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

16 February 2017

Leafscape: an exhibition

Botanical artist Jess Shepherd has spent the past few years immersed in the world of leaves, both from a visual and sonic point of view. In this special guest post, Jess writes about how field recording became an intrinsic part of her creative process.

As a botanical painter, I specialise in painting very large watercolours of plants and am always working to surprise the viewer. Between 16th and 25th February, I will be holding my first solo exhibition of over 30 new watercolour paintings in Bloomsbury, London. For this exhibition, I explore my vision of a botanical dystopia, challenging our own sense of scale, its value and how we measure it.

Twitter_graphic

The story began when I picked up a leaf from a London pavement in July 2014. At the time I was moving house and felt that the condition of the leaf told my own story. It had been scuffed by the streets of the city and was no longer attached to the tree, but blowing across the floor in the wind. Like me, it was on the move.

After carefully painting this leaf larger than life size I was drawn to paint another and another. Eventually, after months of painting these leaf portraits, all from different moments in time and place, I have created a visual story. Some of these leaves measure over a meter in length.

041120151210Leaf 041120151210, Cercis siliquastrum, Watercolour on paper, 760 x 560mm

For the past two years I have also collected the environmental sounds from where each leaf was growing using an Olympus LS-14 recorder. These sounds document a journey from the East End of London, through the avenues of Hyde Park and streets of Chelsea into the deep rural countryside of Granada in Spain where I now have a second studio. I started collecting these sounds because I became interested in documenting the elements of our existence that I could not capture with paint. I also began to wonder how leaves would interpret their spaces if trees could hear. By recording the sounds from the precise locations of my source material, I feel I have been able to add a new dimension to botanical art; that I am able to communicate the importance of plants and our environment more poignantly. It is my way of catapulting botanical art into the 21st Century whilst also looking at topics close to my heart such as what is reality and what it means to exist.

Spain_birds and rain

Spain_goat bells

All of these environmental sounds have been skilfully arranged by musician Derek Thompson (Hoodlum Priest) who, through a process of both precise and random digital manipulation, has created a composition where place, time and space become intertwined. This multimedia journey is our vision of a botanical dystopia; the natural world in a state of decay through interaction with the encroaching urban environment.

Leafscape extract

The idea of recording sound introduces a completely new element to botanical art and I hope that this interpretation of both the natural and human worlds will encourage listeners to be as aware of the diversity and beauty of sound in the city as much as that of the countryside.

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Leafscape will be on show at Abbott and Holder from 16th-25th February 2017.

A copy of the accompanying book & soundtrack has been donated by the artist to the British Library and will soon be available in our Reading Rooms.

Audio clips and images courtesy of Jess Shepherd.

13 February 2017

Recording of the week: John Blackwood McEwen

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

Scottish composer Sir John Blackwood McEwen (1868-1948) had a distinguished career producing a large amount of music, little of which is heard today. He was Principal of the Royal Academy of Music from 1924-1936 and was knighted in 1931. His String Quartet No. 6, 'Biscay', written in 1913 (and confusingly published as No. 8), consists of three movements. The second and third were recorded in 1916 by the London String Quartet and a live recording from 1951 of the complete work exists from the Library of Congress. Here is the delightful third movement, La racleuse (The Oyster-Raker) from 1916.

String Quartet No. 6 (Biscay)_La racleuse

Portrait_of_Sir_John_Blackwood_McEwenPortrait of Sir John Blackwood McEwan by Reginald Grenville Eves (Royal College of Music, CC BY-SA 4.0) via Wikimedia Commons

Visit Chamber Music on British Library Sounds to listen to more performances by the London String Quartet.

Follow @BL_Classical and @soundarchive for all the latest news

08 February 2017

2017 UK-India Year of Culture: Praise music of Rāṛh, India

2017 is the UK-India Year of Culture. It marks the 70th anniversary of Indian independence and, through a varied programme of projects and events – led by the Ministry of Culture in India, the Nehru Centre and other Indian cultural organisations in the UK and the British Council – aims to highlight India-UK cultural relations. World and Traditional Music will publish several blogs through the year that will spotlight various musical traditions from India through the prism of collections and projects at the British Library. The first is a guest blog from Jyoshna La Trobe.

Jyoshna gained her PhD in Music from SOAS, University of London in 2010, on “Praise singing and the Performance of Ecstasy, in the Purulia District of West Bengal, India”. Her collection at the British Library (C1211) comprises over 140 hours of audio and video recordings made primarily as part of her doctoral research and in continued projects to date.

 

Fig 1. Rarh kirtan team, India
Rāṛh kīrtan team, India

It’s been twenty years since I began this journey of researching the music culture of Rāṛh in north east India, particularly kīrtan ‘praise music’. Though I had been practicing kīrtan for many years I could not begin to grasp the depth or scope of the music tradition of which I was a part until 2006 when I was able to embark on detailed research for my doctorate at SOAS. Informed by Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar's seminal book entitled Rāṛh, translation into English from Bengali in 2004, I ventured to this region with some knowledge of its special significance in Indian history. The mechanics and structure of the kīrtan music, I soon discovered, were unknown to anyone outside the region at the time. Hence my endeavour was to explore how the musicians could create such ecstatic heights of devotional expression.

What is kīrtan?

Fig 2 Kirtan expert, Sri Jagaran Mahato and Kirtan team
Kīrtan expert, Sri Jagaran Mahato and Kīrtan team

Kīrtan (Sanskit. kiirtana) comes from the Sanskrit word ‘kirt’ which means ‘loud’. In the panorama of music traditions all around the world, ‘loud’ calls or chants to the deity can be heard, whether a Hallelujah chorus, a Hari Bolo kīrtan, or any other sacred chant sung by a congregation at a ceremonial gathering. In essence, kīrtan is the musical expression of spiritual longing and a horde of other emotions, all directed to the deity whose name is being sung, through song, chant, music and dance (samgiita). Calling only the name of god or nama kīrtan is also known as marai kīrtan in this region.

Marai Kīrtan

My research is not the whole spectrum of Rāṛhi kīrtan, which is too vast to cover, but is focused on Rāṛhi marai kīrtan meaning ‘circular’ or ‘grinding’ the name of god. “Marai is not a Bengali word, it is local Purulian or Rāṛh local word, it means to move in a circle, while the internal meaning is ‘to grind’, for if you grind Hari’s name, in your heart, like sugarcane, then it will melt and become nectar for God” (Jagaran Mahato 2007: personal communicaton).

Textually speaking, marai kīrtan could not be simpler: musicians devise a multitude of ways of singing god’s name with only two words, Hari Bolo. Hari is the name of god, and bolo means ‘speak, say or call’. As a musical structure its complex form is not dissimilar to a western classical or jazz piece with specific instrumental parts, rhythmic patterns, melodic and drum compositions (katan). What sets marai kīrtan apart from western classical music, however, is the continuous or repetitive singing of Hari bolo that melts away any sense of separation between the singer and the sacred name. To achieve this state of ‘melting’ marai kīrtan is performed without break for many hours, weeks, or even longer. “Kīrtan is a type of music that you can’t compare with other types, you can’t bind it, you can’t make a boundary line or limit it, or say that there is an end to it” (ibid.).

In marai kīrtan, then, one observes chanting, dance and instrumental music, interwoven into one dynamic form of sacred performance that is geared towards arousing devotion.

Chanting the divine names, can inspire a ‘supra’ aesthetic or ‘transcendental’ experience, for in Rāṛh, kīrtan’s predecessor is the mystical Baul song tradition (Baul is from Sanskrit word batul meaning ‘mad’ in the sense of ‘mad for god’). These ancient Baul mystic songs are full of double entendre masking references to their secret Tantric practices, although understood by those who have been initiated into the intuitional science of Tantra. They represent the earliest form of spiritual culture in the region and possibly the world. [Tantra is Sanskrit for ‘liberation from dullness’ with Shiva being the adi guru or 'first lord'.] Rāṛh is the homeland of both the Baul and the kīrtan traditions.

The boundaries of Rāṛh

Rāṛh or Rāṛho, means ‘reddish soil’, says local expert, Acaryā Kirtyananda Avadhuta. He says the territory, mostly in Bengal, and border lands of Orissa and Jharkhand, was known as Rāṛh bhum, with bhum meaning “land or country” (1966: personal communication).

Rāṛh existed as one kingdom until the seventh century yet still exists in the memory and imagination of the Rāṛhi people today. Though Rāṛh is one of the most economically impoverished areas in India, it remains extremely rich in music culture with at least five indigenous music genres: kīrtan or praise music tradition; the masked dance of the ancient warrior or Chhau; folk or jhumur songs and dances; Baul or mystical songs and nacini nach or ‘dancing girls dance’.

Fig 4 The Ulda Samkirtan Team, winners of the Rarhi Mari Kirtan competition 2016
The Ulda Samkīrtan Team, winners of the Rāṛhi Marai Kīrtan competition 2016

Kīrtan and Social Egalitarianism: Caste - a ranked, hereditary and endogamous group, ordinarily of people of the same occupation - is usually ascribed at birth and is immutable. Even though there is a professional kīrtan caste called the Vaisnavites (such as the Ulda team in the photo on the right) no one is barred from doing kīrtan on the basis of gender, caste, “tribe” (used in an official governmental sense) or social group. Kamaladev from the Lalgar Youth Group, says, “In Hari nam kīrtan there is no question of castes, creed or colour it is open to all, if you come with a pure heart and mind” (2007: personal communication). In a caste society that undervalues “tribal” values, kīrtan can create a sense of equality and respect.

The first Marai Kīrtan competition and festival, June 2016

Two years ago, Sanjay Mahato, my research partner, and I became aware of how many local kīrtan groups were singing more rang (popular song melodies) than the traditional Rāṛhi kīrtans. We decided to hold a kīrtan competition and offer prize money as an incentive for these ‘teams’ (a term the local kirtan musicians use) to continue performing the traditional Rāṛhi kīrtans. We took our inspiration from the late kīrtan expert, Sri Rishi Das, who had shown me a printed poster of a kīrtan competition where his father’s group had won second prize. To our utter amazement, 42 kīrtan groups entered into the competition. The teams came dressed in full paraphernalia, with their spotless white, orange or blue dhotis (traditional men's garment), light coloured sashes tied tightly around their waists or hanging loosely around their necks, sandalwood markings on their forehead, and bare feet. Teams generally consisted of three lead singers (mul gayaks), two khol double-sided drum players, and dancers who play large cymbals (kartal), as well as other instruments that have been adapted from western music ensembles, such as the harmonium, clarinet (replacing the traditional bamboo flutes) and the casio keyboard. They came to do kīrtan in the hot summer sun, or in the late midnight hours, depending on the time they had been allocated some travelling long distances in rented trucks, bringing with them their own village supporters. As each team did kīrtan they were assessed by four local judges and me (as the only international observer). These judges were experts in their field and representing north, south, east and west Rāṛh. Each team performed with utmost sincerity, expertise and devotional expression.

While transcribing their interviews, I was deeply touched by their humility and their depth of knowledge. One such team said, "Our team has been running for 52 years, that means my father and grandfather were there. Only people are changing. Our team is continuing generation after generation. It keeps us healthy, our mind peaceful, and in our family life there are no problems because of kīrtan" (Bhubanipur Samkīrtan team personal communication 2016). Another team discussed the social effects of kīrtan,“Kīrtan helps to bind the society, when we are doing kīrtan we are 15 people, it means 15 families are together, all sharing our joys and sorrows. All social problems can be stopped if you do kīrtan (Dumurbaid Samkīrtan team, personal communication 2016).

Fig 6 The Rupapaita Samkīrtan team, runners up in the Competition
The Rupapaita Samkīrtan team, runners up in the competition
Fig 7 The Panjonia Kirtan team, third place in the Competition
The Panjonia Kīrtan team, third place in the competition

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The kīrtan team from Amrabera, talked about kīrtan providing solace and “heavenly pleasure” for “through kīrtan we stay in touch with spirituality” (2016 personal communication). Some kīrtaniyas are known to fall into samadhi or ‘complete absorption into the divine’ and others report that they experience a deep sense of spiritual fulfillment while doing kīrtan. In the end, though it was a difficult task, the judges decided on the three winners, the Ulda Team who came first, the Rupapaita team second and the Panjonia team third.

Watch a summary posted on YouTube by Kavita Neumannova. 

The next Rāṛhi Marai Kīrtan competition and festival in Rāṛh will be in October 18 - 21 2017 where everyone is welcome, and treated as family. As expressed by an American visitor to the Kīrtan Festival, “Rāṛhi Kīrtan has changed my life in just two days; where I find maximum unfettered ecstatic expression to the lord, it is beyond words” (Suniita Schaeffer: personal communication 2016). For my part, I am also very grateful for the inspiration this mystical land and people have given me.

Jyoshna La Trobe (jyosnalatrobe@gmail.com) 07/02/2017 

 

Individual items in Jyoshna's collection can be found on the Sound and Moving Image catalogue.

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

Follow the British Library Sound Archive @soundarchive and the British Library's World and Traditional Music activities @BL_WorldTrad on Twitter.

 

06 February 2017

Recording of the week: Linton Kwesi Johnson on dub poet Michael Smith

This week's selection comes from Stephen Cleary, Lead Curator of Literary & Creative Recordings.

In this recording, poet and reggae artist Linton Kwesi Johnson gives a lecture on the late Jamaican performance poet Mikey Smith (1954-1983), author of 'Me Cyaan Believe It'. The talk is based on his personal knowledge of the poet and the obscure circumstances of his death.

Remembering Michael Smith_Linton Kwesi Johnson

Linton-Kwesi-Johnson

The recording was made live in Cambridge in 2012, at the conference 'The Power of Caribbean Poetry: Word & Sound'. Linton Kwesi Johnson's oral history interview, made for the British Library project 'Authors' Lives' 2014-2015, is available to listen to at the Library by appointment.

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

31 January 2017

When politics meets science: Tam Dalyell, Labour MP (1932-2017)

The many tributes to Tam Dalyell, who died last Thursday, paid little attention to his unswerving interest in scientific affairs throughout a 43-year career as an MP.

Tam

Tam Dalvell, Labour MP (1932-2017), courtesy of Douglas Robertson and the University of Edinburgh

Dalyell read history and economics at Cambridge in the 1950s, yet acknowledged in his 2012 interview for the History of Parliament oral history project “it’s important that there were particularly others from the sciences that I got to know very well”.

While at university he was friends with Ron Peierls, son of nuclear physicist Sir Rudolf Peierls, and attended lectures given by physicists Sir James Chadwick and Otto Frisch.

Dalyell on attending lectures given by Otto Frisch (British Library Reference: C1503/38)

Dalyell knew many world-famous scientists through his friendship with David Schoenberg, head of the Mond Laboratory in Cambridge. In 1964 he was the only MP on a high-level science/political delegation to the Soviet Union, witnessing how personal relationships within the international science community could transcend Cold War politics.

However it was through writing a weekly column for New Scientist for 37 years that Dalyell “provided a conduit for researchers to speak to Parliament and vice versa”.

Dalyell’s support for the public understanding of science demonstrates that parliamentarians who are actively involved in debates about science do not necessarily come to Westminster with a scientific background, as interviews with other former MPs confirm.

Patrick Jenkin (MP for Wanstead and Woodford, 1964-1987), who died in December 2016, spoke about having never been taught science at school, yet he became president of both the Foundation for Science and Technology and the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee. He was chair of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee during its 2000 inquiry into Science and Society.

David Price (MP for Eastleigh, 1955-92) read history at university but in Parliament became a vigorous campaigner for British industry and space research.

David Price on his involvement in space research (British Library Reference: C1503/19)

The interviews also reveal that MPs with a technical or scientific background were not always comfortable adopting a visible position on science. “I really didn’t feel sufficiently technically qualified in order to become, as it were, a technical guru in Parliament, so in the end I concentrated on foreign affairs,” said Ben Ford (MP for Bradford North, 1964-83), despite a thorough knowledge of aviation electronics and experience of lecturing on productivity at INSEAD and the University of Cambridge.

From accounts such as these, it seems that there was little correlation between these MPs’ scientific credentials and an inclination to be actively involved in Westminster’s consideration of science.

The interview clips featured in this blog are sourced from the ongoing  History of Parliament Oral History Project (deposited at the British Library). For further interviews in this collection, search 'C1503' in the Sound and Moving Image catalogue. Further oral history interviews relating to Science and British Scientist can be found via the Sound and Moving Image, online via BL Sounds and the Voices of Science webpage, the website of the Oral History of British Science programme, led by National Life Stories in association with the Science Museum, and with support from the Arcadia Fund.

Emmeline Ledgerwood, AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Student, University of Leicester and The British Library

30 January 2017

Recording of the week: let it snow!

This week's selection comes from Cheryl Tipp, Curator of Wildlife and Environmental Sounds

There's nothing quite like the sound of walking through freshly fallen snow. This particular recording was made in the Kentish village of Knockholt, just after midnight on the 3rd February 2009. This signalled the start of a prolonged period of heavy snowfall that was to see most of the British Isles grind to a halt, forcing schools, railway lines and even airports to close because of the treacherous conditions.

Footsteps in the snow, 3 Feb 2009, Kent, United Kingdom, Phil Riddett

Traces-260865_1920

Visit British Library Sounds to listen to more recordings of weather from around the world.

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

27 January 2017

Denying Denial - Holocaust Testimonies Online

Today marks the release of the film Denial in British cinemas. Coinciding with Holocaust Memorial Day, UK, the film focuses on the 1996 Irving v Penguin Books Ltd case when both American historian, Deborah Lipstadt, and Penguin books were sued by author David Irving for libel in Lipstadt’s book Denying the Holocaust (1993), in which she names Irving as a Holocaust denier. After a four-year legal battle, the English court concluded that Irving was an active Holocaust denier, antisemite, and racist, who ‘for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence’ to promote Holocaust denial.

Deborah Lipstadt at 2016-10-06 premiere of the movie Denial at Landmark Theater in Bethesda

Deborah Lipstadt at the premiere of Denial at the Landmark Theatre, Maryland, 2016. © Edward Kimmel

But what do we mean by Holocaust denial? In its simplest form it is an act of denying the genocide of Jews and other groups in the Holocaust during the Second World War. It is now illegal in 14 European nations, including France, Germany, Italy and Portugal. Because of its ease of access, dissemination and anonymity, the internet is now one of the main forums in expressing disbelief in the Holocaust. Fortunately, the internet can also serve as a powerful medium of education and in the context of the Holocaust has been used to combat intolerance and promote an understanding of the dangers of racial discrimination and persecution. One of the ways The British Library has contributed to the mission of Holocaust education is through the inclusion of 283 digitised oral history interviews with concentration camp survivors, refugees and children of Holocaust survivors on the BL Sounds website. Some of these testimonies also feature in an online educational resource– Voices of the Holocaust—which is available through The British Library’s learning website.

Oral histories such as these are important to both Holocaust studies and education for several reasons. First, they personalise the Holocaust, giving us a voice to the varied experiences of hardship, ordeal, suffering and terror on behalf of the murdered six million Jews and others who are unable to do so. Second, oral histories enrich our understanding of events during the Holocaust, offering both historical information and emotions not found in official documentation. For example, reports from extermination camps may provide us with facts and figures on how camps were officially run and organised, but these sources provide us with little, if any, information on the personal experiences and ordeals of survivors and victims themselves. The interview of survivor Josef Perl, for instance, highlights what it was like to witness the shooting of family members in a Jewish ghetto at the age of ten.

Josef Pearl on witnessing his mother and sisters being shot

Equally as emotional and graphic is Arek Hersh’s interview, where he details his experience of being forced to walk on a death march in 1945 from Auschwitz to Buchenwald (approximately 427 miles).

Arek Hersh on his experiences of walking on a death march

Other personal testimonies highlight the good in humanity, discussing how some people risked their own lives to save others. Magda Balogh’s interview, for instance, mentions her encounter with the Swedish diplomat and humanitarian, Raoul Wallenberg, in Budapest and how he and his helpers saved her life and thousands of Jews in Nazi-occupied Hungary during the Second World War.

Magda Balogh on Raoul Wallenberg

Photograph of prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau during liberation

Prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau during its liberation in January 1945

As well as offering a personal insight into Holocaust experiences, oral histories allow us to examine how memory and emotions work. How do individuals recall past events? What facts are missing and why? How do we remember traumatic events? Lawrence Langer, a scholar of Holocaust literature and education, has suggested that Holocaust survivors carry two forms of memory—their ‘common memory’, whereby they describe ‘their experiences in a chronological and ordered way, providing detached pictures of what it was like then, as seen by their present selves’, and a ‘deep memory’, which emerges when they relive ‘the horrible experiences with a full charge of pain, chaos and irreversible loss’. Like many Holocaust survivors, Hungarian-born Heidi Fischer suppressed her ‘deep memory’ for decades and it was only in the 1990s that she began to address and revisit some of the painful and traumatic events that she endured.

Heidi Fischer on revisiting traumatic memories

The most meaningful way of paying tribute to the legacy of the Holocaust is to ‘never forget’ and by including personal accounts online it is hoped that knowledge about the Holocaust will reach wider audiences and that listeners both now and in the future will be able to reflect upon the moral questions raised by this unprecedented tragedy. Many of the Holocaust interviews on BL Sounds were digitised and made available online thanks to the generous support of both the Brian and Jill Moss Charitable Trust and the Pears Foundation. Other Holocaust oral history interviews are available at the British Library, collected through collaborative projects or deposited by other organisations and projects. Further details can be found on the Oral Histories of Jewish Experience and Holocaust Testimonies webpage.

Dr Cai Parry-Jones. Curator, Oral History

26 January 2017

PhD Placement Opportunity: Developing Access to the Evolving English VoiceBank

The Evolving English VoiceBank is an audio archive of approximately 15,000 voices created by visitors to the Library’s Evolving English exhibition in 2010/11. This collection is only partly catalogued and a new placement opportunity at the British Library offers a PhD student the chance to work on this unique and so-far unexplored archive.

During the three-month placement (or part-time equivalent) the student will audit VoiceBank and WordBank audio files and prepare cataloguing metadata for about 500 to 750 files for the Sound and Moving Image catalogue. The student will receive training in audio editing software and in preparing cataloguing records, and will also be able to use the collection for original research or potentially to support their own doctoral project. The content will be particularly relevant for students of dialectology, sociolinguistics, phonetics or language variation and change.

The placement student will be a full member of the Spoken English team, which sits within the British Library’s Sound & Vision team, and participate in the department’s core activities. This may involve taking part in workshops or conferences, writing blog posts, and preparing content for online resources. The placement will support the development of transferrable skills in areas such as public engagement, team-working, and project planning and delivery. It will be an opportunity to engage in the work of a world-class research Library and to understand its content, structure and remit.

The placement would suit someone studying for a PhD in linguistics or English Language. They would be expected to have a thorough grounding in dialectology, sociolinguistics and/or phonetics. Familiarity with British accents would also be desirable. View a detailed placement profile.

Application guidelines

For full application guidelines and profiles of the other placements offered under this scheme, visit the Library’s Research Collaboration webpages.

The application deadline is 20 February 2017.

For any queries about this placement opportunity, please contact Research.Development@bl.uk

A note to interested applicants

This is an unpaid professional development opportunity, which is open to current (or very recent) PhD researchers only. To apply, you need to have the approval of your PhD supervisor and your department’s Graduate Tutor (or equivalent senior academic manager).

Our PhD placement scheme has been developed in consultation with Higher Education partners and stakeholders to provide opportunities for PhD students to develop and apply their research skills outside the university sector. Please note that the Library itself is not able to provide payment to placement students, nor can it provide costs for daily commuting or relocation to the site of the placement. Anyone applying for a placement at the Library is expected to consult their university or Doctoral Training Partnership/Doctoral Training Centre to ascertain what funding is available to support them. The Library strongly recommends to universities that a PhD student given approval to undertake a placement is in receipt of a stipend for the duration of the placement.