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

05 April 2021

Recording of the week: An interview with Ravi Shankar

This week's selection comes from Sarah Coggrave, Rights Clearance Officer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

In 2017, the Mike Sparrow Collection (C1248) was the first audio collection to be preserved as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project. Mike Sparrow (1948 - 2005) was a radio producer and presenter for BBC Radio London (UK) in the 1970s and 1980s, and his collection includes music, reviews, current affairs features and interviews from shows he worked on. One of my favourite recordings is of Mike Sparrow interviewing Indian sitar virtuoso and composer Ravi Shankar (1920 – 2012), in the 1970s.

Based on the details accompanying the collection and from clues within the audio, it is likely this recording was made in early 1978, shortly before Ravi Shankar’s performance on 20 January at the Royal Albert Hall (London, U.K.), in the same year. In this blog I will share some short excerpts from the recording.

Ravi Shankar playing sitar
Ravi Shankar performing at Woodstock Festival in 1969, image sourced via Wikimedia Commons and licensed by CC-SA 4.0.

Ravi Shankar is known across the world for his teaching and performance work, and for sharing North Indian classical music with a range of audiences. In the interview he gives fascinating glimpses into this work, his well-documented association with other famous musicians (including George Harrison and Yehudi Menuhin) as well as discussing how best to define and appreciate different types of classical music.

In this first excerpt from the interview, Ravi Shankar explains what a raga is.

Ravi Shankar defines raga (excerpt 1)

The sitar (a stringed instrument used Indian classical music) presents particular physical challenges due to the length of the fretboard and the method of playing, which, as Ravi Shankar mentions in the interview, results in cut fingers and callouses. In the second excerpt he describes the years of study required to develop the necessary technical and improvisational skills for performances.

Ravi Shankar describes his musical training (excerpt 2)

Throughout the interview Ravi Shankar talks about his desire to bring Indian classical music to new audiences, and reflects on the positive effects of his association with the rock and roll world, including performing at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 (California, U.S.A.) and Woodstock in 1969 (New York, U.S.A.), where the image in this blog was taken. While performances such as these made it possible to reach younger listeners, he also expressed concern about the drinking, smoking and drug taking that took place at such festivals, activities that he thought might undermine the appreciation and enjoyment of the music.

This partially accounts for Ravi Shankar’s subsequent move away from the rock and roll music scene and when Mike Sparrow asks for further clarification, the discussion moves on to what is meant by the term 'classical music'. Their conversation can be heard in the following excerpt from the interview:

Ravi Shankar discusses types of classical music (excerpt 3)

Interview transcript

Later in the interview this theme is explored further in terms of how Western audiences react to their first encounters with classical Indian music and vice versa. Ravi Shankar talks specifically about the greater emphasis on melody and rhythm in Indian classical music, and how this can be disconcerting for listeners who are accustomed to harmony, modulation and dynamics being more central.

Mike Sparrow’s final question concerns Ravi Shankar’s (then) upcoming performance at the Royal Albert Hall (London, U.K.). What might audiences expect? He responds by explaining that he often does not decide on the ragas until shortly before the performance, although avoids starting with a long one in case of latecomers, who might otherwise face waiting outside for up to 45 minutes!

It would not have been possible to share this interview without the kind assistance of Ravi Shankar’s estate, Mike Sparrow’s executor and the BBC. Many recordings of Ravi Shankar’s performances can be accessed at the British Library, as well as his autobiography and other publications describing his life and work. More details on all of this can be found searching British Library catalogues.

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01 April 2021

Guy Brett: Ideas in Motion

One of the more delicate questions we ask our interviewees in a life story interview is how they feel about death. When I posed this question to art writer Guy Brett (1942 – 2021) in 2008, he gave an answer which succinctly encapsulated our own collaborative endeavour in that moment: ‘I believe in human memory. If nobody remembers you, then you’ve gone, but if people remember you, you live on in some form or another […] that is the afterlife’.

Guy had recently returned from a writing residency in New Zealand and was fascinated by Maori culture and their value system. He lingered on the ideas behind Maori attitudes to life informed by their belief in ancestor worship. The Maori people, Guy explained, are conscious all the time of the genealogy of their families and those who are no longer alive: their ancestors have a present quality and are always being invoked, so their sense of the past remains ever present.

At the end of recording Guy’s life story for ‘Art World Professionals’ as part of 'Artists' Lives' [shelf-mark C466-270], I told him that National Life Stories had made a life story recording with his own father, the architect, town planner and writer, Lionel Brett (Lord Esher), for the ‘Architect’s Lives’ archive [shelf-mark C467/14], a decade earlier. Guy found the discovery of his father’s narration of his own life journey profoundly moving. As a thinker, Guy insisted on the clear understanding of the beginnings of things: ‘it’s like a seed’, he said, ‘tracing back to where things originate’. Perhaps this perspective was why the intergenerational exchange of father to son through life story testimony became such a moving moment; through Lionel Brett’s reflections, Guy returned to his own beginnings.

Black and white photo of Guy Brett in front of an art work which is a series of written questions each beginning with 'Is Art?'Guy Brett at the Serpentine Gallery, London, in 1975, with part of Lea Lublin’s Question on Art

The Bretts enjoyed tremendous privilege, but they were acutely aware of their sense of responsibility outside themselves. Even though father and son pursued radically different paths in their lives, their recordings testify to a mutual devotion to public service. Guy took the freedoms he inherited and used them deliberately, responsibly: he dedicated his life to championing the work of marginalised artists and worked tirelessly to reorient the art world’s gaze to the innovations and contributions of artists from the Southern Hemisphere.

Sometimes Guy’s concerns meant turning his back on the art world altogether. About his 1986 book, Through our Own Eyes: Popular Art and Modern History, he confesses that ‘my interest in those popular forms were connected not with disillusionment, but a disappointment, with the professional art world […] I wanted to use my writing to make an intervention in the political process through art. It wasn’t to do with any particular political movement. The theme of the book was lived experience—the strange connection between an untutored practice or language dealing with overwhelmingly powerful social experiences’.

In order to pursue the causes in which he ardently believed, Guy had to operate independently. and it was perhaps due to his early life that he had the inner confidence to operate outside of the academy or institution, to shun dominant ideology. In this audio clip, Guy Brett explains how his response to art and artists were in opposition to the forces and mechanics of the art world at large.

Guy Brett on defending artists not recognised by the mainstream (C466/270)

Download Guy Brett on defending artists not recognised by the mainstream transcript

Guy’s deliberate choice of ‘unjust’ in his description of neglected artists is significant: justice becomes a kind of leitmotif of Guy’s recording and lies at the heart of his personal motivation. From an early age, he identified his commitment to social justice—but the art world, as he emphatically reminds us, is a very unjust place. In his autobiography, Our Selves Unknown, Lionel Brett described his son as belonging to ‘the generation of Marcusean alienation’—that is, a generation of young people eager to break out of the ‘one dimensionality’ of a culture that meant that people found themselves in the commodities they purchased, not the ideas they thought. Looking at Guy Brett’s lifework, it becomes clear that his choices were informed by political convictions that, in his own words, ‘permeate your whole consciousness: it’s simply the pursuit of some idea of freedom, freedom from oppression’. Guy’s younger brother, the Chilean-based Human Rights activist, Sebastian Brett, observes that ‘the alienation of which my father wrote attracted us both to what in those days was optimistically called ‘The Third World’ […] we romantically identified with its liberation movements, and barely a few years later, with the movement of solidarity with victims of the military repression that swept the continent in the 1970s.’

Black and white photo of four men sitting on the floor mailing a news bulletinGuy Brett (centre) with (from left to right) Paul Keeler, Sergio de Camargo, Christopher Walker and David Medalla mailing the Signals news bulletin from Cornwall Gardens in 1964. © Clay Perry

Guy’s understanding of the social and cultural forces that shape our contemporary moment illuminates his excitement for the promise of a more inclusive, multi-cultural, and cosmopolitan London that was in its infancy as Guy came of age. From his earliest days in professional life, Guy aligned himself with a completely international notion of art and art practice that would undermine an art history predicated on a colonial gaze. He wanted to capture what, in his words, was the ‘extraordinary diversity, which is multi-racial, multi-national, multi-genre, and ebbs and flows with the comings and goings of artists themselves’.

Guy Brett on cultural interchange and national ideology (C466/270)

Download Guy Brett on cultural interchange and national ideology transcript

In collaboration with Philippine artist David Medalla and Paul Keeler, Guy helped set up the radical and short-lived Signals Gallery in 1964. This space provided a platform to a host of Brazilian artists—among them, Lygia Clark, Mira Schendel, Sergio Camargo—as well as Venezuelan artists Jesus Rafael Soto and Carlos Cruz-Diez. While London museums and galleries promoted British formal abstraction and embraced American-oriented material culture, Guy was busy writing about bubble machines made by David Medalla. Generally perceived at the time as mad experiments, these temporal sculptures were, for Guy, a ludic riposte to the new forms in British sculpture: whatever forms the bubble machine made immediately evaporated—thus contradicting the notion of a permanent piece of sculpture. In this next audio clip, Guy articulates his response to seeing kinetic artwork produced by the Greek artist, Takis, for the first time. Guy’s spoken expression captures the sense of quizzical intrigue and excitement with which he received these new forms of art. When the rest of the world caught up several decades later, Guy curated Takis’s retrospective at the Tate Modern in 2019.

Black and white photo of Guy Brett standing upright and holding a magnet towards Takis who is also standing uprightGuy Brett holding a magnet with Greek artist Takis, circa 1964 © Clay Perry

Guy Brett's response to sculpture of Greek artist Takis and his use of magnetism in art (C466/270)

Download Guy Brett’s response to sculpture of Greek artist Takis and his use of magnetism in art transcript

Guy’s receptive sensibility meant that his writing existed in a symbiotic relationship to the artwork he sought to explain. In his recording, Guy describes the process of identification he felt with certain artists when he responded to their work. He explains how Brazilian artist Helio Oiticica’s attitude made so much sense to him that it became ingrained in his own way of looking at things. Guy’s sometimes humourous, always poignant, recounting of organising Oiticica’s groundbreaking 1969 exhibition, the ‘Whitechapel Experience’, in the face of mounting establishment opposition, reminds us of the battles fought by this generation who innovated radical new propositions in art. The panoply of experiences on offer—the staged beach experience; human-sized nesting boxes; and a billiard table that invited the participation of local youths—was a far cry from the self-contained art objects usually on quiet display.

Guy’s lifelong commitment to the path less travelled took courage: an autodidact with no formal training, he enjoyed a curiosity uninhibited by convention. His writing about art drew not on academic jargon but on pre-verbal feelings stimulated by his engagement with both the work and the maker. He cherished intellectual freedom and made unexpected connections between cultures and disciplines—from the lived experience to the interplay of science and mystical philosophy; in his words, ‘All I have learnt about art I learnt from artists and knowing artists and talking with artists and looking at what they did and my own reading’.

Guy Brett on writing and the purpose of art criticism (C466/270)

Download Guy Brett on writing and the purpose of art criticism transcript

In keeping with his interest in Maori custom, Guy Brett’s presence will continue to be felt, not only through his finely-wrought prose and quietly radical sensibility, but also through his words as captured by his life story recording, which still have much to teach us if we make the time to listen. The gently probing, deliberately paced and stripped back audio recordings in the National Life Stories archive offer an antidote of resonant, lived reflection: they create a vital space, amongst the digital noise of our twenty-first century lives, for profoundly felt, movingly candid responses to the human condition.

Written by Hester R. Westley.

Hester R. Westley interviewed Guy Brett for the National Life Stories Project Artists’ Lives in 2007-2008. The full life story interview is available for researchers at the British Library and can be found by searching C466/270 at sami.bl.uk The interview with Lionel Brett (Lord Esher) can be listened to online at BL Sounds.

23 March 2021

True Echoes: Daniels Ethnographical Expedition to New Guinea, 1904

The Daniels Ethnographical Expedition to New Guinea 1904 Cylinder Collection (C62) is a collection of 40 wax cylinders recorded in what is today Papua New Guinea. The collection – formerly known as the ‘Seligman New Guinea Cylinders’ – came into the Library in the 1950s as part of the Sir James Frazer Collection from the University of Cambridge.

This collection is part of the research focus of True Echoes, a three-year research project funded by the Leverhulme Trust and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). Learn more about True Echoes in a previous post. It is the second oldest of the eight collections researched by the project, and one of three from Papua New Guinea. The project is overseeing the reorganisation of some of the cylinders within these collections and also the renaming of some of the collections. These changes will be implemented in the British Library catalogue towards the end of the project.

The Daniels Ethnographical Expedition was led and financed by Major William Cooke Daniels (1870–1918), a wealthy American retailer who met the British anthropologist Charles Gabriel Seligmann (1873–1940) by chance on a fishing trip in Hampshire, UK. Seligmann had taken part in the 1898 Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits and had visited what was then British New Guinea. His interest continued after his return to the UK. The other members of the Daniels expedition were Walter Mersh Strong (1873–1946), a doctor who left midway through to become Assistant Resident Magistrate in Mekeo district, and Arthur Henry Dunning (1884–1959).

Seligmann, Strong, and Dunning arrived in the capital, Port Moresby, on 19 December 1903. The first recordings were made on 5 January 1904 in Port Moresby, when Dunning, assisted by British Resident Magistrate Francis Rickman Barton, recorded three cylinders of lagatoi songs. Lagatoi are the double-hulled sailing canoes used in the hiri, the annual trading expedition that Motu/Koita people took to the Papuan Gulf to trade their clay pots for sago; the hiri is still celebrated today and remains an important symbol for the Motu/Koita people.

Lagatoi canoe, 1904. Photo taken during the Daniels expedition, 1904. British Museum Oc,B119-150 © The Trustees of the British Museum

Above: Lagatoi canoe, 1904. Photo taken during the Daniels expedition, 1904. British Museum Oc,B119-150 © The Trustees of the British Museum

Seligmann, Strong, and Dunning joined a government expedition to the western part of British New Guinea in January, but left early when Seligmann and Dunning fell ill. They did not take the phonograph, the machine used to record and play wax cylinders, on this trip as they could not find any spare cylinders.

Daniels and his yacht, the Kori, arrived in Port Moresby on 23 May. Over the next five months, the team visited Hula and the Mekeo and Rigo districts in what is now Central Province, and islands in Milne Bay including Samarai, Tubetube, Muyua, Gawa, Kwaiawata, Iwa, and the Trobriand Islands. They also visited Dogura in Bartle Bay, and Wagawaga, a village on the coast of Milne Bay.

Seligmann and Dunning recorded eleven cylinders in the Rigo district, including songs in the Sinaugoro, and possibly the Uare and Doromu-Koki languages. They travelled from Rigo to the village of Hula, where five cylinders were recorded. In what is today Milne Bay Province, they recorded five cylinders on Tubetube, two on the Trobriand Islands, and six at Wagawaga.

Map of recording locations from 1904 expedition. Map data © OpenStreetMap contributors.

Above: Map of recording locations from 1904 expedition. Map data © OpenStreetMap contributors.

In October, the expedition returned to Port Moresby and Daniels left. Seligmann and Dunning stayed in Port Moresby, spending time with Barton and Ahuia Ova, the Koita Chief and Village Constable of Hanuabada, the Motu/Koita village near Port Moresby. Ahuia had previously worked with members of the 1898 Cambridge Expedition. Seligmann and Dunning recorded seven cylinders in the Koitabu language, including one by Ahuia Ova himself. Two other lagatoi songs were performed by a Motu man named Igo who had travelled with the expedition in Central district.

From left to right: Unidentified man, Strong and Igo on a beach, 1904. British Museum Oc,B119.52 © The Trustees of the British Museum

Above: From left to right: Unidentified man, Strong and Igo on a beach, 1904. British Museum Oc,B119.52 © The Trustees of the British Museum

27 Osebouta Trobriands [C62/1419]

According to the announcement, this recording is “A sung song at the Kaiwos Womilamala, by [Tobiga]. Trobriand Islands, September 1904”. The word Osebouta is written on the cylinder box lid, but the pronunciation in the announcement sounds more like osiboita.

linus digim’Rina, a Trobriand Islander and anthropologist at the University of Papua New Guinea, and collaborating researcher on the True Echoes project, has contributed this perspective on the two recordings from the Trobriand Islands in the collection:

“Given that Major Daniels’ yacht Kori visited the Trobriand Islands in September 1904, there is a good chance that Seligmann’s recording of the two songs Mamiepo C62/1420 and Osebouta C62/1419 occurred during the Kuboma (south-west coastal district including Luba) Milamala yam festival season. The season customarily falls between July and September. In the local parlance these would be within the moons (tubukona) of Khaluwalasi, Khaluwasasa/Iyalaki and Iyakoki, respectively.

Therefore I do not think Seligmann’s recorded pronouncement and notation of the songs being ‘sung at kaiwos Womilamala’ [‘sung at Milamala dances’] were completely off the mark. Although I do not have any definite recollections of the named songs, I do not doubt that these two songs belong to the Milamala festival dance songs genre. C62/1419 27 Osebouta is etymologically odd or warped although certain key parts of the lyrics like ‘batagava Bunita’ were recognisable alluding to marine life like sailing. The closest rendition of the name might be ‘wosi bwarita’ which means ‘song of seas’. The performer is Tobiga which, in the recording is repeated by Seligmann after a slip. And Tobiga is a common enough Trobriand male name. In fact the tune is very familiar to the ear as a cheerful Milamala song. There is a charming Kitava song called Yaulabuta but the lyrics and tone of Osebouta nowhere near resemble the former. As I cannot make much of the name Osebouta and its provenance I shall leave it at that.

On the other hand, C62/1420 26 Mamiepo appears rather interesting. Like Osebouta, Mamiepo is most probably a misspelling of the word for the pawpaw/papaya fruit, Momyepu. Although I have not come across a song within the Milamala dance song genre going by that name, the lyrics quite frequently mention the word rarana. This refers to raw pawpaw which due to lack of properly ripened pawpaw fruits available, people may be compelled to eat, sometimes by boiling or baking peeled pieces as a snack or dinner. Listening carefully to the repeated verse, it seems as if pawpaw fruit is metaphorically evoked to convey the image of one taking one’s chances way too early than is necessary. As a result there is this impression of regret over lost opportunity towards the end of the lyric.

Although Mamiepo is a dance song and as pronounced by Seligmann, there were no background sounds of backup by other singers or even drum beats. This might suggest that the recording came about as a result of Seligmann and/or his team’s request, solicitation and insistence.

Unlike Malinowski’s recordings which had a bit more related ethnographic material to augment their contexts, these two recordings will notwithstanding generate much interest and curiosity among the present locals in identifying the songs, performers, composers and place of recording.”

linus previously contributed to a Sound & Vision blog post on Malinowski's 1915 - 1918 recordings from the Trobriand Islands.

Vicky Barnecutt

True Echoes Research Fellow