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

03 February 2020

Recording of the week: "If Not, Not"

This week’s selection comes from Andrea Zarza Canova, Curator of World & Traditional Music.

Tapestry in entrance hall of British Library- If Not, Not

You may be familiar with the tapestry featured in this photograph if you visit the British Library every now and then. If its bright colours and mysterious symbolism haven't lured you in before, it’s a tapestry based on the painting If Not, Not (1975—1976), by the artist Ronald Brooks Kitaj RA (1932 – 2007), which hangs in the National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh. For me it has been a source of wonder and stimulus on countless wanders through the Library’s public areas, leaving me with many questions on what the man with the hearing aid in the lower left hand corner, the large, brick gatehouse in the upper left corner or the general atmosphere, which is both attractive and ghastly, might mean. It has felt like an endless source of ideas and stories when procrastinating away from my desk and it's led me to dig deeper and uncover more about R.B. Kitaj's life and remarkable work.

The tapestry rendition of If Not, Not was commissioned for the British Library by its architects MJ Long and Colin St. John Wilson, who were good friends of Kitaj’s. Kitaj painted their portrait The Architects, in August 1979, to celebrate the remodelling of his home by MJ Long. A book called Kitaj: The Architects, gathers diary entries and fragments of conversation from their sitting sessions.

The tapestry was woven on a bespoke loom at the Dovecot Tapestry Studio by the Edinburgh Weavers Company, it required 112 kilos of wool and 7000 hours to complete. Seven master weavers worked on different areas of the tapestry to create this impressive rendition measuring approximately 7 square metres. It was the largest tapestry to be woven in Britain in the 20th century. It was funded by the Arts Council of England Lottery Fund and others.

For Colin St. John Wilson, works of art were an integral part of the building’s design and not mere decoration: 'Tapestries and sculpture are absolutely part of the building, not afterthoughts or adornments to prettify it' (Independent). When the tapestry went on display in July 1997 (its original spot was on the opposite wall where the large exhibition poster currently hangs), its textural qualities not only contributed to the character of the space, serving as a contrast to the hard surfaces throughout the area, but also benefitted the space acoustically by absorbing the sound echoing and reflecting throughout the entrance hall.

In the following excerpt from a much longer interview, which is part of the National Life Story Collection: Architects' Lives, we can hear Colin St. John Wilson speak about some of the references woven into the tapestry's complex network of symbols. He also talks more broadly about the importance of visual imagery in public buildings and how the Library's readers might relate to the works on display.

Colin St. John Wilson on Kitaj's tapestry

This tapestry will be one of the many artworks featured in a series of site-specific tours which explore the Library’s public art collections through sound. Following David Toop's idea, as fleshed out in his book Sinister Resonance (2010), that it is possible to imagine a sound world within ‘mute things’, the tour guides have used sound recordings from the British Library Sound Archive to draw out or expand the stories within works by artists such as Barbara Hepworth, R.B. Kitaj, Eduardo Paolozzi or Antony Gormley. You can find more information on how to book yourself on to a tour on the British Library’s event page.

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

01 February 2020

Waves and resonances: Catherine Smith's adventures in the sound archive

The British Library has been very lucky to have Catherine Smith volunteering with our World and Traditional Music team over the last year. As part of Unlocking Our Sound Heritage, Catherine worked closely with various collections of sound recordings made on the African continent, classifying musical instruments featured in several of the recordings using an adaptation of the Hornbostel–Sachs classification system. More recently, Catherine curated and delivered sound tours responding to artworks on public display in the Library. These tours focused on the lives of three artists and how themes from their works draw on their associations with music, sea and landscape.

Looking forward to the second round of sound tours, which kick off on Tuesday 4th February, we sat down with Catherine to hear more about her volunteer work and explore the thinking behind her sound tour, Waves of Resonance.

Last year, you catalogued a recording of Nigerian hammer and anvil music, which turned out to be the 100,000th recording digitised by Unlocking Our Sound Heritage. Have you made other discoveries in the sound archive since?

I particularly enjoyed working on Peggy Harper’s Nigeria Collection, which contains that hammer and anvil recording. I’ve listened to an incredible range of material in the archive: from Vaughn Williams’ ethnographic wax cylinders to Hungarian-Romanian folk recordings. The British Library also has an extensive collection of recordings from WOMAD festival throughout the years which, as you can imagine, is infinitely long and eclectic.

I was also fascinated to find an interview with blues and boogie-woogie pianist and singer Champion Jack Dupree, where he is simultaneously accompanying himself on the piano beautifully.  It was great to be able to feature this in an article for the Library’s Sound and Vision blog as ‘Recording of the Week’.

I’ve also been fascinated by the Wildlife and Environmental collections, whether it be Alan Renton’s meticulous collection of lighthouse fog warning signals in Cornwall or a Bluethroat imitating reindeer bells in Lapland.

That blog on Champion Jack was an excellent read; he certainly led a remarkable life. As well as writing on sound archive collections, you contributed recordings to the autumn themed listening session we held in the Knowledge Centre. Could you tell us about some of these sounds?

I had a great time searching the archive for recordings which engaged with the theme of Autumn from as many cultures as I could find. I included recordings from Nigeria, Ghana, Thailand, Nepal and China. Perhaps the most amusing recording I found was from the Peter Kennedy Collection, where Joe Woods and his sister Winifred talk about their local traditions on the Isle of Man and the legends of ghosts and witches and sing traditional Halloween songs.

Shelfmark: C604/387  C11-12 ‘Hunt the Wren’ and ‘Hop-tu-naa’, available to listen to on British Library sounds.

You’ve not just been working with sounds, though; you’ve also been inventorising loose photographs in the World and Traditional Music Collections. Can you tell us more about this work?

Yes, that was a long but interesting task. I went through all of the files for the Unlocking our Sound Heritage World and Traditional Music Collections to check what photos were there and update the inventory. I took a while going over and checking everything to make sure it was accurate and consistent, but it was incredible to discover some stunning photography as well as some unusual finds. It all opened my eyes even more to the incredibly diverse range of collections in the sound archive.

Have you come across any images that have struck you?

The most surprising photograph I found amongst the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage collections was probably this surreal picture of the Male Choir of the Moscow Choral Synagogue (aka. ‘The Moscow Jewish Choir’). It accompanies a recording of their concert from 1993 at the New West End Synagogue in St Petersburg Place, London. The concert was called 'Kindling the Night: a celebration of Russian Chazanut and Jewish music', and included an international selection from Yiddish folk songs to classical and liturgical repertoire.

The Moscow Jewish Choir's album cover for the ‘Golden Pages of Jewish Liturgical Music’
Photo of The Moscow Jewish Choir's album cover for the ‘Golden Pages of Jewish Liturgical Music’

The origin of the photo is unclear, but it looks like it might have been an album cover for the ‘Golden Pages of Jewish Liturgical Music’. Despite its bizarre Daliesque style, with their heads popping up out of the ground, funnily the choir was only established in 1990! 

Outside of UOSH, there is also a beautiful collection of photos that came with the John Brierley Botswana collection, and that led me to discover his wonderful sound recordings which are available to listen to on British Library Sounds.

Can you tell us about Waves of Resonance, the sound tour you curated as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage outreach programme? You develop many interesting connections between sound and a sculpture by Barbara Hepworth, a bust of Virginia Woolf and others on your tour. How did you go about bringing these elements together?

I started with some background reading from David Toop’s book ‘Sinister Resonance’, following the brief that Andrea Zarza Canova, my manager and World and Traditional Music Curator at the Library, had created for this project. I was interested in the way he explored the haunting nature of sound and the sense of hidden sound that is within artwork, objects, writing and space.

The selection of artworks for the tour came about almost like a moment of serendipity, despite considerable hours researching the public artworks on display in the British Library. I was drawn to Hepworth’s sculpture as a piece of abstract art and recalled a connection to both the sea and Cornwall. I had already selected the bust of Virginia Woolf due to her many connections with music and sound but was delighted to realise that her links to the sea were also deeply rooted in the geography of Cornwall. This triggered an infinite discovery of connections between the two artists also drawing upon their musical and sound inspirations. The decision to then incorporate the Scottish artist Ian McKenzie Smith’s seascape became an obvious choice because it unravelled further connections to the sea and music. I really enjoyed selecting sound recordings to connect with the artworks. I use the sounds as a way in to discover more about the background of the artists, their work and inspiration, as well as changing the way you experience the artwork in the moment. For example, Ian McKenzie Smith was inspired by American colour-field painters, traditional Eastern artwork and Zen Buddhism, so I accompanied the painting with a meditative bagpipe drone composition by Yoshi Wada. Before playing that piece, I used a Shakuhachi flute imitating the sound and motion of waves breaking. They’re two very different pieces, but both were effective in bringing out different visual elements and themes contained in the painting.

I had the chance to attend one of your delightful tours last time round. There were strong themes of the sea, bodies of water, and wave motion present. What is it about these that fascinates you?

I spent most of my childhood holidays by the sea in Pembrokeshire and Cornwall and have always been drawn to the coast so I can relate to how the sea was so inspiring to the artists featured in my tour. I’m constantly fascinated by the latest discoveries within marine life, and like many people, I’m concerned about the damage to our oceans. While composing the final project for my Music BMus (Hons) degree at City, University of London. I became fixated with endless cinematography of coral reefs. This broadened out to editing footage and composing music for a film exploring various life cycles within the sea, from phytoplankton to whales. The project set out to explore the physicality and materiality of this habitat, but I used a strange combination of sounds to do so, including instruments and field recordings that I digitally manipulated into a textural composition. The imagined sound of a coral reef dying actually incorporated a combination of granular synthesis and hydrophone recordings, including some made in my very own bath!

What was the audience response like the first time you delivered your sound tour? Have you made any changes to it this time around?

People were incredibly engaged and responsive, which was encouraging. I had to really streamline it to fit all the interesting content into the half-hour slot, so I’ve removed some material and sounds from the original version of the tour. I tend to do a lot of research, and the tour could have been over twice as long. I’ve gotten more comfortable delivering it as I’ve gone along and the tours turn out a little different each time because everyone has their own response and areas of interest in relation to the works of art and recordings, so it’s really interesting to get different perspectives on the works. If I curate any more tours, I might have to be more careful about the placement of the artwork because the Hepworth sculpture is in front of the smoking area! I somehow didn’t realise that until I was doing my first run-through. I’ve probably left a few confused smokers wondering why a group of people were huddled around a sculpture communally listening to a Nigerian harvest dance.

Join Catherine and Jasmine Pierre for site-specific sound tours of the British Library and hear about the ideas behind some of the public art on display.

What you see is what you hear.

27 January 2020

Recording of the week: Trude Levi and Holocaust liberation

This week's selection comes from Charlie Morgan, Oral History Archivist.

Today marks Holocaust Memorial Day, as well as the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp. The National Life Stories oral history project ‘Living Memory of the Jewish Community’ includes many Holocaust survivors describing their experience of Auschwitz and of liberation. In this recording of the week Oral History Archivist Charlie Morgan looks at the testimony of Trude Levi.

Trude Levi and her husband Franz, London, 1989. Courtesy of Trude Levi.
Trude Levi and her husband Franz, London, 1989. Courtesy of Trude Levi.

Gertrude Levi (1924-2012) was born in Szombathely, Hungary, the daughter of a Hungarian father and an Austrian mother. Her parents were Jewish, irreligious, and socialist; her father, a gynaecologist, would perform abortions without payment at a time when this could land you in prison. Trude describes Szombathely as “the most antisemitic town in Hungary”, and when Hungary joined the Axis Powers in 1940 life became increasingly difficult for the Levi family. Then in March 1944, fearful that Hungary would abandon the war effort, the German army invaded Hungary.

Prior to 1944 Hungary had passed antisemitic laws, deported thousands of Jews, and been an active ally of the Third Reich, but it was after the German invasion that a concerted attempt was made to implement a ‘Final Solution’. In July, when Trude was twenty, she and her parents were forced into a ghetto, then to a local concentration camp and finally were placed onto a cattle truck and transported out of the country. On 7 July 1944, they arrived at Auschwitz; Trude was immediately separated from her parents and never saw them again.

When it became clear the Allies would win the war, the Nazi regime committed itself to ensuring as little evidence of the Holocaust remained as possible. Trude, like tens of thousands of others, was placed on a death march to Riesa, a town in Saxony, and around her the war effort collapsed:

“Anyway, I didn't, I think I didn't want to die by that time, I mean, the, not that I wanted to die before, but I didn't care. But by that time I, I decided that I really would like to survive, because, I mean, the Russians were here, the Americans were here, you heard them, you knew that it was the end, and you saw the Germans fretting, and so you knew it was the end, so now that was the point where you felt, "Well, there is no point in dying any more. And we won. So, one should remain alive. But I couldn't go on, I couldn't walk on in spite of it, and I knew that I would be shot, but they didn't shoot me, they said, "Dies keine Kugel mehr wert" - "She's not worth a bullet any more", and so they left me on the road, next to the bridge.”

After dragging herself away from the road, Trude managed to hide in a barn before she was liberated by Allied troops. In this recording of the week Trude explains some of complexities of liberation; she was adamant that she would not return to Hungary, but “somehow we were still in Germany”. Furthermore, even though she had escaped from German troops “I wasn’t yet sure whether it was really the end,” and although smoking a cigar “was freedom… I think the real freedom came when I arrived in France, when I felt that I was out of Germany”.

"Everything was still unsure, everything was chaotic”

Trude Levi’s story of liberation is different to other survivors of Auschwitz, but her sentiments are common. While liberation is often presented as a singular, joyful moment it was in reality a lot more complicated and harder to pin to one specific point in time. Trude’s oral history is just one way in which Holocaust survivors have been able to express these experiences in their own words, and even after her death her testimony remains.

Trude Levi was interviewed by Gaby Glassman for Living Memory of the Jewish Community in 1989, and she is featured on the online web resource ‘Voices of the Holocaust’. Her full life story interview can be found on sami.bl.uk, and can be listened to in Reading Rooms at the British Library in St. Pancras or Boston Spa.

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

20 January 2020

Recording of the week: night in a várzea forest by boat

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

Rainforests are noisy places, even after dark. This recording was made in one of the Amazon’s many várzea or floodplain forests, in the dead of night, by wildlife sound recordist Ian Christopher Todd. Based in a boat in the middle of the Amazon River, our recordist found himself surrounded by a cacophony of sound.

Night in a várzea forest recorded by Ian Christopher Todd (BL shelfmark 201326)

Giant Marine Toad

The rattling calls of Giant Marine Toads (Bufo marinus) can be heard alongside the calls of other amphibians. In the distance, unknown sounds emerge from the darkness beyond, creating a multi-layered soundscape. And, as with many recordings of this type, the more you listen the more you’ll hear.

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

16 January 2020

A Life Lived and Seen: a tribute to Anna Teasdale

The Bath-based landscape artist and long-time art tutor Anna Rose Frances Teasdale, has died aged 88. For those fortunate enough to have studied with her, or to have spent time with her (as I did, when I recorded her life story for Artists’ Lives, National Life Stories), she was a magical, extraordinary woman whose loss makes the world a meaner place.

Black and white photograph of Anna Teasdale holding a painting

Anna Teasdale, 1962, photographed by Anthea Sieveking. Courtesy Denny Family Collection

Anna Teasdale never received proper recognition for her painting practice. She certainly enjoyed sharing her pictures, but she was driven to paint not by career ambition, but by an innate need to practice, and she viewed the art market with unease. Anna was honest about the project of living, and her art, she used to say, came out of her life. Reflecting on the trajectory of her work, she observed that ‘it was almost as if I had made a covenant with the future’. Indeed, her life story recording is all the more compelling because, as a social document, it offers rare insights into the condition of being an educated, working-class, figurative, woman artist in mid-twentieth century England—when none of those attributes gave you a start in life. Because Anna was visually astute, her observations often have a sharpness of focus: ‘It’s not what a thing looks like, it’s what it is, and when you find out what it is, you know what it looks like’. She saw the order underlying the landscapes she painted, and this understanding ran alongside her Catholic faith—a close concert between the seen and the unseen that imbued her landscapes with myriad emotions. In her view, the process of painting takes the painter through the gamut of emotions, and, like an afterimage, the memory of these emotions remains within the painting; she experienced life from the solitude of the easel, ‘because it all happens’ in the process of seeing.

Anna Teasdale’s decision to become a painter, C466/379, Track 18 [00:01:38 - 00:03:31]

Anna’s life intersected with many of the century’s important British artists and movements, yet she proudly remained out of step with them all. She was unusual for a woman of her generation and means because she sustained her painting practice throughout her life. For Anna, painting was not a choice, but a fundamental necessity—‘the only thing I could do’. Anna was unconcerned with, and suspicious of, contemporary art; its quest for new forms of expression and conceptual underpinnings seemed to stray from the ‘true faith’ of figuration. For her, painting was almost a spiritual act, her own inner resource that gave shape and meaning to her life. As she wrote a few months before her death: ‘I am jogging on trying to be kind and helpful! My painting is going well but slowly and is still the joy of my life. I look at my painting and climb into it and tranquility (and terror) take over.’

Anna Teasdale on being a landscape painter, C466/379, Track 9 [00:59:02 - 01:00:42]

Anna ran away from a penurious and abusive childhood home as a teenager to follow her dream of attending art school. Enduring poverty and sometimes homelessness, she enrolled at St. Martin’s School of Art, where she displayed a rare facility for drawing and subsisted by working as an art school model and living (illegally) in a semi-derelict bomb site. By the end of the 1950s, Anna had met and married fellow student and rising art star, Robyn Denny, and for a time, Anna became an integral part of the Swinging Sixties art set. Among her closest friends in the early days were Pop painter Peter Blake and abstract Pop painter Richard Smith, as her bohemian life settled into a more secure round of art world gatherings. Beside her husband’s glamourous accolades (Denny represented Great Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1966), her achievements were modest, but they were real: by the mid-1960s her paintings were included in exhibitions at the Arthur Jeffress Gallery and the ICA among others.

When Robyn Denny was lured to the West Country by the offer of a lucrative teaching position at Corsham, Bath Academy of Art, in the mid-1960s, Anna and Robyn bought a Georgian town house in Bath which was frequented by a coterie of successful artists who relocated from London to Wiltshire (their friends included Howard and Julia Hodgkin, Joe and Jos Tilson, Richard and Betsy Smith). Anna continued painting when she could, supporting her famous husband and juggling the domestic demands of motherhood.

When Denny left his young family, Anna was again plunged into self-reliance and financial straits, but always used her art to sustain herself and her two children: entrepreneurially if informally, establishing an art school in her own home—‘The Seymour Road Academy’, as she wryly referred to it. Anna understood the fundamental differences of approach behind her and her husband’s approach to art making: ‘I drew and he thought’, she demurred. In her reflection upon these different modes of art making, Anna defines the schism that shaped contemporary art in the second part of the twentieth-century.

A close friend reflected on Anna’s life with the clear-eyed observation that ‘she lived a rackety life’. But a bit like the rhythmic structures that order and shape her landscape compositions, her life’s outward racket concealed an inner order, strengthened by the twin pillars of faith and humour. She did not withdraw from her artistic commitment even when pinned by duty; she took heart in an aesthetic view of life that allowed her—almost incomprehensibly today—to see motherhood not as an obstruction but as an extension of the creative life. Considering one of her landscapes, she noted what is a fitting epitaph: ‘it was a whole life painting this picture’.

Written by Hester R. Westley.

Hester R. Westley interviewed Anna Teasdale for Artists’ Lives in 2016-2018. The full life story interview is available for researchers at the British Library and can be found by searching C466/379 at sami.bl.uk

13 January 2020

Recording of the week: Pinglish code-switching

This week's selection comes from Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English.

Hot Chapati
CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Adam Cohn

Many bilingual speakers demonstrate a fascinating tendency to code-switch – that is they alternate between different languages as circumstance dictates, generally subconsciously and often within the same utterance.

Listen to Code Switching (BL reference C1442/1578)

Listen to this young British Asian female from Leeds describe her use of gunnhnā [= ‘to knead’], āttā [= ‘flour’], seknā [= ‘to toast’] and rotī [= ‘chapati’]. What is particularly interesting is the way she instinctively applies English grammar to Punjabi words by, for instance, adding the conventional English plural suffix <-s> to form rotīs, the regular past tense suffix <-ed> to create gunned and a more typically English sounding infinitive form sek: “I’ve gunned the āttā and I’ll sek the rotīs later”.

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

06 January 2020

Recording of the week: why you should listen to the common eider duck

This week's selection comes from Eve-Marie Oesterlen, Lead Metadata Manager for the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage.

As Lead Metadata Manager for the Unlocking Our Sound project I have less time than I would like to listen to the sonic treasures we retrieve from the vaults. One of my guilty pleasures, however, is occasionally lingering in the corridor where the sound engineers’ studios are located to catch snippets of the sounds that are currently being digitised.

My favourite serendipitous discovery so far has been the call of the common eider duck. The UK’s heaviest and fastest flying duck, the eider is perhaps most well-known for its incredibly light and insulating feathers, the eiderdown, which has allegedly kept many a Vikings’ bed warm. Nowadays, the small soft feathers are mainly used as fill for luxury duvets.

illustration of the Common Eider Duck
Illustration from Coloured figures of the birds of the British Islands, issued by Lord Lilford https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/bibliography/69277#/summary

In the excerpt below, you can listen to a flock of eider ducks or Somateria mollissima, as they are officially called, as recorded by wildlife recordist Richard Margoschis in the Scottish Highlands in 1984. The catalogue entry for this recording (WS5360 C7), copied below, illustrates the lyrical and sometimes (unintentionally) humorous quality of the metadata that is used to describe the wonderful wildlife sound recordings held by the British Library.

Species heading: Somateria mollissima : Common Eider - Anatidae
Habitat type: Temperate estuary. Tide rising.
No. age, sex: Ca.30, both sexes calling
Recording date: 1984-05-01
Sound quality: Sea heard swirling around jetty
Recording circumstances: Weather conditions: sunny & warm, light breeze
Local time: 13.00
Behavioural note: More male than female present. Some, all male, flew away. More available.

Eider 022A-WS5360XXXXXX-0107M0

I dare you not to be charmed by this lovely chorus of gregarious ah-hoos. It is guaranteed to blow anyone’s winter blues away; we all need some ah-hoo in our lives.

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

30 December 2019

Recording of the week: Wax cylinder recordings of Nigerian music

This week's selection comes from Dr Janet Topp Fargion, Lead Curator of World and Traditional Music.

Northcote Whitridge Thomas
Northcote Whitridge Thomas

The Library’s World and Traditional Music collections include some of the world’s earliest ethnographic recordings, made on wax cylinders. Amongst these is a collection of recordings made between 1909 and 1915 by the colonial anthropologist, Northcote Whitridge Thomas, during his work in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone. To learn more about the recordings and to engage researchers and original community members with the sounds, the Library has partnered with the ‘Museum Affordances’ project, funded by the UK’s Arts & Humanities Research Council and led by Paul Basu at SOAS University of London.

As part of the project, Samson Uchenna Eze, musicologist and lecturer in the Department of Music at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, chose some of Thomas' recordings to explore through transcription of the lyrics and music, and through engaging musicians in Nigeria to re-record them.

The song Igbo bu Igbo (Great Igbo) [NWT 417; C51/2277], is a call to Igbo people to remember their identity and ‘return to [their] truthful ways’. Prof. Eze writes: ‘In this song the female singer repeats the phrase [Great Igbo (all Igbo), come and hear the truth] several times and improvises in the internal variation section, calling on neighbouring villages to come and hear the truth’.

Listen to Igbo by Igbo (BL shelfmark C51/2277)

[Re:]Entanglements is the website of the Museum Affordances project. Prof. Eze has written a blog showcasing some of his work with the recordings.

Follow @reentanglements, @BL_WorldTrad and @soundarchive for all the latest news.