Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library


Discover more about the British Library's 6 million sound recordings and the access we provide to thousands of moving images. Comments and feedback are welcomed. Read more

01 July 2015

The British Library at WOMAD

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The British Library is celebrating 30 years of collaboration with WOMAD.

WOMAD 07 Sound Archive crew01
British Library WOMAD crew 2007

The British Library’s relationship with WOMAD is nearly as long as the festival's existence. Since 1985, missing only 3 years, we have been present at WOMAD's major annual summer event in the UK. Each year a small team of staff from the Library has spent an enjoyable weekend making documentary recordings of as many of the performances as possible. 

In total we hold over 2000 hours of music recorded at WOMAD, backed up digitally for preservation and onsite access. See more here.

WOMAD is the only music festival that has this incredible relationship with the British Library, and to celebrate we are collaborating to offer one lucky winner a pair of tickets to this year’s festival at Charlton Park (24th-26th July) and an exclusive behind the scenes tour of the British Library Sound Archive in London for four people. For more information click here.

Find out more about the work of the British Libary's Sound Archive and our new Save our Sounds programme.

Follow the British Library Sound Archive on Twitter via @soundarchive and tag with #SaveOurSounds

Follow the British Library's World and Traditional Music activities on Twitter via @BL_WorldTrad 

26 June 2015

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside!

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Over the next three months, the British Library, the National Trust and the National Trust for Scotland are encouraging everyone to get themselves down to the seaside and record their favourite coastal sounds. This could be anything from gentle waves lapping onto a sandy Devon beach to the amusement arcades of Brighton Pier.

These sonic memories will be shared through the Sounds of our Shores channel, created specifically for this project by audioBoom, as well as an interactive coastal soundmap hosted by the library.

One of the outcomes of the project, once the initial crowdsourcing element has come to a close on the 21st September, will be a musical work composed by musician and producer Martyn Ware. Founder member of both Heaven 17 and the Human League, Martyn describes what the sounds of the British coastline mean to him:

It’s a very important thing to me that sound is an under-appreciated sense that we have. When we go anywhere; when we go to the cinema, when we’re walking around a park, when we’re walking across a bridge, over a river - we tend to think that everything we do is visual, or the way we remember things is visual. In fact that is not the case. I discovered this when we were doing a 3D sound project on the Millennium Bridge in London - every time we switched the soundscape on people used to take more photographs.  

This relates to the coast as well because I think that the sounds of the coast are probably more important than how the coast looks when you go to the sea. The sea is the sea and it’s very nice to look at. It’s meditative, the sound of the sea is an amazing thing, as are the sounds of people being happy. Generally when people are by water they tend to be happier because it is a relaxing experience. But think for a moment about the sounds of the seaside: of course you’ve got the sea, but also the sounds of people laughing, children playing, people singing, trams if it were Blackpool.  Certainly seabirds too, various kinds depending on how remote your location is, but definitely seagulls all the time. And you have people swimming, people possibly splashing in the water. There are various ways that these sounds are amplified according to where you are, according to whether you’re on an open stretch, on a spit, or if it is very, very quiet. The sea would hit ,something like the Dorset Coast which can be very shingly for instance, and when the sea hits that, it makes an entirely different sound to when it hits a shallow piece of beach like at Cleethorpes where I used to go as a boy.  


Martyn Ware recording the sounds of Brighton beach (courtesy of Tim Stubbings)

The sound that I love most about the the sea is that roar, the roar when it’s stormy.  It’s beautiful.  I also love the tiny little splashes when the sea hits rocks or rockpools.  I like recording tiny little sounds, maybe of crabs walking around on rocks, but I like the giant sounds too of course, the giant waves.  But really what the seaside symbolises to me is relaxation, enjoyment and a sense of well -being really.  I’ve always been very fond of being close to the sea. 

The seaside has many forms and I urge everyone to think about sound. Just put that at the front of your mind when you next go to the seaside: think about how important sound is to your experience.  Imagine there was no sound.  Just do it as an experiment. Hopefully my artwork will encourage you to think about the beauty and complexity and the nuance of your experience when you are at the seaside. 

Sounds of our Shores runs from 21st June to 21st September 2015. Full details on how to take part can be found here.

23 June 2015

Classical Music of the Jazz Age

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Current Edison Fellow Paul Bevan writes about the influence of jazz on classical composers working in the period between the Wars.

George Gershwin is perhaps the name that most often springs to mind when a fusion of classical music and jazz is mentioned. However, important as his music is, and despite its ground breaking nature at the time of composition, Gershwin is not one of the composers explored in my current research project as Edison Visiting Fellow at the British Library. Two other composers whose music might fall into the same category as Gershwin, i.e. music composed for the symphony orchestra by popular music composers, are Dana Suesse (once known as “Girl Gershwin”) and James P. Johnson.

James P Johnson

Johnson is often cited as having been the first performer to have recorded a piece for jazz piano in 1921 and he was to compose his Harlem Symphony, a work of real note, the following decade in 1932. These three composers are the major exponents of what might best be described as “symphonic jazz.” Symphonic jazz is not the focus of this project which has specifically set out to explore the music of classical composers, during the interwar years, who used elements of jazz in their compositions. These include some of the most famous names of early twentieth-century music: Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky, Martinů and Milhaud as well as some equally important but less well-known names, such as Erwin Schulhoff and George Antheil.

One of the major aims at the outset of the project was to use historical recordings to compare styles of playing from different periods and to explore regional variants by country. However, it was soon discovered that there was one serious obstacle to this – namely, that the sample of existing recordings for any one composition in this repertoire is far too small to make any meaningful comparison. The few notable exceptions to this, for example, Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G and his Violin Sonata no. 2, have proved to be rich sources of material, but due to the quantitative limitations described above, the research was forced to take a natural turn towards a broad exploration of repertoire.

The repertoire in question has often been shunned by jazz enthusiasts as being failed attempts by classical composers to write successfully in the jazz idiom and is also an area often ignored by those in the classical music world who have thought it to be in some way lightweight, unsophisticated or even corny. Neither of these views does justice to the rich and diverse repertoire that the use of jazz has spawned in classical music, a phenomenon that may best be compared to the way folk music has been used, not just in modern times in the music of Bartok and Kodaly, but also in previous centuries with, for example, the chamber music of Haydn and Beethoven.

The music of the American, George Antheil, self-styled “Bad Boy of Music”, and his use of jazz as a central compositional element in some of his works, notably his Jazz Symphony of 1925, is a good example of the type of music studied in this project. As with so many young composers of the time, Antheil was greatly influenced by Stravinsky. Stravinsky’s early contributions to this genre can be seen in his Ragtime for 11 Instruments and The Soldier’s Tale (both of 1918). These pieces were composed at the start of a period of worldwide dissemination of jazz following WWI. However, they were written at a time when Stravinsky had not even heard ragtime and were composed with reference only to sheet music. 1918 was also well before the term “The Jazz Age” was coined, with the publication of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story collection of that name in 1922. The “Jazz Age” is often said to have ended with the coming of the Great Depression although in reality it can be seen to have continued for much longer and was far more widespread than is often acknowledged. Indeed, in some parts of the world it was only at this time that jazz was becoming popular. This has led me to the devising of a new term, “The Universal Jazz Age,” a broad term covering trends in music, fashion, art, photography, architecture etc., that refers to a period which was both more widespread and longer lasting than the “Jazz Age” has often been seen to be. The reach of this popular cultural phenomenon in the 1930s and 1940s could be found as far afield as Shanghai, Bombay, Rio and Mexico City and important work in this area has been done by, amongst others, Naresh Fernandes in his Taj Mahal Foxtrot and Andrew F. Jones in Yellow Music.

Ragtime, the tango, the foxtrot and the waltz are perhaps the most frequently seen forms of dance music adopted in compositions by classical composers at the time in question. However, some of these are often not thought of as typical “jazz” genres at all, and the question might be asked why they were so prominent. The answer lies firmly in their inclusion as part of the repertoire of the dance halls, the type of venue where jazz was most frequently heard worldwide.

The composition of classical music inspired by jazz grew at much the same time as the worldwide spread of jazz itself following WWI. Scott Joplin’s ragtime piano rolls were not made until 1916, the first “jazz” recordings were recorded only the following year and J. P. Johnsons piano solo Carolina Shout was not recorded until 1921.

112px-Schulhoff_Mayerova_1931By this time, one of the central figures explored in this project, Erwin Schulhoff, had already composed his first piano pieces inspired by jazz, Fünf Pittoresken (1919), which were dedicated to his close friend, the artist George Grosz. Schulhoff used jazz in his compositions in a distorted and grotesque manner in much the same way as Grosz (a jazz fan himself) was doing in his artistic representations of Berlin nightlife; both doing so as part of the phenomenon of Berlin Dada. 

Composer Ervín Schulhoff (1894–1942) and dancer Milča Mayerová (1901-1977), ca 1931

“Classical Music of the Jazz Age,” fits into a wider project which follows the spread of jazz around the world, focussing on East Asia and the Universal Jazz Age. The project seeks to show how jazz, a music with its roots in America, following WWI, spread rapidly around the world, in each place taking on a life of its own. By the 1930s, as part of the Universal Jazz Age (a broad cultural phenomenon which included art, literature and fashion) jazz had become a many-faceted jewel reflected in the mirrors of numerous cultures worldwide. 


Dr Paul Bevan is a Research Associate in the Department of Languages and Cultures of China and Inner Asia at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. His book: A Modern Miscellany: Shanghai Cartoon Artists, Shao Xunmei’s Circle and the Travels of Jack Chen, 1926-1938 will be published by Brill later in 2015.