The British Library Sound Archive

Sound equipmentIn May of this year The British Library highlighted the situation regarding it’s Sound Archive (something I had not previously realised the British Library had), and that if nothing is done to preserve it we may loose chunks of our history captured in audio form.  The situation is succinctly put on the website, and reads:-

The nation’s sound collections are under threat, both from physical degradation and as the means of playing them disappear from production. Global archival consensus is that we have approximately 15 years in which to save our sound collections by digitising them before they become unreadable and are effectively lost.
Some people will recognise the problem from a similar situation – the difficulty in reading early computer programmes (see my article, here).  Once a technology is superseded, the ability to access material stored in certain formats becomes increasingly difficult, let alone the natural degradation of the recording medium itself.  To counter this the British Library has set up the Save Our Sounds web page and identified three main aims for the project:-
  • to preserve as much as possible of the nation’s rare and unique sound recordings, not just those in our collections but also key items from partner collections across the UK
  • to establish a national radio archive that will collect, protect and share a substantial part of the UK’s vibrant radio output, working with the radio industry and other partners
  • to invest in new technology to enable us to receive music in digital formats, working with music labels and industry partners to ensure their long-term preservation.

It has received a huge injection of funds from the Heritage Lottery Fund but still requires donations to further it’s work (you can find out how to contribute here).  If you would like to explore some of the archive you can gain access to 60,000 recordings which have been digitised and made available online, here.The British LibraryCurrently there is an ongoing project, begun in 2012 and recorded by the BBC, called The Listening Project.  I have heard a few of these edited conversations on the radio and they are quite fascinating.  The British Library page has this to say about them:-

The Listening Project is an audio archive of conversations recorded by the BBC.  People are invited to share an intimate conversation with a close friend or relative, to be recorded and broadcast (in edited form) by the BBC and curated and archived in full by the British Library.  These one to one conversations, lasting up to an hour and taking a topic of the speakers’ choice, collectively form a picture of our lives and relationships today.

Whether you interest lies in Classical Music, Oral History, World Traditional Music or the sounds of nature and the environment, there should be something of interest in the archive.  There is even a section of images of early play-back and sound recording equipment and early record catalogues from 1898 to 1926!  The Listening Project recordings can be found under the Accents and Dialects section or through the link above which goes to the BBC page on the project.Sounds of Our ShoresThis summer there is another audio project, but this time it brings together The British Library sound archive and The National Trust called Sounds of Our Shores:-

What does the UK coastline sound like during the summer of 2015? What are the distinctive sounds of Scottish estuaries, Cornish beaches, the Pembrokeshire coast or a busy seafront? In what ways do these sounds fascinate us, move us or seem important to us?

Sounds of our Shores is a community-led, interactive soundmap which asks members of the public to upload their favourite seaside sounds and help build a permanent digital resource of UK coastal recordings.

If you are near the coast in the UK and fancy contributing to this sound archive just go to the website and read the simple instructions – you can contribute as many recordings as you like, but I think they want something more than just waves crashing on a beach or seagulls screeching, so try to be creative.  I happened to be on the stern of HMS Warrior when the America’s Cup boats left Portsmouth Harbour a few weeks ago and caught the vague sound of people as they watched it happen.  It’s quite indistinct, except for a woman saying “Pretty good init.  Really impressive wan’t it….all come past us like that…” (from about 1.15), you can hear the whole thing here.

Music and Memory

With a title like that this could be one hell of a dissertation!  It’s not going to be, but if someone wants to take it on then go for it!

Why is it that some songs stay in the mind for longer periods of time than others, occasionally for an annoyingly long time, while other songs barely register?  Quite often this effect is a perfectly adequate sub-conscious self-selecting mechanism, at other times it can be quite annoying – the irritating jingle that wont go away, for instance.

Occasionally there are songs or collections of songs (in my case usually in the form of albums) that have such a profound effect that they simply keep resurfacing; sometimes with months or even years of absence.  For me the album ‘Forever Changes‘, by the 60’s West Coast psychedelic band ‘Love‘, is such a collection of songs – I can go for a significantly long period of time without listening to it, but then the urge takes hold of me again and I find I have to play it obsessively over and over before I am fully sated.

There is another type of song, or more accurately ‘song experience’, and it came upon me just the other week.  Completely out of the blue my head was fully of the melody and words to a song I had completely forgotten about and I hadn’t heard for more years than I can remember – in fact I don’t believe I’d thought of this song since I was a pupil at my old school about twenty-five years ago!

The song was a one hit wonder in 1982 called ‘I Won’t Let You Down‘ by a group called ‘Ph.D‘ (apparently it reached No. 3 in the UK charts).  I absolutely love the melody of this song, it’s simplicity and melancholy.  It really reminded me of the early 80’s when I obviously first heard it.I Won't Let You Down - Ph.DI know that I have a love of old analogue synthesizers (Tony Hymas plays the distinctive synth sound on this track), and songs with a strong melody and powerful or unusual vocals (Jim Diamond is the vocalist), so how this song escaped my memory for as long as it did is a bit of a mystery.

Why it suddenly came to mind, I have no idea!  Was I reminiscing, thinking back to a simpler time (well I was only about seven years old when it was released)?  Was it a mood I was in that somehow connected with the mood of the song?  Had I recently heard something that reminded me of the era which in some way accessed this long forgotten memory – who knows!

It would be interesting to hear if anybody else has had this type of ‘song experience’ – surely I cannot be alone in this phenomenon?

U.K. (Eddie Jobson + John Wetton) at Under The Bridge, London, 1st March 2015

As I have mentioned in a previous post (a review of The Green Album – an early post on my blog, so please forgive me!) Eddie Jobson is one of those musician/composers who really should be better known.  Having contributed to many albums and featured live with bands such as Roxy Music (where he replaced Brian Eno), Jethro Tull, King Crimson, Frank Zappa, Curved Air and (temporarily) Yes among others; as well as a couple of solo albums after forming U.K. with John Wetton.

In my opinion U.K. was the last of the great Progressive Rock groups from the original age of Prog and should be more highly regarded and generally better known (but then again, you could say that for the whole of the Prog genre in general). I have known Eddie’s music for many years and own a few of his albums on vinyl – partly because it is so difficult to get hold of his solo and U.K. work on CD in his home country!  I have also known of John Wetton for about the same amount of time, largely through his work with King Crimson, so I had high expectations of both of them – expectations which were not disappointed.

I initially kept King Crimson at arm’s length (I found them quite intimidating, as I sure many people would understand) and it wasn’t until I saw John Wetton live in Southampton about fifteen years or so ago and heard him play ‘Starless‘ live that I really woke up to the power and emotional range of both King Crimson and John Wetton’s voice. In terms of the band U.K. I instantly fell in love with the second album Danger Money (featuring the trio of Eddie Jobson, John Wetton and Terry Bozio), but for some strange reason have never moved on to the self-titled first album (with Bill Bruford and Allan Holdsworth) nor the third one Night After Night (a live recording).  I have no idea why, maybe it has been partly due to the difficulty in getting hold of the recordings, or maybe I just refused to believe they could live up the dazzling Danger Money.

In more recent years U.K. had reformed and played a few gigs, but to my frustration I always found out about their fleeting visits to London after the event!  I don’t know if Eddie is still based in the U.S. but the Americans do get far more live shows, as do Japan, than Great Britain – and I still don’t know why we appear to be so neglected, it seems to be a particularly British thing of not appreciating our own talent.  Anyway, I managed to hear about this concert long before it happened and booked the tickets on the day they were issued to make sure I got them – and thank goodness I did, this is the last U.K. tour and the first of only two gigs in the country!

Under the Bridge is round the back and underneath Stamford Bridge Football Stadium and although I’d never been there before was very easy to find, being a short walk from Fulham Broadway underground station.  It is a new venue but with all the photo’s on the wall, reminded me a lot of Ronnie Scott’s (but with better air conditioning!).  Luckily we got there early enough to get seats and actually heard the band do a sound test, finishing with a run through of ‘Caesar’s Palace Blues‘ – jokingly said that we could go now, but I was glad we stayed for the main show.  The sound quality was excellent – although I was certainly glad of the ear-plugs!U.K. Live in London 2015 1 The performance seemed to be predominately music from the first album to begin with, but they did throw in a few tracks from the second album too and ended up performing pretty much all of the songs from both albums – I did lose track of exactly what they played, so I may be wrong. As well as the obligatory drum solo (well, this is prog after all!) – and I must mention Virgil Donati, who’s drumming was outstanding throughout! – there was also the Eddie Jobson solo feature.  He began by pointing out how he’d managed to avoid having any ‘hits’ throughout his career but was recently surprised to discover at a gig in Poland that one of his pieces had become regularly requested on a radio station there during the Soviet era.  Apparently it was known as the Ping Pong Ball Song – if you know Eddie’s Theme of Secrets album you’ll know which one I mean (‘Inner Secrets‘ is such a strange and melancholic theme to become ‘popular’) – so he began his keyboard solo with this then moved onto his classic acrylic electric-violin, back-lit to heighten and emphasise its clarity.  He actually used three acrylic violins – one clear, one transparent green (as featured on the back of The Green Album) and what looked like a dark transparent blue one. U.K. Live in London 2015 2During the performance I wondered why they didn’t finish ‘Carrying No Cross’ in the main set, but this was solved later on by morphing ‘The Only Thing She Needs’ into the final verse of ‘Carrying No Cross’ as the final track of the second and last encore – and it was a perfect end to the evening.  The first encore included the essential ‘Caesar’s Palace Blues’ and was a great way to come back on stage.  I should also mention the guitarist, Alex Machacek, who was evidently an excellent Allan Holdsworth replacement, although did seem a little superfluous a lot of the time (who needs a guitarist when you have such a powerful trio anyway!). U.K. Live in London 3 - Eddie JobsonThey played for about two hours and a very satisfying concert it was – it is a shame that this is their last tour (but you never know!) and I would be glad to see any of them perform live again in any combination they choose in the future. U.K. Live in London - John Wetton

Listening

When writing posts for my blog I do not approach it with the intention of promoting products, yet if a product happens to be associated with what I’m thinking, feeling or reading about at the time, then it is inevitable that I will mention it.  So, although this posting will mention a product, it is not the idea behind it.  To start with the post really won’t make a great deal of sense, but it will sort itself out by the end (my goodness, that sounds just like a bit of disclaimer doesn’t it!).

We all know that we already own or (as manufacturers) have produced enough items to satisfy far more than our basic needs; and that a lot of what is newly made inevitably creates waste and more ‘stuff’ that is largely unnecessary.  Hence the rise of ‘retro and vintage’ (the classier, sassier sister of second-hand) and the multitude of ways of getting our hands on old things or unloading it on other people – etsy, ebay, preloved, gumtree, freegive, freecycle, musicmagpie, etc., etc..  In fact I do it myself through etsy (as I’ve mentioned in a previous post) although much of what I pass on I really like because of its inherent and aesthetic quality and wish that I could keep it all – but unfortunately I’ve only got one house!

In terms of products it is encouraging when you hear about companies that do give something back or make it possible to recycle their products when they have come to the end of their useful life (although the ultimate products are, of course, the ones that just keep on working – but they don’t make them like that anymore, do they).  My worry is that the ‘eco’ claims of many large companies is little more than a marketing ploy – I can think of a few who claim a lot (as I’m sure you can too!), but actually deliver very little. So far this blog posting has unintentionally been a bit of an eco-rant – it wasn’t supposed to be that way.

I’ve recently been reading about the metamorphosis of English folk into electric-folk, folk-rock, acid-folk and all its permutations.  The book is called ‘Electric Eden – Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music‘ by Rob Young and charts the evolution of folk throughout the twentieth century.  It moves from the Edwardian folk-song collectors to classical nationalists, but mainly concentrates on the huge revival and reinterpretation that occurred with the singer/songwriters and numerous bands of the late 1960’s and early 70’s.Electric EdenI’ve also been listening to Light In The Attic Record‘s amazing archival compilation album ‘Native North America, Vol.1: Aboriginal Folk, Rock and Country 1966-1985‘, which satisfies both my quest for unusual sounds (for instance, I’ve already reviewed Light In The Attic’s equally good ‘Country Funk‘ album – Country Funk!  The term still warps the mind!) and my desire to search out the root of things, the obscure and forgotten, the dead ends and oddities in all aspects of music, literature and art.Native North America, Vol. 1While I was engrossed in all of these absorbing (for me anyway) distractions, I read an article about in-ear headphones made of wood, called (appropriately enough) ‘Woodbuds‘.  It struck me that surely the perfect way to listen to folk music on the move was with wooden in-ear headphones.  It made a connection and felt as though the inherent woodiness of the music would resonate emotionally (if not acoustically) with the material with which the earphones are made and what essentially helps to transmit the sound to the brain.  Looking into this small friends-and-family run company I was pleased to read that they are associated with the Woodland Trust and for every 100 Woodbuds sold they will plant a tree.  I’m just hoping that this small company (which must be very trendy because it’s got a guy with a huge beard in it’s photos – have you noticed that all trendy ads have blokes with huge beards at the moment!) takes it’s eco-ness through to the production level and only makes them in small quantities to meet the level of demand.Woodbuds WhiteSo there we have it – I’m brought back to my initial rant about products, over-production and waste and hopefully now makes sense!  The counter idea being that small-scale production can produce only what is required and that such companies can do good by giving something back, and from which we can all benefit.  I just wish I could believe all companies when they shout about their eco-credentials.Woodbuds Colours

The Small World of Sammy Lee (OST) by Kenny Graham

A few things I know nothing about:- The Small World Of Sammy Lee, British Jazz, Soho in the 60’s, Kenny Graham.

What little I do know about:- Anthony Newley, London, British Films, Jazz (but only in general – well, essentially the popular American bits).

What I now know:- British Jazz is very different from American Jazz (and I like it too), I need to see this film.

Small World Of Sammy Lee - album cover artThis was supposed to be a review of sorts about the latest release from Trunk Records, but I really don’t feel qualified in terms of my knowledge of British Jazz to do that, so this posting is more a way of highlighting a discovery than a proper critique.

Trunk Records specialize in releasing for the first time, or re-releasing, forgotten music in all its retro forms – from old Library Music discs, the music to half-remembered children’s TV series, weird folk recordings, a few naughty things and the soundtracks to films which were not big enough to get a soundtrack album at the time.  For anyone bored of shiny pop and looking for something a little different (or a lot different, for that matter!) this is an absolute godsend!

The forgotten film this time is The Small World Of Sammy Lee.  It was Anthony Newley’s first film lead and is a story about a nightclub compère, Sammy ‘Lee’ Leeman (Anthony Newley), who gets seriously into debt and has to quickly find the money to pay off the bookies.  It was filmed in and around the sleazy streets of Soho in the early 60’s and sounds like a real-time capsule of a movie.  I must see it!

So, to the brand new soundtrack album to a 50 year old film – after finally tracking down the original master tapes (through Kenny Graham’s oblivious daughter, I believe) we can hear the music which was especially composed for the film by one of the UK’s premier exponents and promoters of modern jazz throughout the 1950’s, 60’s and beyond. The music generally has a plaintive mood about it, but is at turns wistful (Soho At Dawn), playful (The Hustling Starts), cool (Four O’Clock Hop), swinging (Dash To Bellman’s) and groovy (Thoughts At Home).

There is no Wikipedia entry for Kenny Graham, which is a real shame – from the evidence of this album of previously unreleased music he deserves to be much better known, and hopefully, with the increasing interest in British Jazz, he soon will be.

Postscript:- Allmusic mentions Kenny Graham, and there is a decent obituary in The Independent newspaper from 1997.  If you would like more of Kenny Graham’s music try his re-interpretation and response to Moondog’s music – Moondog and Suncat Suites.  And if you don’t know Moondog (also known as Viking of 6th Avenue) then check him out too – you’ll never know where it’ll lead!

Bill Callahan at The Royal Festival Hall, London, 14 February 2014

Having completely fallen in love with the brilliance of Apocalypse (see my review here), I was a little disappointed by Dream River, Bill Callahan’s more recent album.  It seemed a little too amorphous, the loose arrangements a little too free and unstructured.  It took a couple of listens before I was comfortable with its songs, but by this time I had long ago booked to see him live in London – not that it put me off the event at all.

Royal Festival HallThis was my first visit to The Royal Festival Hall – the only remaining structure from the 1951 Festival of Britain, which rejuvenated the bombed-out south bank of the Thames (and now an icon if British architecture and design).

As usual to a music event, I took a couple of ear-plugs (just in case), but the sound was ideal, not too loud and perfectly balanced – it was lovely to be able to hear the music completely un-muffled.

Before the main event there was a half-hour set by Alisdair Roberts, a Scottish folk singer-songwriter – it was ok, but all the songs were quite similar and of the same mood throughout.

What is wonderful about Callahan’s words and music is the way they evoke a whole landscape, a mood, state of mind and place.  It feels like the aural equivalent of an Edward Hopper painting, perfectly formed worlds that extend way beyond the edge of the canvas.  At first it was fascinating to hear how this world was constructed with such a simple arrangement of two guitars, bass guitar and a minimal drum set, but once you recognized the tricks and motifs which formed the music and lyrics, the mystery of it became a little less mysterious.  What was particularly disappointing was the too frequent moments of self-indulgence.

Bill CallahanI have no problem with self-indulgence in music – a little here and there is fine, and with a genre like Prog. Rock it’s positively called for in excess.  What is not called for is repeated and extended interludes of noise within the style of music that Bill Callahan creates.  Although it does surface briefly and occasionally (and effectively) within songs on the albums, the live feedback-noodling was over-done and detracted from the delicacy of the songs.

He ended by mentioning that he’d visited the Tate Modern that afternoon and riffed off the word Tate to the rhythm at the end of the last song.  It didn’t really work very well (although some people were amused – there’s always some!) and it was a disappointingly self-indulgent way end to the evening’s performance.

Do not take from this review that it was not a good performance (but I can understand it if you do!) – the band had a fantastic sound and played a wide selection of songs from the last two albums and beyond, and I was more than satisfied in that respect, but at the same time it did not wow me as it really should have done.

Build Your Own Analogue Synthesizer – Yes, Really!

Ever fancied an analogue synthesizer with a plethora of knobs to fiddle with and patch chords to plug-in and swap around, but with the added connectivity of Midi and USB ports – I know I have!

Well how about building your own?  Sound complicated?  It certainly would be if you had to start from scratch and had as little electronics knowledge as I do!  Well how about buying a synth in kit form?  Even that is quite a daunting proposition if it involves careful soldering – luckily there is another way.

To get over this problem Korg has created a kit version of their recently re-issued MS-20.  The original MS-20 was produced between 1978 to 1983 and was one of their first successful and more affordable synthesizers.  The new MS-20 (the MS-20 Mini – being 86% smaller than the original) was designed with the assistance of the designers of the original MS-20 to ensure that it produces the same sounds as the original. Korg MS-20 MiniThe kit version, also designed with the original designers assistance, clicks and screws together – what and amazing concept!  A simple, plug together fully functioning analogue synthesizer!  My only problem with this idea is – why on earth is the kit version (about £650) more expensive than the ready-made version (about £499)?  The reason has to be because it is limited to only 1000 – that said, personally I would still prefer a factory approved model.  Korg MS-20 Mini kit

William Ørbit, Aphex Twin, Air, Stereolab, Vince Clarke, The Prodigy, OMD, Add N to (X), Daft Punk, Royksopp, The Shamen, Jean-Michel Jarre, and Portishead are just a few of the artists who have used the original MS-20 sound – not a bad line up at all, but an original model would set you back a lot more than the price of the Mini.  If only I had a few hundred pounds to fritter away – either version would be fine by me!

Other synthi-type stuff on my blog:- Oramics to Electronica, Mini Moog Google Doodle, Eddie Jobson/Zinc – The Green Album