THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Music blog

From classical and pop to world and traditional music

Introduction

We have over 100,000 pieces of manuscript music, 1.6 million items of printed music and about 2 million music recordings! This blog is written by our team of music curators and features news and information about the British Library's rich collections of music and sound recordings. Read more

08 September 2014

Archiving WOMAD 2014

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The British Library’s relationship with WOMAD (World of Music Arts and Dance) is nearly as long as the festival's existence, recording performances for archival purposes since 1985. The first recording in the WOMAD Collection, C203/1, was of the Chinese sheng and flute players, the Guo Brothers, who had recently arrived in London to study at the Guildhall School of Music and were just beginning to create a name for themselves in this country. It was made on Ampex 456 ‘Grand Master’ tape at half-track stereo and in the recordists' notes, strong winds were reported as interfering with the quality of the recording.

1985 flyer from Steve Sherman s_sherman@sky.com

Since 1985 and each year, with the exception of three, a small team of staff from the British Library record as many of the performances as possible, including workshops and interviews. This summer, between 24 and 27 July, six members of staff attended the festival equipped with portable digital recorders and recorded ninety-one performances, covering 95% of the festival. These recordings have recently been catalogued and processed and are searchable on our catalogue. They can be listened to free of charge through our listening service on-site at the British Library in King's Cross in London and in Boston Spa, Yorkshire. 

The British Library holds a significant number of early UK appearances by artists who, since performing at WOMAD, have made great inroads on the international music scene; artists such as Baaba Maal, first recorded by the British Library at WOMAD in 1991, Thomas Mapfumo, first recorded in 1990 and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, first recorded in 1985, to cite only a few. In total we hold around 2,100 hours of audio (you would need close to 3 months of non-stop listening to listen to it all!) of performances at WOMAD, held on different physical formats such as open reel tape, DAT, CD-R and digital audio files; all are stored in our basements and backed up digitally for preservation and access.

Womad advert

The British Library holds five million recordings on over one million items dating back to the 1890s and possibly earlier. The sound collections have their origin in 1906, when the British Museum began collecting metal masters from the Gramophone Company. Recording performances at WOMAD is one example of the many ways in which the British Library actively develops its sound collections although the majority of material is acquired through donations, purchases or loans.

Steven Dryden, Sound and Vision Reference Specialist, was a member of the WOMAD team this year. In this paragraph he relays his highlight of the festival: experiencing the live sound of DakhaBrakha, made possible thanks to Dash Arts, the creative agency which brought the group to the United Kingdom.

My highlight of WOMAD 2014 has to be ‘Ethno Chaos’ founders DakhaBrakha - brooding, shamanic ‘noisescapes’ from Ukraine. The Siam Tent filled to capacity throughout the four piece set, the atmosphere building and building with each song. The sound is eclectic, in the truest sense of the word; there is a traditional folk element but also, dance, hip-hop and tribal rhythms. The songs often build to terrifyingly claustrophobic dins, but remain rhythmic and chant like - just as the ‘Ethno Chaos’ tag might suggest, there is a lot of beauty in this chaos. One couldn’t help but reflect on everything that has happened in the Ukraine in the last year. Perhaps DakhaBrakha are capturing the zeitgeist of a generation of Ukrainians? The performance is swamped with pride, Ukrainian flags are featured on stage and amongst the audience. But there is something more here, the sound of the four piece is defiant and confident, totally uncompromising between the past and the future sounds of the Ukraine. This band sucks you in to their world of noise and forces you to contemplate, all while moving your feet.

Listen to an excerpt from DakhaBrakha's performance

Andrea Zarza Canova, Curator of World and Traditional Music, attended WOMAD festival for the first time.

Bernie Krause's talk at the Society of Sound Stage was an inspiring complement to the numerous musical performances I recorded at WOMAD: The Good Ones, Monsieur Doumani, Aar Maanta, Siyaya, Amjad Ali Khan, Mulatu Astatke, Kobo Town, Magnolia Sisters, amongst others. In his talk, the bio-acoustician and founder of Wild Sanctuary, an organization dedicated to recording and archiving natural soundscapes, invited the audience to reflect on the origins of music by suggesting structural relationships between what he identifies as the three layers of the soundscape - the geophony ('non-biological sound that occurs in the natural world'), biophony ('all of the sounds that animals create collectively in a natural wild environment') and the anthrophony ('all the human noise we create'). Using spectograms and audio recordings from his personal archive and recordings of the BayAka Pigmies made by Louis Sarno, his points were made audible.

Listen to an excerpt from Bernie Krause's talk

Andy Linehan, Curator of Pop Music, attended the first WOMAD festival in 1985.

As ever, it is difficult to pick out the highlights of WOMAD – there is so much to see, hear, taste and enjoy even though we are working - but Manu Dibango has long been a personal favourite on record so it was great to see him live and Richard Thompson’s late-night set reminded me what a great guitarist and songwriter he is. Ibibio Sound Machine played a storming set on Saturday afternoon and Youssou N’Dour was as classy as ever that evening. Sunday brought my favourite band of the weekend – Les Ambassadeurs, the reformed band led by Salif Keita who revisited their 1970s blend of afrobeat, funk, jazz and soul in an all-too short 75 minutes of aural pleasure.  And in a contrast of style the final performance of the weekend was a blistering set by Public Service Broadcasting (probably the first band to have played both the British Library Entrance Hall and Womad) who enthralled a packed Siam tent and drew proceedings to a close. It didn’t rain either.

Listen to an excerpt from Public Service Broadcasting's performance

Get in touch to listen to performances from WOMAD on-site at the British Library and listen online to sounds from World & Traditional Music and Pop Music online! See you next year for WOMAD 2015!

02 September 2014

Syriac Liturgical Music - From the Mountains of the Servants of God

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The British Library has recently acquired field recordings made in two Syriac Orthodox monasteries in south-eastern Turkey by film-maker Nathaniel Daudrich and ethnographer George Richards. These recordings of Syriac Liturgical chant, searchable on our catalogue under collection number C1658 and available on Sounds, were made in 2011 and document one of the oldest existing forms of song, similar to the Western tradition of plainsong. In this guest blog post, we hear from the recordists themselves about the importance of these recordings and the process of making them.

Very few recordings of the liturgy of the Syriac Orthodox Church (a branch of Christianity established at Antioch, in modern Turkey, and which split from Rome and Constantinople in AD 451) have been made in situ in the remote monasteries of southern Turkey. These recordings may prove to be rarer still, in that they capture the essence of the Syriac language (a branch of the Semitic family of languages that also includes Arabic and Hebrew), the speakers of which were once in abundance across the Middle East, but who have now dwindled to a near-forgotten minority. The part of Turkey where these recordings were made is still called Tur Abdin - the Mountains of the Servants of God - but the two monasteries, Deyrulzafaran and Mor Gabriel, are among the very last islands of the Syriac people in Turkey.

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A chapel at the Monastery of Deyruzafaran. Photo credit: Nathaniel Daudrich

In 2011, we travelled from Istanbul to Diyarbakir, a large Kurdish city in south-eastern Turkey. The Arab Spring was spreading through the countries to the south, and the conflict between the Turkish state and Kurdish separatists was rumbling on. From Diyarbakir, we drove at night-time with a Kurdish farmer to Deyrulzafaran, the Saffron Monastery, in the mountains behind Mardin. There, we were welcomed by a monk, wrapped in a black cloak, and taken by moonlight through the courtyards to a small dormitory room.

We were woken the next morning by the bell for prayer. The sun had cast a warm glow over the yellow stone of the monastery, from which it takes its name, and we were led sleepily by a young orphan boy to the chapel. Inside, the walls were whitewashed, with a few embroidered drapes, and sunlight pouring in through a window behind our heads. Clouds of incense tickled our noses. We took a pew among some old men, tanned and flat-capped. The orphan-boy joined another in an alcove on one side of the chapel, while a tall farmer and a priest, wearing black robes, a long black beard and a white-and-black skull-cap, stood in the alcove on other side.  

Then, the boys began to sing. They stopped, the two men replied with deeper voices, and then passed the song back to the boys, and so on, back and forth. As they sang on, into the chapel flowed a trickle of orphans, wiping sleep from their eyes, and farmers, brushing straw from their shoulders, and businessmen on their way to work, leaving briefcases at the chapel door. The boys and the younger men, or those with higher voices, joined the orphans; the older and bigger men joined the priest and the farmer. Soon, the alcoves were overflowing. As the service went on, the singers’ voices grew stronger - then, at the very peak, as we stood, half-asleep, hungry, and squinting through the sunlight and the incense, the chapel seemed filled with song.

Listen to an excerpt from Deyrulzafaran

These recordings represent an early step in the development of choral music from monophonic chanting, a single voice making one note at a time, to polyphonic, where different voices sing different notes in harmony. They demonstrate the call-and-response technique, a device that grew out of the structure of human speech, and which spurred on the development of more complex choral music.

It is intriguing to encounter, in these recordings, so early a step in the development of choral music preserved through time, like a living fossil. This is almost certainly the effect of the religious context of this musical tradition: the sanctity of the liturgy has inhibited any change. Without this preservatory effect, Syriac Orthodox chant would have evolved centuries ago and what we hear on the recordings would have been lost in time, cast aside like a snake sloughing its old skin.                      

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Belfries in the Monastery of Mor Gabriel. Photo credit: Nathaniel Daudrich

As significant as these recordings are in understanding the development of choral music, they are also an important reflection of the cultural and historical context in which they have been preserved. Traditions hold that the Syriac people - speakers of the Syriac language - are descended from the ancient Assyrian empire. Acknowledging the influence of early Jewish sacral music, the Hellenistic music, and, later, neighbouring Arabic song, Syriac Orthodox chant is descended, in spirit at least, from the song-poems of the ancient Assyrians.  

Listen to an excerpt from Mor Gabriel

These recordings thus contend to be one of the oldest forms of music in the world: and in them we hear, perhaps, the strains of an ancient bard, singing to the glory of the court of Puzur-Ashur, King of Assyria, two thousand years before Christ.

You can listen to the full recordings on Sounds and read more about the expedition undertaken by George Richards and Nathaniel Daudrich. Follow George Richards on Twitter to receive updates on the project.

20 August 2014

War, Women and Song: British Library, 30 August 2014

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On Saturday 30 August (6.30pm) the British Library Conference Centre will host the premiere performance of War, Women and Song, a unique theatrical recreation of the entertainments given for troops on the front line in the First World War.  Written and directed by Anna Farthing and Bea Roberts, the production is inspired by the remarkable story of the actress and acting manager Lena Ashwell (1872-1957) and her series of YMCA Concert Parties. 

 Lena Ashwell concert parties

During the course of the war more than 600 actors, musicians and entertainers – mostly young women – signed up for tours of duty as members of up to 25 companies, travelling throughout France and as far afield as Egypt to bring succour and morale-boosting diversion to war-weary soldiers.  War, Women and Song is inspired by the surviving programmes, photos, and archival materials that document the content and style of the entertainments, as well as the backgrounds and motivations of some of the performers themselves

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The first concerts took place in France in early 1915, with support from the YMCA.  Concerts were given in tents, fields, or huts – often to hundreds of soldiers – with up to three performances per day (more than 5,000 concerts in total were given between 1915 and 1919).  A typical ensemble consisted of a soprano, contralto, instrumentalist, tenor, baritone or bass, entertainer, and accompanist, allowing scope for a mixed entertainment of classical works interspersed with readings from poetry, and popular WW1 classics still familiar to us today – such Roses of Picardy and Keep the Home Fires Burning

Lena_Ashwell

Ashwell later wrote about the concerts in her book Modern troubadours: a record of the concerts at the front (London: Gyldendal, 1922).  Music, she claimed, offered ‘the straightest road to the unseen world of spiritual beauty [and] fulfilled more than its tangible function of cheering up the men… Music ministers with magical results to minds distressed, destroying the seeds of despondent thoughts, the black moods that dullness, pain, or loneliness sow in the most gallant hearts, for “where music is, there can no ill thing be”’ (p. 8).

War, Women and Song was conceived by Harvest Heritage Arts and Media and features a professional cast including Samantha Barron, Nick Blakeley, Hannah Lee, Bryan Moriarty and Cassie Webb.  The performance on 30 August forms part of the international conference ‘The Music of War: 1914-1918’ (29-31 August), presented by the British Library to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. The conference is supported by the Royal Musical Association, Music & Letters, and the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities.

For tickets, please follow this link to the BL Box Office.