THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

Introduction

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

11 May 2018

Trauma, narrative and theatre

This blog is by Rib Davis, the 2018-2019 National Life Stories Goodison Fellow.

I am very excited to be embarking on my work as the National Life Stories Goodison Fellow 2018-2019. The project brings together my two loves, oral history and theatre, but in a way that is new for me. I am going to be exploring memory – and in particular the traumatic memories of Holocaust survivors – and how those memories are accessed differently at different points in life. So I will be particularly focusing on those Holocaust survivors in the oral history collection who have been interviewed on more than one occasion.

How do we form our memories of experiences – experiences which may be utterly chaotic – into something which we can present to ourselves and others as a coherent narrative, something that makes sense, something that might even have a meaning? How do we give it shape? How do we even choose the words? And as we create that narrative, each time we create it and re-create it, what is the process of choosing what to include, what to leave out, what to emphasise, what is an aside? How much are were affected by our own previous tellings? And how are our versions of events informed by what we have since learned from others, and also by what has happened to us personally since the time of those events?

Then there is the interview itself. How is the interviewee feeling on that day? Who is the interviewer? What might their expectations be? What might the interviewee feel is expected of him or her? How much does the interviewer contribute, or question, or even lead? What can the interviewee cope with telling, or not?

IMG_20180511_141022554The original cassette tape from the 1988 interview with Barbara Stimler

Let us take one example. Barbara Stimler, born in Poland in 1927, endured appalling events, particularly in the Lodz/Litzmannstadt ghetto and then in Auschwitz. Barbara was interviewed a number of times; two of the interviews, from 1988 (for the Living Memory of the Jewish Community project) and 1998 (for the Holocaust Survivors Centre Interviews) are archived in the British Library and accessible in the Jewish Survivors of the Holocaust collections on British Library Sounds. Here are two version of what was perhaps the most traumatic moment of Barbara’s life: when she saw her mother for the last time. I find both versions quite difficult to listen to.

Barbara Stimler interviewed in 1988 (C410/004/05)

Barbara Stimler interviewed in 1998 (C830/038/02)

Where does all this leave us as we try to put together History? Of course we all access our memories differently every time we recall an event. This does not mean that we have to decide which version is true and which is false. There may be many different versions of an event – from different people or even from one individual – all of which may be true (and this applies to written accounts as well as oral ones). The subtle differences between one version and another, and the reasons for those differences, are fascinating and perhaps informative. (However, present day politics also reminds us that there are also some statements that are simply false – not all statements are equal).

These are the issues – of memory, of trauma and of history - with which I will be dealing, not in the form of a paper or a lecture but as theatre. The challenge is not only to come to grips with the material and its context, in a respectful yet questioning way, but then to create a script which explores it in a form that is truly theatrical. It’s a challenge I’m looking forward to.

The Living Memory of the Jewish Community was a National Life Stories project which ran between 1987 and 2000 and recorded 186 life stories with Jewish survivors of the Holocaust and their children. The Holocaust Survivors' Centre Interviews was a National Life Stories collaborative project with the Jewish Care Holocaust Survivors' Centre which ran between 1993 and 1998 and gathered 154 audio life story testimonies. You can listen to full interviews from both collections on British Library Sounds.

09 May 2018

Lady Speyer - a forgotten violinist

Lady_Speyer_by_John_Singer_SargentLady Speyer by John Singer Sargent

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

Leonora von Stosch was born in Washington D.C. on the 7th November 1872. Her father had been born in Germany but immigrated to the United States as a young man where he married an English woman.  Leonora first studied music in Washington with Joseph Kaspar, and at the age of sixteen, she and her mother went to Brussels where Leonora studied under Cornelis at the Conservatory of Music.  Upon graduation two years later, she played for the great Joseph Joachim in Berlin and at nineteen continued her studies in Paris with Martin Pierre Marsick (1847-1924) whose pupils included Carl Flesch, Jacques Thibaud and George Enescu.  Leonora also studied under Arno Hilf in Leipzig.  At this time she performed the Rondo Capriccioso by Saint-Saëns with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Arthur Nikisch.  She was already twenty-seven years of age when she first played in London in 1899. The Morning Post wrote of her performance, ‘Saint-Saëns’ Andante and Rondo Capriccioso for violin was played with much lightness and vivacity by Madame Leonora von Stosch, a remarkably clever performer, who ought to make her mark.’ 

Leonora had one daughter by her first marriage to American Louis Meredith Howland but the marriage failed and in 1902 she married wealthy banker Edgar Speyer.  She was thirty, he was forty.  After her second marriage, Leonora did not perform much in public and took up poetry, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1924 for her book of poetry Fiddler’s Farewell.  However, the list of famous musicians who visited the Speyer’s new home in Grosvenor Street, where Edgar had converted two houses into one, was impressive.  The music room was graced by a portrait of Lady Speyer by the greatest portrait painter of the day, the American John Singer Sargent, and the visitors included Percy Grainger, Richard Strauss and Edward Elgar.  In 1906 Grieg visited England to receive an honorary degree from Oxford University and stayed for a few days with the Speyers at Grosvenor Street where the elderly Norwegian composer was greatly impressed by their home and hospitality. 

In January 1910 when Elgar dined at Grosvenor Street, Leonora and Elgar read through the slow movement of the new violin concerto he was writing.  She was the first to play it (albeit in private) and during May she and the composer rehearsed the first movement.  Robert Newman had founded the Queen’s Hall Orchestra and the Proms but by 1902 was getting into financial difficulties resulting in bankruptcy.  Edgar Speyer offered to underwrite the losses and by 1914 had invested £26,000 in the Queen’s Hall Orchestra Company Ltd.  Speyer also financed the premiere of Elgar’s Second Symphony and enticed Debussy to visit London in 1908 and 1909.  He invited Richard Strauss to London to conduct the first performance of his great tone poem Ein Heldenleben in 1902 and three years later Strauss dedicated his opera Salome to Speyer.

It was in 1909 that Leonora made some discs for HMV.  As far as I know, these have not turned up on LP or CD anthologies of violin playing, particularly The Recorded Violin (Pearl 1990) or The Great Violinists 1900-1913 (Testament). It is probable that her husband paid for the recordings as Leonora was by this time not performing much in public and the discs would not have sold well. Indeed, they are rare today and of the three published sides, the British Library holds only one.  Leonora had two sessions for HMV, at their pre-Hayes location, not far from the British Library in City Road probably playing one of the two famous violins owned at the time by the Speyers - either the 1699 Stradivarius, known as the ‘St. Vallier Sikorsky’ which the Speyers owned from 1903-1911, or the 1742 Guarneri, the ‘Lord Wilton’, which they owned from 1902-1921.  At the first session on 26th March 1909, of the five sides recorded, only one was issued – the Hungarian Dance No. 1 in G minor by Brahms arranged by Joseph Joachim. 

Brahms label

Brahms-Joachim Hungarian Dance in G minor

The second session was on 18th May 1909 when she recorded four sides (three being repetitions from the previous session) and two of these were published.  The Brahms title was issued from this second session replacing the previously released one from the first.  The Library holds the recording of this work from the first session.  The other published side has been loaned to the Library for digitisation by Jolyon Hudson.  The repertoire here is curious:  the label has Capriccio all‘antica and Capriccio by Bohm. 

Bohm label

Carl Bohm (1844-1920) was a prolific German composer of unabashed restraint whose vast output runs to nearly 400 works with opus number and many more besides, some of which contain a large body of works – his Op. 326 contains 143 songs while Op. 327 comprises 78 pieces.

The first work on the recording is actually not by Bohm but the Capriccio all‘antica Op. 25 No. 2 by Italian composer and mountain climber Leone Sinigaglia (1868-1944).  The second piece is indeed by Bohm but has been hard to track down.  The only Capriccio by Bohm I could find in the Music Library is from Op. 314, subtitled Papillon and it is not this work.  It sounds very much like the popular violin showpiece L’Abeille (The Bee) by Francois Schubert (1808-1878, no relation to the famous Franz Schubert) - No. 9 of his 12 Morceaux detachés for violin and piano, Op. 13 - but the key is wrong (G minor instead of E minor) and although the beginning is very similar, it is evidently not the same work.  It turns out to be the fourth movement from Bohm’s Suite in G minor which is titled Capriccio, but is also subtitled The Bee, The Gnat or La Mouche and therefore looks like pure plagiarism of the Schubert piece.

Sinigaglia and Bohm

In 1914 Leonora gave three evenings of violin sonatas (presumably at her home) by Fauré and Richard Strauss.  In each case she was accompanied by the composer.  The Speyers were then caught up in the catastrophe of the First World War and moved to the United States with their four daughters.  Edgar, born in New York to German parents, had become a British citizen in 1892.  He was responsible for the expansion of the London Underground system in the early years of the twentieth century and donated large sums of money to many charitable causes.  Although he was created a baronet and member of the Privy Council, anti-German sentiment and political intrigue in Britain during the First World War meant that in 1921 an investigation decided he was to be struck off the Privy Council list and have his British Nationality revoked. 

The Grosvenor Street house was sold in 1923 and the family lived in Washington Square in New York.  Edgar died in Germany in 1932, where he was on a visit, at the age of 69.  Leonora died in 1956 at the age of 83 but their daughters returned to England to live.

A forgotten name in the history of violin playing, Lady Speyer was not a celebrated public virtuoso but preferred the role of hostess in London's musical circles and wife to her illustrious husband.  Nonetheless, it is fascinating to be able to hear someone whose life touched so many important musicians at the turn of the twentieth century, notwithstanding that of her unfortunate, more famous husband.

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

07 May 2018

Recording of the week: Doric dialect

This week's selection comes from Andrew Booth, PhD placement student working on the VoiceBank collection.

An intriguing and unique variety of English spoken in the British Isles is Doric dialect. Doric refers to a Scots dialect spoken in the northeast of Scotland and to the outside ear (mine), it can be a difficult one to master. My favourite Doric contributions to the Library's WordBank are given below. Could you decipher what this speaker means?

Sair forfochen (C1442, uncatalogued)

Sair forfochen [= 'tired and hassled']
Faur div ye come fae [= 'where do you come from']

This speaker from Aberdeen explains question words in the local dialect, which I find equally interesting:

Fit like, Faur, Foo (C1442/6804)

Fit like [= 'how are you']
Faur [= 'where']
Foo [= 'how']

For more information about accents and dialects in the northeast of Scotland, see this article on the British Library website.

Doric Dialect

Follow @VoicesofEnglish and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

04 May 2018

Visual sound works from imaginary archives (part 2)

Eva del Rey and Paul Wilson, co-curators of Listen: 140 Years of Recorded Sound present:

(Part two of a gallery of creative responses to the British Library sound collections by students from the Graphic and Communication Design department at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts).

Florence Macleod views the archive as a repository of memory and proposes a radically retro solution to preservation of the intangible in which sonic memories are encapsulated in pods and dispensed by vending machines! Nanami Otomo proposes a memory based approach to archiving, which uses visual cues to stimulate the recall of the sounds of the past and their relationship to those other senses which informed their creation. Chika Kusumahadi is concerned about the archive’s approach to selection and its insistence on valuing the extraordinary over the everyday. Brad Gilbert imagines an archive in which lyrics from different eras are collated onto cassette tapes to provide new analogue insights into our digital past. Adam Wright proposes a gallery installation in which high volume sounds warn the listener of the dangers of a world in which big data is increasingly being used to control people’s lives. Finally, Ethan Spain leaves conventional notions of sound archiving firmly on Earth and instead looks to the Universe as the ultimate repository of broadcast sound – and the distant scene of our first contact with other worlds.      

Florence Macleod_Memory Capsule Project

Florence Macleod - Memory Capsule Project 🔊

    This project is about archiving memories through the use of individual sound capsules that play when opened. The purpose of this archive is to make intangible memories physical and forever lasting. Access to making your own sound capsule would be global, with vending machines and memory cabinets located in major cities. The archive could be both personal as well as open-access with the option to deposit your sound capsule into a memory cabinet which opens to the public so that people can take the capsules home. Either way, you are creating an archive.

Nanami Otomo_Memory Snap

Nanami Otomo - Memory Snap 🔊

    A postcard-based archive, in which you can store sound and revisit nostalgic memories through audio-visual means. It aims to create an empathetic auditory communication between sender and receiver through the sharing of personal experience.  

7D0A195F-E245-4D32-82F5-6930A972A8EB

Chika Kusumahadi - The Everyday Archive 🔊

    ‘The Everyday Archive ‘is home to a collection of household sounds and sounds of other mundane activities which often go unnoticed. Capturing the sound of everyday life, the archive is an initiative to record the ordinary.

 

Brad Gilbert_Captivation of music

Brad Gilbert - Captivation of Music 🔊

    The idea behind my work, which took its initial inspiration from listening to music, was to capture moments and moods from periods of time by collating key excerpts of lyrics that stood out to the listener, and packaging them in cassette tapes. Through having these lyrics collated together we should see a narrative forming, giving us an insight into how someone may have felt in that particular moment.

ADAM WRIGHT - UTOPIA

     The company UTOPIA delivers perfect education, but, in attempting perfection, this education creates a dystopia.

    The sound and visuals are an artistic endeavour to raise awareness of the accumulation and use of data companies like Google and Facebook. The amount of information we idly allow these companies to access is something we should be more aware of and cautious with. Capturing this compliance, this project aims to challenge these themes through the uncomfortable sound of a server room. The sounds here are designed to rise and fall like waves. The second sound is designed using the server room sound, but combined with the sounds of a Quantum computer. When listened to on high volume it is a very uncomfortable experience, and sounds almost piercing.

    The aim is to make people think more about how dangerous this amount of data could be if not cared for properly. Juxtaposed with each other, the two sounds would be situated in an open gallery as a permanent free exhibition with the visuals projected onto a black sheet of plastic. They would also be available online as a comment on the permanent nature of our digital footprint.

Ethan Spain_Fermi Paradox Archive

Ethan Spain - Fermi Paradox Archive 🔊 

    Fermi’s Paradox is the apparent contradiction between the high probability of the existence of extra-terrestrial civilizations and the lack of contact with such civilizations.

    The Great Filter is the disturbing suggestion that there is some kind of absurdly difficult step in the evolution of life - one that precludes it from becoming interstellar.

    This sound piece explores the Fermi Paradox and the Great Filter. Imagining that these hypotheses are fact, what if the only form of contact the human race ever has with extra-terrestrial civilizations is through the electromagnetic waves of each interfering with one another in the cosmos? The sounds consist of a number of broadcasted events that echo the human race's demise while gradually intensifying with sound wave interference.

With thanks to Abbie Vickress, Platform Leader, Environment and Experience Design, Central Saint Martins and Library colleagues: Vedita Ramdoss, Sound and Vision Reference Specialist, Steve Cleary, Lead Curator of Listen; 140 Years of Recorded Sound and Cheryl Tipp, Curator, Wildlife and Environmental Sounds.

Go to part 1

Listen:140 Years of Recorded Sound exhibition ends on Sunday 13th May.

You can follow us on  @BL_DramaSound and @soundarchive for more news.

Visual sound works from imaginary archives (part 1)

Paul Wilson and Eva del Rey, co-curators of Listen: 140 Years of Recorded Sound present:

Since 2016 the British Library sound archive has been hosting show-and-tell and listening sessions for students from the Graphic and Communication Design department at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts.

This year we offered the students a tour of our free exhibition Listen:140 Years of Recorded Sound along with an introduction to the Library’s Listening and Viewing Service.

Guided by a brief from tutor Abbie Vickress, we hoped to inspire the students to develop projects in response to the sound archive collections. The brief asked students to reflect on the role of the archivist; on how sound is used in exhibitions; and how one might attempt to ‘archive the intangible’.

After two weeks of work the creative responses emerged in the form of one-minute sound pieces and video works with accompanying visual art, and one online performance. What follows is a mini-gallery of ten sound works and one video, each presented  with notes provided by the respective artists.

Michelle Lim draws inspiration from the exhibition’s display of historical recording devices and suggests that in our rush to digitise our sonic past we’re in danger of losing something equally precious – our tactile relationship with the physical world. Chang Liu and Julie-Anne Pugh both envisage therapeutic applications in which future ‘sound hospitals’ blend sound and memory to create bespoke treatments. Andrea Li seeks to preserve the endangered sounds of a once leisurely world, now being swept away in the headlong rush toward faster technology. Yuen Wai Virginia Ma and Alice Lin re-enact the ‘hit and miss’ nature of archival selection/survival, and its equally arbitrary neurological counterpart, the human brain.

Michelle Lim_The Archive of Tactile expression 

 

Michelle Lim - The Death of the Button 🔊

    The Archive of Tactile Expression exists in a future where our relationship with technology has become so intimate that it acts as our intermediary with the physical world. Everything has been virtualized, thus, we have forgotten how it feels to touch. Physical objects have been modelled and re-conceptualised into digital space. All of our motions have been reduced to the limited gestures between our fingertips and the screen.

    The Archive includes The Death of the Button - an audio-narration of the history of the push-button, an artifact that sits in the Archive. It narrates the push-button's transition from an object of wonderment in the 20th century to an intangible idea in an era of 21st-century touchscreens.  More from Michelle Lim

 

Chang Liu _ Sound Hospital

Chang Liu - Sound Hospital  🔊

    The ‘Sound Hospital’ is a place that archives coloured noises. Different coloured noises have different functions. For example, white noise can help people with concentration while pink noise can help people to sleep well….

    So, what I want to do is to provide an experience room for people in this hospital.

Julie-Anne Pugh_Music Remedies

Julie-Anne Pugh - Music Remedies: The Hangover Cure 🔊

    Music Remedies challenges modern attitudes toward well-being and the many new health trends we are adapting to, through an attempt to heal physical illnesses like hangovers without the need of painkillers.

    This 60-second sound piece is a sample of a longer composition designed to guide one out of the depths and into the light through a series of specific layered sounds.

Andrea Li_Obsolete interactions

Andrea Li - Obsolete Interactions  🔊

    ‘The Collection of Obsolete Interactions’ is one of the sound categories within the slow archive that showcases everyday forgotten ephemeral interactions that have become redundant due to developments in technology and the drive for consumers wanting things faster, stronger and better. These interactions relate to the entertainment, service and communication areas of consumers’ lives.

364F50E4-77D7-4F9C-A80F-EA84A98973BC

Yuen Wai Virginia Ma & Alice Lin - Brain as an Archive 🔊

    Brain as an Archive is a performance that shows our minds’ selective archives of memories, conversations and emotional baggage. The main objective of this project is to give authorship to the viewer in creating their own narrative. The sound of this piece is composed of a combined mix of different narratives.

Go to part 2

03 May 2018

The value of mixed media collections

The sound archive is home to over 250,000 wildlife and environmental sound recordings. Over 100,000 of these document the vocalisations of birds, while the sounds of other animal groups, such as mammals and fish, along with a growing collection of soundscapes, make up the rest. The collection covers both terrestrial and aquatic life and represents biodiversity from all over the world. It’s an internationally important resource that is constantly evolving as new recordings are archived for posterity. In a way it can be seen as a living memory bank of the sounds of our planet. The collection doesn’t end there though. Alongside these recordings can sometimes be found other treasures that complement their sonic siblings.

Recording equipment can form an important addition to a sound collection, especially when linked to significant technological breakthroughs in sound recording history. The John Hooper collection  (WA 2009/018), for example, includes a number of early bat detectors and associated equipment, including the first commercially available portable detector, the Holgate Mk 4, which was used to create the first comprehensive collection of British bat recordings.

Cropped HolgateThe Holgate Mk 4 bat detector

Common Pipistrelles hunting at dusk along the river Thames, recorded by John Hooper (BL ref 00305)

Though his name is not as widely known as it should be, Hooper was a key figure in the early days of using sound to study bat biology and ecology in the UK. Through the painstaking analysis of his recordings, conducted using a homemade oscilloscope, Hooper revealed differences in ultrasonic calls that were species specific. These variations in frequency and structure meant that bats could finally be identified by sound alone, which is pretty handy when you're trying to monitor animals that prefer to fly around in the dark.

Hooper documented his analysis by taking photographs of the sound traces produced on his oscilloscope. These images were then annotated and kept in photo albums usually associated with holiday snaps or family memories. With a focus on London bats, his work also helped rebuild post-war distribution records across the capital, rediscovering at least 4 species which were previously thought to have died out. Hooper’s efforts are all the more incredible when you consider that he was only an “amateur”.  His work as an industrial chemist for British Petroleum paid the bills, yet it was an unwavering fascination with bats that became his life's passion.

IMG_0076John Hooper analysing bat recordings in his studio

Cropped photo albumCommon Pipistrelle ultrasonic calls visualised on Hooper's homemade oscilloscope 

John Hooper’s collection of recordings, bat detecting equipment, photographs and documentation was donated to the library in 2009. As well as its own intrinsic value as an historical and scientific resource, the collection also serves as a testament to the rich British tradition of the amateur naturalist and their priceless contributions to our understanding of the natural world. 

Another notable collection is that of EDH "Johnnie" Johnson (WA 2006/03), an ornithologist and sound recordist who spent over 30 years making recordings across Europe, north Africa and the Indian subcontinent. During his lifetime he formed part of several international expeditions to remote regions of the world, helping document the flora and fauna of these largely unexplored areas. Alongside Johnson's recordings can be found daily logs, slides, observational diagrams and hand drawn maps. The following illustration is just one example of Johnson's meticulous recording keeping.
IMG_0072Hand drawn map of Morocco's Jbel Grouz mountain indicating topography & species encountered during an excursion on 22nd January 1968

Johnson's field notes, amassed over the course of his many expeditions,  are both scientifically valuable and pleasingly anecdotal, as can be seen in this excerpt from a log describing a ringing expedition to Algeria in February 1968.

'Great Grey Shrikes (L. excubitor) were found to be common and noisy wherever there were palms. Numerous territorial disputes were constantly in progress and we often saw three birds together in such squabbles. We began to notice numbers of partly-eaten dates impaled on the spines of the lower parts of the palm fronds. At first we thought that they were the result of chance spiking when dates had fallen from above, but this was soon ruled out by the fact that the spikes were, in any case, mainly horizontal, or nearly so, and the dates were spiked very thoroughly, after the manner of a cocktail sausage. At one time we saw a single shrike carrying a date. The positions of the 'larders' coincided with the favourite perching sites of the birds, in the lower parts of the crown of palm trees.'

Items such as those accompanying Johnson's recordings can help contexualise a collection, providing clues which allow us to retrace the footsteps, and thereby the experiences, of recordists who are no longer here to tell their stories.

Wildlife sound recordists are almost always absent from their recordings. No words of encouragement or praise for their recording subjects are required in order to achieve the best results. Silence and stealth is the name of the game here.  The flip side of this is that, unless the recordings contain spoken announcements, we know very little about the recordists themselves, other than their names. That's where photographs come in. A number of photographs of EDH Johnson were found in his collection, including the fabulous example below. Being able to put a face to a name isn't a necessity, but it certainly helps bring a collection to life. 

EDHJohnson_WA0603_imageEDH Johnson recording in the field 

There can be no doubt that sound collections are just as valuable as any other collection type. Though so much can be learnt from the audio alone, other ephemera such as equipment, field notes, photographs and letters bring with them stories that can help curators, and subsequently researchers, gain greater insight into not just the history and methodology associated with field recording, but also the people who made these recordings in the first place. 

Follow @CherylTipp  for all the latest news on wildlife and environmental sounds at the British Library.

02 May 2018

Oral History and the Library of Ideas

Oral History was one of the British Library's show-and-tells at the Library of Ideas, an afternoon event on 22 April aimed at students and artists interested in using the Library's collections in creative ways. All over the library stalls sprung up, covered in interesting-looking stuff. I felt a bit under-dressed to be honest. All we had on the Oral History stall was a little speaker. But I dimmed the lights and laid out some seats around the room. You listen differently when your eyes, and body, are relaxed.

Undercurrent poster

When many people think about history, they think about books and documents. And there were a lot of them on show. But history is all around us, in our own families and communities, in the living memories and experiences of people. Everyone has a story to tell about their life which is unique to them.

The first clip I played was Alfred Crundwell (C1398/022: copyright the Estate of Alfred Crundwell; used under review exemption). He's one of my favourites. He was born in Shoreditch in 1849. Alfred was 51 years old when Queen Victoria died. He was 102 years old in 1952 when he was interviewed by the woman from the BBC Home Service about Tunbridge Wells...

Alfred Crundwell on Tunbridge Wells

Alfred clearly doesn't feel comfortable being interviewed. He seems to have problems hearing the interviewer's leading questions. He isn't given any time to answer. This is an example of a terrible interview. Imagine the things Alfred could have related to us about the technological changes he had seen his lifetime and what it was like to outlive his four siblings by over 60 years. The amount of social change this man had lived through is staggering. Yet nothing useful came out of it – apart from a really good teaching tool on how not to interview. Alfred had so much more to give.

My colleague Shirley Read has been interviewing photographers for almost twenty years for the Oral History of British Photography collection. One of Shirley's more recent interviewees was the Turner Prize-winning photographer Wolfgang Tillmans (C459/220: copyright Wolfgang Tillmans; used by kind permission of Wolfgang Tillmans). In this clip, Shirley asks a huge question: why was young Wolfgang taken with the photographic image?

Wolfgang Tillmans on why photography and what it means to be alive

It is so difficult, as an interviewer, to bite your tongue at such moments. The pause is a really long one at around 30 seconds, but it feels even longer because of the weight of the silence. I can almost feel Shirley's discomfort – her job is silent but it involves an awful lot of non-verbal communication and empathetic eye contact. Shirley gives Tillmans the time and emotional space required to allow him properly to consider his answer. The oral history interview they are creating together means a lot to both of them – it's an example of shared authority, of performance even – and as a result it is a tremendously valuable historical document. The full-length interview is available in the Library Reading Rooms.

Livia Gollancz (C468/03) was a professional musician – she played French horn in the Hallé Orchestra. She died at the age of 97 in March this year. Dental problems forced her to curtail her musical career abruptly in 1953. She then spent 36 years working in her father Victor Gollancz's publishing firm, running it successfully for 17 years in an overwhelmingly male industry...

Livia Gollancz on Emmeline Pankhurst

In this clip Livia is still at the stage of her life story of talking about her childhood. Notice the introduction - 'I can't remember many details...' - and the pregnant pause after it which interviewer Louise Brodie allows. What follows is a story about Livia's grandmother, the suffragette Henrietta Lowy, who resembled Emmeline Pankhurst. The two women would swap clothes after suffrage meetings and Henrietta would go out of the public entrance, so that Emmeline could evade arrest by leaving in disguise via the back way. You might recognise a similar scene from the 2015 film Suffragette. The full interview is online.

Alexa Reid (C963/47) was interviewed for the Lives in Oil project. In this clip she remembers what it was like to be the only woman working her cleaning shift on the Merchiston oil platform...

Alexa Reid on the Merchiston Platform

When National Life Stories attempts to document an industry in an oral history project, we try to capture the life stories of all aspects of the field. The stories of oil rig support workers are every bit as important as those of the roustabouts, the drillers, the engineers and the executives. Only that way can we capture what an industry was like to live through. You can listen to Alexa's interview at the Library.

What does the word ‘workhouse’ make you think of? Victorian poverty? Poor law textbooks? This clip, from an oral history held at Manchester Central Library, is a woman being interviewed by Paul Graney in 1960 about the six months she spent in Salford Workhouse in 1920.

The woman remains anonymous because her son or daughter may still be alive. That baby would be 98 years old, and could for all I know be sitting in a Prestwich care home listening to this clip right now. The woman reads a poem she wrote in the workhouse to cope with her experience of being pregnant there, and then breaks down. It is a difficult listen. A lot of oral history is emotionally difficult, or repetitive, or boring, or annoying. Basically it’s human.

Other kinds of history – the ones people think of when they think of a library – are generally the results of already decided courses of action. A committee makes its decision, a photographer snaps his moment, even a private diarist frames her day for her very personal audience of one. Whereas oral history is simply one human being talking to another. With all the randomness and kindness and stubbornness that entails.

Oral history proves that history doesn't just mean words on a page. Our often contradictory interviews prompt creative responses as much to the emotion and personality revealed in the voices as to the historical details they document. They are the ultimate primary, unmediated, source. And people have used them in a variety of creative ways: theatre productions, films, creative writing of all kinds, sound art and many other things in between.

If you are interested in using oral history as a source for your creative work, the best place to start is our collection guides. You'll find lots of links there to our catalogue – this is searchable by name, occupation, place or date of birth. Most interviews have text summaries – these can be word-searched to pick up references to places, people or topics. Over 3,000 are available online at British Library Sounds; the rest you can make an appointment to listen to at the Library.

Drop us a line at nls@bl.uk if you have any questions, and before you re-use any of our oral history collections. We'll need to check on rights and permissions to make sure that you can re-use the material in the way you want to. There may be licensing and supply fees involved, but we are keen to help you use our collections.

30 April 2018

Recording of the week: Debussy year

This week's selection comes from Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music Recordings.

Claude Debussy died 100 years ago. Here is a recording made during his lifetime in 1915. It is a movement from his only String Quartet recorded by the London String Quartet.

Debussy String Quartet - Andante 

Claude_Debussy_ca_1908 _foto_av_Félix_NadarClaude Debussy ca. 1908

Founded in 1908, the London String Quartet initially had Albert Sammons as first violin, Thomas Petre, second violin, Harry Waldo Warner, viola (for all but the last four years when he was replaced by William Primrose), and Charles Warwick Evans, cello who remained with the quartet throughout its existence. The quartet disbanded in 1934.

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