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 December 2017

Recording of the week: Cyril Blake and his Jigs Club Band

This week's selection comes from Andy Linehan, Curator of Popular Music Recordings.

Cyril Blake was a Trinidadian jazz trumpeter who moved to Europe and eventually settled in London in the 1930s. After playing with many well-known musicians in various house bands he became a bandleader and appeared regularly at the Afro-Caribbean Jigs Club, in Soho, London where this live performance was broadcast 76 years ago on December 12th 1941.

The Jigs Club Band’s line-up included Blake’s fellow-Trinidadian Lauderic Caton who is renowned as a pioneer of the electric guitar in the UK and who gave lessons to Nigerian bandleader Ambrose Campbell and a young Hank Marvin, later of The Shadows, amongst others.

Blake himself went on to form the backing band for many hugely popular recordings on the Parlophone label by calypso singer Lord Kitchener, and returned to Trinidad to lead a number of bands before his death in 1951.

Originally issued on Regal Zonophone MR 3597, this recording, Cyril's Blues, appears with two others from the same performance on the British Library compilation CD  Black British Swing, Topic TSCD781.

Cyril's Blues performed by Cyril Blake and his Jigs Club Band - excerpt

Cyril Blake_edit

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

05 December 2017

The first '3-D' picture disc

Magical Love - label

The British Library has one of the largest sound archives in the world. Visitors to our free exhibition Listen: 140 Years of Recorded Sound can explore the sound archive via specially constructed listening booths, each containing a menu of 100 sounds designed to illustrate the the breadth and depth of the collection.

We have also included on display some of the more visually appealing sound carriers in the collection, among them a selection of historical and modern picture discs.   

Of course, there was not room for everything we wanted to include. We have on show what is thought to be the first 'modern' picture disc, from 1970, Curved Air's debut album 'Air Conditioning'. Sadly though, we couldn't quite find room for Saturnalia's 'Magical Love' LP, from 1973.

'Magical Love' distinguished itself visually by being not just a picture disc, but a picture disc with '3-D' holographic labels (see image above). Although the issuing label, Matrix Records, was based in London, the disc itself was manufactured by Metronome in Germany.

It featured vivid imagery drawn from the world of cosmology, with the band members each posing semi-naked behind a fiery crucible on one side, and 12 rather fierce-looking papier-mâché masks representing cosmological archetypes on the other. The pictures were all taken by Peter Hudson, with the exception of the picture of lead singer Aletta which was taken by Mark R. F. Hanau, who also designed the 3-D labels.

Magical Love - disc and booklet

Magical Love - side B

Spectacularly colourful and attractive as all this was, it didn't do the band's career a lot of good. Unfortunately, the picture disc technology of the time undermined the sound quality of the record, and it was not a commercial success. 

Magical Love - excerpt

[Images: Eva del Rey]

04 December 2017

Recording of the week: Britain's first supercomputer

This week's selection comes from Tom Lean, Project Interviewer for An Oral History of British Science.

It has been 55 years since the commissioning of Atlas at the University of Manchester in 1962, one of the world's very first supercomputers. Developed largely by the University of Manchester and Ferranti, the enormous machine was probably the second most powerful computer at the time and pioneered a number of innovations in hardware and software. Capable of processing about a million instructions a second and with over 670 kilobytes of memory, Atlas had as much computing power as several smaller machines, albeit far less than the simplest desktop machine today. It was said that when Atlas went offline, Britain lost half its computing power. Yet despite this awesome potential, only three Atlas computers were ever built. As Atlas's lead hardware designer Professor David Edwards recalled for An Oral History Of British Science, it was rather difficult convincing the sceptics that Britain even needed a machine that was so powerful:

We only need one computer for the country_Dai Edwards (C1379/11)

University_of_Manchester_Atlas _January_1963

The Atlas computer at the University of Manchester, 1963 (Iain MacCallum)

Visit the library's Voices of Science web resource to explore 100 life stories about environmental science, British technology and engineering from 1940 to the present.

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

30 November 2017

Is there such a thing as an “old” sound recording?

Age is relative of course: Compared with Roman coins or Stonehenge, even the oldest sound recordings seem young. This matters when you are arguing for the means to preserve sound recordings, which are seen by some as being too modern to warrant the status of cultural heritage. With that in mind, we’ve just passed a small but interesting milestone.

Contemporary illustration of the recording of Israel In Egypt

The oldest surviving recording of a public musical performance dates back to 29 June 1888, made at the Handel Festival in Crystal Palace, London, held to celebrate the work of the composer who wrote for both King Georges I and II. It features an excerpt from Handel’s Israel in Egypt, performed by an orchestra and choir of literally thousands, and earlier this year was rightly added to the US National Recording Registry in recognition of its cultural, artistic and historical importance. Today, the original wax cylinder resides in the hugely important Edison National Historical Park collection.

The recording was made a little over 129 years after the death of Handel, and so must have seemed at the time like a performance of music from a distant, remote age. As of right now however, an even greater period of time has passed since the recording was made. In other words, the recording itself is now closer to Handel’s time than it is to ours. As more years, decades and centuries pass, it will come to seem more representative of Handel’s era than the era of the listener. Will this change our perception of its age?

Stonehenge was only 129 years old too, once. Part of its cultural value comes from its age, and its age is a by-product of having being preserved throughout its life. Sound recordings on many legacy formats are now critically endangered, due either to degradation, or to the obsolescence of replay equipment. Funding to digitise them isn’t easy to find, and is often contingent on making them available online, which is difficult or impossible when the life of copyright is longer than the shelf life of the physical artefact. The problem is not the duration of copyright; it’s our limited ability to recognise the long-term value and vulnerability of what we have.

We can’t care for old things if we don’t care for them when they are younger. Our sound heritage deserves the chance to grow truly old.

27 November 2017

Recording of the week: pond life

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

Have you ever wondered what a pond sounds like? Most of us will have spent some time dipping for tadpoles, watching insects glide across the surface or looking out for flashes of colour as fish move beneath the water, but our interactions with ponds are usually visual. For some people though, the promise of what's going on sonically is just too hard to resist.

Most wildlife sound recordists will have a hydrophone somewhere in their arsenal and are only too happy to investigate this otherwise silent world. While visiting a smallholding in north Wales, Peter Toll's curiosity was piqued by a little pond that had been carefully created to give life to as many creatures as possible. In his accompanying notes, Peter remarked: 

"It looked so still and tranquil above the surface, until I lowered my hydrophones and was truly amazed by what sounds I could hear below the surface."

What Peter heard was an ecosystem brimming with life. The sounds of newts, invertebrates and oxygenating plants came together to create a vibrant aquatic soundscape, as can be heard in the following excerpt. As the old adage goes, looks can definitely be deceiving. 

Pond atmosphere recorded by Peter Toll in Llandrindod Wells, Wales on 30 Sept 2011 (BL ref 212534) 

Underwater-1529206_1920

A selection of underwater sounds from the archive was put together for a special programme broadcast by NTS Radio in October 2017. To find out more and listen again please click here.

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

24 November 2017

“And we saw the thing had done a computation” - Geoff Tootill, 1922 – 2017

Tom Lean, project interviewer for the National Life Stories collection An Oral History of British Science, remembers interviewing Geoff Tootill, electrical engineer and computer designer, who died last month.

  GCTca1950-will-be-M0002 croppedGeoff Tootill, c. 1950

Geoff Tootill was the very last survivor of the team which designed and built the world's first modern computer - the 1948 “Manchester Baby.” In 2009 he was also my very first interviewee for an Oral History of British Science, and over 18 hours of answering my novice questions with patience and dry humour, he influenced the way I've approached interviewing scientists ever since.

I'd never really thought before about just how far back into the past we can reach with oral history interviews. Yet there I was in 2009, talking to somebody about their experiences back in the 1940s. Decades years before I was born, Geoff was an electronics engineer doing secret wartime work on airborne radar at the secret Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE) at Malvern.

I was impressed at Geoff's ability to recall the technical details of his work and the sophistication of the radar systems he and his colleagues developed with the primitive electronics of the day. Yet it wasn't all high pressure secret work - as a member of the TRE's Flying Rockets Concert Party, Geoff also built the electric systems for stage shows, and I realised that scientist's social lives often have an element of the technical about them.

Geoff Tootill - TRE's Flying Rockets concert party (C1379-02)

With the war over, Geoff went to the University of Manchester to help former TRE colleagues Tom Kilburn and Freddy Williams build the world's first stored program computer. The Manchester Small Scale Experimental Machine, better known today as the “Manchester Baby,” weighed a ton and was far from small. However, its fundamental architecture is still at work in the computer, tablet or smartphone you're reading this on.

021I-C1379X0002XX-0001M1Geoff Tootill, 2005 (reproduced by permission of the Manchester Evening News and Oldham Advertiser)

I spent hours talking to Geoff about building Baby, and the thing that has stuck with me most is how modestly understated he was about his involvement with this world changing development. It helped me realise that historic moments often only look that way with the benefit of hindsight. In the 1940s Geoff and his colleagues had little idea that computers would change the world, anticipating their major uses would be for weather forecasting and atomic energy calculations. The process of actually building the machine was a long process of iterative technical work before one day in early summer 1948 they, “saw the thing had done a computation.”

Geoff Tootill - building the Manchester Baby (C1379-02)

An Oral History of British Science is a national collection of interviews with over 100 leading UK scientists and engineers, telling the stories of some of the most remarkable scientific and engineering discoveries of the past century as well as the personal stories of each individual. You can find out about interviewees and listen to extracts at Voices of Science and you can listen to full-length interviews at British Library Sounds.

National Life Stories is the UK's leading oral history fieldwork charity, based at the British library.

21 November 2017

National Life Stories Podcast Episode 3: Gay UK

For our third National Life Stories podcast Charlie Morgan spoke to Steven Dryden, Broadcast Recordings Curator at the British Library and co-curator of the exhibition Gay UK: Love Law and Liberty. Gay UK ran from June-September 2017 and marked 50 years since the 1967 Sexual Offences Act and 60 years since the Wolfenden Report. The exhibition was extremely popular and it just so happened that it contained a lot of oral histories!

Gay-liberation-front-manifesto-London-copyright-gay-liberation-frontGay Liberation Front Manifesto, London, 1971 (c) Gay Liberation Front 

In podcast you'll from interviews which discuss organizations like the Homosexual Law Reform Society and the Gay Liberation Front, as well experiences ranging from World War 2 to 1970s nightclubs. You'll also hear Steven's views on how he chose clips for the exhibition and how it felt to edit, or “hack to pieces", those same clips.

National Life Stories Podcast Episode 3: Gay UK

Clips in the episode are taken from the following interviews:

  • John Alcock, C456/003 Hall-Carpenter Oral History Project
  • Tony Dyson, C456/074 Hall-Carpenter Oral History Project
  • Maureen Duffy, C1276/03 Authors’ Lives
  • Mary McIntosh, C1420/11 Sisterhood & After: The Women’s Liberation Oral History Project
  • Jonathan Blake, C456/104 Hall-Carpenter Oral History Project

If you’d like to learn more check out our collection guide on Oral histories of sexuality, reproductive health and prostitution.

20 November 2017

Recording of the week: whistling Wigeon

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

Right about now, hundreds of thousands of birds will be en route to the UK, returning to wintering grounds that have provided their populations with food and shelter for millennia. The Wigeon is just one of the birds that will be making this journey. This medium-sized duck usually congregates around the British coastline but, despite the large numbers, you’re more likely to hear Wigeon before you see them. Males announce their presence with an excitable, high-pitched whistle which, teamed with their pretty plumage, helps bring some cheer to the most desolate winter landscape.

Wigeon whistles recorded in Northumberland, England in Jan 2012 by Simon Elliott (BL ref 199321)

Wigeon_BHL

Male and female Wigeon taken from British Gamebirds and Wildfowl, 1855 (courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library)

Many more wildlife recordings can be found in the Environment and Nature section of British Library Sounds.

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