jennings as well. It is what a great documentary filmmaker can do: capture images of common stuff, and transmute them into something wonderful. To do so, it is necessary not just to photograph your subject well, or to edit with a satisfying rhythm. You must have a governing idea to give those images meaning. Humphrey Jennings wanted to see Jerusalem built once more; Danny Boyle and Frank Cottrell Boyce have encouraged us all to dream of the same.

‘Isles of Wonder’ and the full  London 2012 opening ceremony were recorded by the British Library as part of its off-air television news service, Broadcast News, which we are planning to make available to onsite Library users from the end of September 2012. More news of this, and other moving image and sound services currently in development, will follow soon.

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