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Sound and moving images from the British Library


Discover more about the British Library's 3.5 million sound recordings and the access we provide to thousands of moving images. Comments and feedback are welcomed. Read more

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.

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.                      

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.

21 August 2014

Oral history fellowship opportunity

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National Life Stories, the oral history charity based at the British Library, invites applications for the first National Life Stories Goodison Fellow, a new award of £5000 which invites applicants to use the oral history collections at the library (particularly the National Life Stories collections) to reflect on life stories and share the results of their research in the public domain.

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, a journal article, 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.  The Fellow 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.  No restricted or embargoed material will be accessible.  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.

Further information can be found at

Applications must be submitted before 17.00 on Wednesday 1 October 2014 and submitted by email to

04 August 2014

RIP to one of the fathers of composite materials

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Thomas Lean, project interviewer for National Life Stories writes:

The recent death of Professor Anthony Kelly brings to a close the long career of one of Britain's foremost material scientists, who played an important role in the development of composite materials. These combine two or more different materials, such as embedding tiny fibres of carbon in a plastic resin to create a new material with unique properties – such as carbon fibre, which is stiffer than steel but far lighter. Interviewed for the National Life Stories project An Oral History of British Science, Tony was born in 1929 and had a Catholic upbringing, the certainties of which he found readily compatible with science, as he mentions in the following clip about his attraction to science at school:

Tony Kelly recalls enjoying the certainty he found in science whilst at school

After an undergraduate degree at the University of Reading he started a PhD at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge in the 1950s. Tony's research work on the physics of metals reflected a broader trend of physicists had starting to apply their methods to other disciplines – amongst his contemporaries were Francis Crick and James Watson, two of the discoverers of DNA. Tony briefly joined the 'brain drain' by leaving austerity Britain to work at Northwestern University in the United States, before returning to a lectureship at Cambridge as part of department head Alan Cottrell's efforts to encourage a modern physics based approach to the study of materials. In the 1960s Tony's research work helped to establish the theoretical basis for how composite materials would behave, which Tony demonstrates in the following video clip of him recalling his early work in this area.


From Cambridge, Tony enjoyed a varied career. He served as deputy director of the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington; advised several major companies, including ICI; was Vice-Chancellor of the University of Surrey, where he introduced one of the first science parks in Britain; and enjoyed a busy retirement as an emeritus professor in Cambridge, where he died this June. 

Other video extracts with Anthony Kelly can be found on the Voices of Science website.  Many of the full life story interviews recorded for the Oral History of British Science programme can be accessed worldwide via British Library Sounds.