Sounds of the past, ways of the future
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The woman’s voice is stilted, funereally slow, but full of portent. “When I am no longer even a memory, just a name,” it says, “I hope my voice may perpetuate the great work of my life.” Then a long pause. “God bless my dear old comrades of Balaclava and bring them safe to shore. Florence Nightingale.”
Hundreds flocked to the town and village squares of England to hear the sensational recording that had been freshly cut in the summer of 1890. Not so much for the message, but for the medium. The wax cylinder toured by George Gouraud, an associate of Thomas Edison, was the iPhone 6 of the late Victorian era.
Listeners huddled around Gouraud to be wowed by his latest playlist. There was, in addition to Nightingale’s prescient missive, a reading by Lord Tennyson of his “The Charge of the Light Brigade”, and the plaintive call to that very charge, played by the bugler who had first blown those doom-laden notes. Here was history made vivid in a completely new way.
Gouraud was nominally collecting money for the veterans of Balaclava with his little show. But Will Prentice, head of technical services at the British Library’s Sound Archive, adds a more cynical spin. “Of course he was promoting the technology,” he tells me deep in the library’s basement. It is a process we recognise today, more than ever. Whatever devilish device it was that Gouraud was pushing, soon everyone would want one.
Balaclava’s Greatest Hits are among the most treasured of the 6m recordings held by the archive, which next week launches its campaign to “Save Our Sounds”. It is aiming to raise funds — as well as raise the public’s consciousness. These are challenging times for archivists of all hues: in an age when we think we can see and hear everything, they worry that the metaphorical cloud up there may blow away. “We are living in an eternal present tense,” says Prentice. “The web is so young, it hasn’t had time to die.”
That is in contrast to some of the formats held by the archive. In its basement there is a variety of cylinders, records, tapes and more exotic, shortlived recording forms that are degrading as we speak. It is imperative to commit these for digital posterity as soon as possible. At the current rate of transfer, however, it will take 48 years to preserve everything in the archive’s collection.
So we need to ask ourselves: what do we keep? What do we care about? Which sounds bring history alive most significantly? Make no mistake, there is some obscure stuff in these corridors, much of it not yet listened to. Prentice tells me about a recent find: some “fascinating” gramophone discs of music recorded in Central Asia from before the Russian Revolution. He makes them sound essential as well as exotic. I instantly ask if they are coming out on CD, and imagine they may make a quaint, late run for the hit parade, whatever that is today.
In the archive studios, his colleagues are playing things that haven’t been played for decades, and more recent discoveries have been laid out for me. There is a short recording of Noël Coward paying tribute to his actors at the curtain call on the first night of Peace in Our Time at London’s Lyric Theatre in 1947. The fruity tones are unmistakable. “They have given a performance in the highest tradition of English acting,” Coward says. The applause is prolonged.
“Here’s another one,” says one of the archive team, with a palpable air of excitement. “It was in a tin box, simply marked ‘Zither Test’.” He plays me a succession of versions of the most famous zither tune of all time, from Carol Reed’s The Third Man. We hear instructions from a man (the director himself?) who is experimenting with placements of the microphone.
Later, I get to hear a weird electronic noise from another record from the 1940s, labelled “Short Wave Jamming”. “It sounds like Tangerine Dream!” says the archivist gleefully, and I envision another run up the charts. I leave him listening to a series of water noises.
But doesn’t all this, I ask Prentice, feel a little, well, old-fashioned? We can summon all manner of things at the touch of a keyboard. We can stream our sounds and need never actually possess anything again. This is the Access All Areas culture. Who needs things?
This is a dangerous argument to put to an archivist. He takes me to another shelf and pulls out an inch-thick disc, labelled with the details of a 1924 speech from the Prince of Wales. He hands it to me. It is as heavy as a baby elephant. It contains a master disc, which works like a “negative”: instead of grooves, it has ridges, and you can only play it by “riding” the ridges. File under “impractical”.
We need to be reminded that the things that have historically carried sounds can be as interesting as the content they carried, he says. Once upon a time, this is what it took to preserve sounds. Is there that care and attention today? Who is there to guarantee that all those sounds that we cherish today will last? “They represent our collective memory,” he says. That is why they need saving. Think of it, if you will, as the legacy of the comrades of Balaclava.
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