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Listen: 140 Years of Recorded Sound

10 October 2017 Katie Da Cunha Lewin

Though this exhibition may be set in one of the world’s most famous libraries, Listen: 140 Years of Recorded Sound, asks attendees to do just that, listen to over 100 examples of the British Library’s substantial archival collection of recorded sound. In this wide-ranging exhibition, the library has trawled through its sound archive in order to showcase the gems of their collection.

In their new exhibition in the Entrance Hall Gallery, the British Library invite visitors to put on headphones or sit in their specially fashioned listening booths, in order to explore the history of recorded sound.   The exhibition questions how recording technology has shaped our experience and allowed us to explore our own personal interests and hobbies.  It also seeks to ask us as attendees to think about sound in our contemporary moment, and ask: what is at stake in our own recording heritage?
 
The exhibition is very ambitious in its scope, aiming to give a chronological overview of the history of recorded sounds – helpfully laid out in a timeline across the back wall, with some examples to accompany them – whilst also allowing for personal exploration of 100 examples from the archive, around 7 hours of listening material. These recordings start from 1889 and run until the present day and include early sociological and ethnographical recordings, important milestones in music recordings, or key moments in British history, as communicated and recorded through sound. 


British Library Sound Archive (c) Clare Kendall

The curators have clearly aimed to be eclectic in the make up of the exhibition, reflecting diverse interests. For literary fans, there is plenty on offer.  Most excitingly, the library has included a 1924 recording of James Joyce’s Ulysses, also displaying the signed spoken word disc, one of only three or four left in the world.  There is also a recording from 1961 of Sylvia Plath reading her poem Tulip or Maya Angelou’s iconic poem And Still I Rise from 1986. For those interested in music, there is the opportunity to listen to LL Cool J’s 1985 hit I Can’t Live Without My Radio, a love song to the boombox, or the first example of dub, a song called Bud Voo Doo released in 1971 by the Hippie Boys. There are also more unusual examples in the collection: you can listen to the surprisingly guttural mating call of a haddock, hear an example of early British vernacular speech, or marvel at the sounds of an 1890 ethnographic field recording of Passamaquoddy song by American anthropologist Jesse Walker Fewkes.
 
The exhibition also includes a recent acquisition to the library: a wireless log created by 16 year old radio enthusiast Alfred Taylor. Between 1922 and 1923, Taylor kept detailed records of the variety of sounds he heard over the wireless, a time from which very little actual recordings exist. Not only does this give sound historians the opportunity to document the actual content of the radio waves at that time, but it also gives an insight into the sociological importance of recording technology; in Taylor’s notes, he often mentions family, friends and neighbours who accompanied him in listening, eventually turning into so-called ‘listening parties’.  Radio at this point was a way of bringing people together, not the solitary experience of life filtered through headphones that is so common-place now, but a communal activity. Composer-in-residence Aleks Kolkowski has created a sound installation in response to this in which he recreates the imagined sounds of a wireless from the time.  This gives the modern listener the opportunity to consider what listening in 1922 might have been like, and the vast ways in which it has changed.


Alfred Taylor Wireless Log - 1922 (c) British Library
 
In some ways, this exhibition recreates the feeling of listening as a way of bringing people together. To further this end, the British Library is hosting a Season of Sound, a series of events celebrating and exploring the sound archive until March 2018. This includes a mixture of workshops, listening parties and talks.  You can join sound recordist Christ Watson and naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough for a discussion about their lives in sound.  They also have another event, Selector Responder: Sounding out of the Archives, which, curated by sound artist and lecturer Dr Ella Finer, showcases a range of responses to the exhibitions from artists, including artist and director Larry Achiampong and poet Holly Pester.
 
What is striking about this exhibition is the way that recording technology has impacted on every aspect of our lives.  From the creation of Radio Luxembourg in 1933, to the rapidly changing technology of the 1990’s, the past 140 years have seen major transformations in how we engage with sound, and therefore with ourselves.  This exhibition aims to give its audience a greater understanding of those changes, encouraging us to give greater attention to the ways we record our lives.

Listen: 140 Years of Recorded Sound runs unitl 11 Mar 2018 in the Entrance Hall The British Library. Free entrance.
 
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