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

27 August 2015

Mátyás Seiber collection of recordings goes on line

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Seiber's own collection of recordings donated by his daughter Julia Seiber Boyd,  the Matyas Seiber collection, has been digitised and put on line on BL Sounds.

Mátyás György Seiber (1905-1960) was born in Budapest where he studied composition with Zoltan Kodály and cello with Adolf Shiffer at the Budapest Academy of Music. From the late 1920s he taught in Frankfurt where his classes in jazz were the first of its kind. He left Germany in 1933 and settled in England in 1935 where he worked as a freelance writer and did various jobs including writing music for films. In 1942 Michael Tippett offered him a teaching post at Morley College where during this decade he was a founder of the Society for New Music with Francis Chagrin, and the Dorian Singers.

Seiber wrote in many different forms including opera, ballet, songs and chamber music; he also wrote much incidental music for radio, television and film productions. Most of his finest works are represented in his collection of discs.

Seiber Kodaly talk disc 1943Some of these recordings are in poor condition being more than eighty years old, but they are unique and of great historical interest as Seiber recorded many of the broadcast first performances of his works.  Some important BBC talks from the early 1940s survive here including part of one on his teacher Zoltan Kodaly in 1943.  This is a glass disc coated with cellulose nitrate that was broken into three pieces.

A seven part series Composing With Twelve Notes was broadcast in 1952. Seiber’s Second String Quartet (1934-35) uses Schoenberg’s serial techniques and can be heard here in the first UK broadcast from 1957. The cantata Ulysses written in 1946-47 is given in a performance with Peter Pears as soloist while the incidental music for Faust, a radio play from 1949 by Louis MacNeice based on Goethe, comes from the recording session discs. The Cantata Secularis (1949-51) based on Virgil, survives here in the first broadcast performance from 1955 with Walter Goehr and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. 

Seiber Town like AliceIn addition to incidental music for radio plays, Seiber also wrote film scores including A Town like Alice, the 1956 Rank film starring Peter Finch and Virginia McKenna.

Seiber’s interest in jazz and blues is evident as there are recordings (mostly copies of commercial discs) of the great blues singers Josh White and Leadbelly. Seiber probably used these in his research for writing incidental music as there are also recordings by folk song collectors Alan Lomax and A.L. Lloyd. One early disc from his time in Germany is of Seiber playing various forms of jazz-influenced dance styles – ragtime, Argentine tango, slow fox-trot and Charleston,while the earliest dated recordings come from South West German radio in 1932.


25 August 2015

Surface Tension: a conversation with Rob St John part 1

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Rob St John is a writer, musician and artist who recently collaborated with the waterways charity Thames21 on Surface Tension, an audiovisual project highlighting the pollution issues currently facing the River Lea. Here Rob discusses the project and how he set about exploring this vast body of water.

Last summer you were approached by Ben Fenton from Thames21's Love the Lea project to produce a piece of work that explores pollution issues currently facing the River Lea. The River Lea is a pretty substantial stretch of water, running from Hertfordshire to east London and carving a route through a range of different habitats. With a brief like this, where on earth did you start?

With an OS map and some walking boots! Thames21 generally work on waterways within the M25, so the geographical spread was narrowed down a little, although that said I did walk further upstream, way past the motorway, mostly to get a better idea of how the valley changes as the river flows (or doesn’t as I increasingly found) south. Lea Valley has plenty of decent footpaths, so walking the river wasn’t really a problem; instead the challenge was to track different channels of the Lea, particularly as it splits off and out around Enfield. In the end, I walked from up past Cheshunt down to where the Lea meets the Thames at Trinity Wharf, and back again, over the course of a few weekends in the late summer of last year.


You made a range of field recordings during that summer. Did you have a clear idea of what you wanted to record or did you approach it with a completely open mind?

It was largely exploratory: after the first recording walk I pared down my recording kit quite substantially, relying largely on a simple field recorder and OKM binaural microphones. There’s something really enjoyable about being able to be so mobile when recording; to stop and quickly set up and capture an emergent or interesting sound. Binaural recording feels very attuned to your body – obviously in the way the microphones sit in your ears – but also in the ways it picks up your footsteps, the sound of you swallowing or your stomach rumbling…(an issue on some of the longer walks).  

There’s a wider conceptual thing here about how you approach field recording, I think. For me, binaural recording’s inherently mobile and bodily characteristics – coupled with the incredible, spatial recordings that it produces – make it an appealing approach to me. I’d much rather be led by my feet and ears in trying to catch traces of the soundscape, rather than setting up masses of kit in an effort to record a specific sound or set of sounds in the highest possible clarity and fidelity. Again, I suppose, this depends on what you want to do with the recordings. In this project (and in general) I didn’t record for reference sound libraries or similar, but rather as a means of providing a palette of natural (and non-natural) sound to produce, alter and generally tinker with in the final piece of sound and music.

Can you tell us about the types of recordings you made?

The binaural recordings were great for picking up the familiar sounds of the Lea Valley: boat communities, cyclists, parakeets, overground trains, aeroplanes, coots and moorhens, footballers on Hackney Marsh, dredgers in the estuary, riverside bars and cafes spilling people out onto the towpath. But in a way that’s more than representational of these individual sounds; binaural recordings are great for picking up wider resonances, overlaps and blurrings of different sounds, often anonymous and shorn of their source, prompting an uncertainty of what in fact you’re hearing.  

Enfield Coot family

I loved the way that parakeet calls would flit around car alarms; the way the rumble of traffic seemed to compensate for the lack of sound from a still river; and how coot calls would reverberate around echoing dry docks along with the clatter of machinery and hammers: an often unintended (and fascinating) blurring of the natural and non-natural, man-made and self-willed through sound.  And often there would be long, subtle drones and burrs in the recordings that I didn’t hear at the time: possibly the effect of my body acting as an antenna through to the rumbles of the ground (it’s perhaps never more evident quite how loud London is until you record there).

Parakeets over Hackney Marsh

In addition to the binaural recordings, I used two other types of microphones: hydrophones and contact mics.  Hydrophones are dropped beneath the surface of a body of water (a process that’s a bit like ‘fishing for sound’ I guess), and pick up the buzzes, scrapes and rumbles of the underwater soundscape: boat engines, insect activity, aquatic birds diving, and occasionally a sound that you cannot identify. Contact mics are stuck to various surfaces (drain pipes, walkway handrails, brick walls, sewer pipes and so on) with electrical tape, and pick up vibrations transmitted by the city (water, traffic, people, boats) conducted through various objects and surfaces.

Hydrophone in Trinity Buoy Wharf

The three techniques allowed me to collect a wide palette of sound from the Lea Valley, each transmitted and filtered in different ways: from the air, through solid objects and surfaces and from beneath the water’s surface. I wanted to let the environment lead me rather than being prescriptive in setting out to capture a specific set of sound: building an inherent sense of uncertainty, chance and serendipity into the approach. I mean, the Lea Valley soundscape (if you can be so general, scale is very important here) is constantly changing and fluid, and heard in an inherently individual and subjective way, so I thought: why try and necessarily pin it down to specific constituent parts?

The different recording techniques you used during your fieldwork allowed you to explore the Lea from both above and below the river’s surface. Underwater recordings are endlessly fascinating because they help you to eavesdrop on a world that is usually inaudible to the human ear. Could you tell us about some of the more unusual or unexpected sounds you encountered beneath the surface of the River Lea?

Listening to pondweed photosynthesise is always a hoot, particularly in the way that putting hydrophones into a seemingly ordinary, perhaps polluted, stretch of water can bring it alive: giving voice to invisible life below the water’s surface. When pondweed photosynthesises (the process of exchanging dissolved oxygen and carbon dioxide with the water), it releases streams of tiny air bubbles. When these hit the submerged hydrophones, they produce a variety of short percussive crackles and buzzes, a little like minimal electronica. Added to this, there are the sounds of various underwater insects flitting through the pondweeds, and striating their back legs in order to communicate and signal. Finally, there’s a sonic backdrop of the river itself: of boats passing with rattling hulls and whirring propellers; of mysterious and unseen swooshes that could well be passing fish.  

I ran a public engagement workshop at last year’s Thames21 Love the Lea festival last summer, where we had a number of headphones set up to listen in to the hydrophones. It was a real pleasure to get to talk about this underwater sound with dozens of people – young and old – most of whom brought different interpretations as to what they might be listening to. There’s a real creative, imaginative effect to listening to these obscured sounds in seemingly still and lifeless places.

How many recordings did you collect during that summer?  

Dozens of hours of recordings, which were then edited down to around fifty or so recordings for use in the composition and soundmap.

What other documentation did you collect?

I took photographs all along the walk, in tandem with the sound recordings. These were all taken on film, partly with a nice old 120 Zeiss Nettar camera, and partly on 35mm using pinhole cameras that I made from Lesney matchboxes. The Lesney toy factory was at Hackney Wick until relatively recently (I’m not entirely sure what it has been redeveloped as), so making new images using a cardboard ‘shell’ of Lea Valley history seemed appropriate. And whilst pinhole cameras are notoriously difficult to take decent shots on (I was using a piece of electrical tape as a shutter, and doing some mental arithmetic to calculate exposures…), some of the images that resulted were amongst my favourites. In a way I thought of the walks as ‘experimental’ or ‘creative’ geography fieldwork: tracking routes and sites in a way that echoes a field trip, but gathering information on the landscape through various creative techniques.


In the second part of this conversation, Rob explains how he transformed field recordings collected along the River Lea and scientific data into a musical composition and accompanying book.


Surface Tension can be consulted here in the British Library Reading Rooms (catalogue reference number 1SS0010348)


21 August 2015

Two oral history fellowship opportunities

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7773 Scala screens for Goodison Fellowships v3

National Life Stories, the oral history charitable trust based at the British Library, is pleased to announce that applications are now open for the National Life Stories Goodison Fellowships 2016.  The aim of the Fellowships is to increase public knowledge and awareness of oral history, particularly of the National Life Stories collections.  

In 2016 there will be two awards both focusing on Artists' Lives, which has been recording in-depth life stories with British artists for 25 years.  To listen to a selection of clips from interviews in the project, visit the Curator's Choice section on British Library Sounds.   

The awards are each of £5,000 and are intended for those who wish to use the National Life Stories oral history collections to reflect on life stories and memory, and share the results of their research in the public domain.  One award is open anyone resident in the United Kingdom and the second is open to current and past students and staff of The Courtauld Institute of Art.  Both Fellowships are generously funded by the Rootstein Hopkins Foundation.

Possible outcomes from the Fellowship could be a series of national newspaper or magazine articles, an in-depth radio programme or series of programmes, a mobile app, journal articles, an exhibition, a series of podcasts or an online or printed education resource.  The recipient might be a journalist, radio producer, writer, oral historian, an academic using oral history or a museum, library or archive professional.

The Fellowship will provide the recipient the time and space to listen in-depth to oral history material from across the collections.  Fellows will be provided with desk space at the British Library, which will include access to interview material (plus books and journals) onsite at the British Library.  For the duration of the Fellowship, the National Life Stories Goodison Fellow will become part of the NLS/Oral History team, which will enable privileged in-depth discussion with curators, archivists and interviewers, mining their knowledge of the collections and National Life Stories’ approach to oral history.  Each award holder will become the Goodison Fellow for a period of three to six months, subject to agreement with the Awarding Panel. The Fellowship must commence in the period 1 January 2016 – 1 August 2016 and finish by 31 December 2016.

The 2015 Goodison Fellowship has been jointly held by Barley Blyton and Polly Russell, focusing on the National Life Stories Food collections.  Several newspaper and journal articles have been published, they have completed a book proposal and a BBC Radio 4 Food programme will be broadcast this autumn.  Barley reflects: “Listening to the stories of interviewees working in the food industry over the past 100 years has made our changing food history come alive. I feel personally connected to these men and women who, over my hours of listening have shared so much of their humour and experience. It has been a privilege to take up the opportunities that the Goodison Fellowship has offered and the insights of the interviewers and the oral history team have been invaluable in working with the archive.” 

Further information and application details for the 2016 Goodison Fellowships can be found here

The closing date for applications is midnight on Sunday 25 October 2015 and applications must sent by email to