The culmination of a long association with pianist Matthew Mills, Bagatelles represents some 30 years of piano music by British composer Bernard Hughes.
To try to quantify my experiences thus far on the Embedded Residency with Sound & Music and The British Library using words would be nigh impossible. This is something that all of my sound-nerd, beat-junkie, record-collecting friends and peers might appreciate. But here goes….
I’m only a few months in and I feel like I’ve already taken away with me invaluable knowledge that not only has added to the way that I am thinking about (re)sampling audio and video but also the importance of retaining legacies that are locked within these golden nuggets of information, whilst opening up newer pathways in the present…no matter how big or small, loud or not so loud, analogue or electronic. My art practice in many ways has depended on the archive, as a resource to count and recount information.
The first major development in this journey was in a project that I started in 2011 titled ‘Meh Mogya’, (meaning ‘My Blood’ in Twi, a language belonging to my ancestry). I wanted to trace my audible heritage musically, socially, politically and artistically – this would have not been achievable without access to my parent’s record collection of Highlife records – items that you’re not likely to easily find in this day and age. This research continued with ‘More Mogya’ (meaning ‘More Blood’) – a project that I released in 2013, which was only conceivable with the help of the Bokoor African Popular Music Archives Foundation (BAPMAF) and its chair, Professor John Collins. Incidentally, I would have probably never met John if I hadn’t created ‘Meh Mogya’, as he was one of the artists that I initially sampled from via my parent’s vinyl collection. So I hope you can appreciate the important connection I am making here with the British Library…
So, let’s get a few things straight. Now this is probably gonna sound weird, but I have a love-hate relationship with libraries. I really do. I feel I have to explain myself however, especially since I am doing this residency at the British Library after all. I grew up in Bethnal Green, and as a working-class kid without the means to afford my own books, I used to visit the library there quite a lot (yes, the one in Barmy Park). It was here that a whole new, parallel world started to open up for me – an alternate end of the world where our (accidental) heroes are hardly the answer via Alan Moore’s ‘Watchmen’. Or the harsh realities and struggles of life for African-American women in the southern United States in the 1930s, depicted in Alice Walker’s ‘The Colour Purple’. These and so many more pockets of stories, ideas and information, both visual and audible, would become open to me…but there was one thing that got on my nerves – having to be silent whilst consuming. Now yes, I can say that now I am an adult, I can understand the reasoning for having such rules, everybody obviously needs a place where they can digest whatever information that they are reading with the peace of mind of not being bothered by anyone. But I needed to vocalise things sometimes, or if I found something funny, well I wanted to be able to chuckle without the old librarian signalling his disapproving stare through his circular framed glasses!
Fortunately, The British Library is not as strict (depending on which part of the building you are intending to enter of course), and it is this type of flexibility that has allowed me to approach this residency in my own-guided fashion, hence the title of this blog post. Being at this place really is like going back to school, or University in the best possible way. I get to research and focus on what I like, and on my terms, what’s not to like?
Being in a large institutional hub that attracts such an enormous number of people, all coming to consume one thing – information-feels really special. I had almost forgotten what that felt like having finished my MA back in 2008. In some ways the feeling is one of insignificance, in that I am one of many people doing the same thing, but then, quite oppositely, relationally, this is exceptional, since I have access to the British Library’s Sound Archive, which houses (a mind-exploding) 7 million recordings on multiple formats over 150 years. Yes. Try to visualise that. My mind still shatters at the very thought…
So how the hell do you get into this archive and where does one begin in terms of building ideas without being overwhelmed by some of the world’s vaults of history? The British Library has a central database that connects this multitude of information, be it a physical or digital piece of information. Fascinatingly, the British Library is in the midst of digitally archiving ALL of this information, so this means working through millions of pieces of physical data, not the type of job you do if you don’t love it, and that is exactly what I have found in each of the areas that I’ve been introduced to; Wildlife & Environmental Sounds, World & Traditional Music, Radio Broadcast, Popular Music….in each of the many categories are experts that love what they do, which has made my conversations regarding potential ideas and topics of research all the more exciting. Having this type of resource has really allowed me to accelerate my ideas in a way that would not be imaginable if I were doing such groundwork alone.
I must also add that doing this residency alongside another artist has been fascinating. I have a particular way of sampling and disseminating information (MPC1000 and Roland SP-404 SX are my weapons of choice) and to learn and share from someone else like Aleks Kolkowski, whose practice in the past 12 years has explored the potential of historical sound recording and reproduction technologies, combining horned violins, gramophones and wax cylinder phonographs, is amazing. What better place to explore the potentials of collaborating than through a public archive!
And then there’s the physical archive…what a delight. I only wish I had more than a year to really get to sift through the abundance of knowledge and information being held on phonograph cylinders, Betamax tapes, vinyl records and so on. Walking through the basement archives gives me the feeling of stepping into a sort of lapse where time is frozen, waiting to be awakened and activated. And I intend to do just that – awaken the archive.
On the 12th of February, Alex and I (re)presented audios relating to the ‘West Africa’ exhibition at the British Library. Event info here.