Aleks Kolkowski on Embedded with the British Library Sound Archive
Every year, Sound and Music shine a light on the work of the composers who are currently in residence on our Embedded and Portfolio programmes. These are our New Voices of 2016. They are creating new, exciting and innovative music, across disciplines, all over the UK.
Aleks Kolkowski – enthusiast and expert in antique sound recording – reflects on his experience working with the British Library Sound Archive, where his work explores the notion of ‘hearing the present through the sound recording media of the past’. Describing how the advent of the ‘electrification’ of music has hindered the ‘human qualities’ of music-making, Kolkowski devotes his creative practice to wax cylinder recording, phonographs and gramophones, whilst also exploring recording on photographic materials such as x-ray film…
Describe your music in a few sentences.
A lot of my current music-making involves the use of old sound recording and reproduction technology and media. By ‘old,’ I mean 1900s cylinder phonographs, 1920s wind-up gramophones and also early electrical disc recording equipment for cutting 78rpm discs. I record on wax cylinders, lacquer (acetate) discs and also plastics, x-ray film and often on discarded CDs & DVDs, so I re-purpose media formats too.
These obsolete devices and media allow me to explore recorded sound as memory, our relationships to technology, to go backwards and forwards in time, to hear the present through the sound recording media of the past.
I tend to use a lot of archival sounds. These can be early recordings on wax cylinders, but I mostly record my own cylinders for use in performances or in installations. A fruitful source over the years has been early sound effects recordings on 78rpm records – mostly shellac discs from the 1920s & 30s. I’ve been collecting these for decades – the earliest I have is from 1908, the later ones are from the 1940s. I use them in performances where, typically, they are sequenced and overlaid using three or more gramophones. Rather than hear nostalgic music coming from the gramophone horns, you hear noises of industry, transport, test tones, bells, birds, crowds, vowel sounds and so on. These sounds are often ‘accompanied’ by the strains of my Stroh violin, a historic mechanically-amplified instrument that blends superbly with the sounds reproduced by the gramophone and phonograph.
I’m also an improvising musician and have been since the early 1980s. I play violin, viola and musical saw.
What attracted you to apply for the Embedded programme with the British Library Sound Archive?
Because the brief chimed with the creative work I’ve been engaged with over the past fifteen years or so - early recordings, wax cylinders and discs - and I had wanted to explore the BLSA collections for a long time. Having such close access to these national treasures is a great privilege.
How do you feel your residency is going? What has been your highlight?
I’m currently working with the Library’s ‘Bishop’ collection of sound effects for theatre, mostly from the 1940s, that were cut directly on acetate discs. The idea is to create montage compositions using selections from the 1000s of records I’ve listened through and I plan to publish a short selection of these pieces on vinyl in the autumn.
The highlight of the residency, so far, has been recording four wonderful poets on wax cylinders in the BL studios. They were Andrea Brady, Kitt Price, Hannah Silva and Andra Simons. Directly afterwards, I was involved in transferring the cylinders to digital files using the BL’s equipment, and I watched as the recorded cylinders entered the Sound Archive’s cylinder collection. There is always a thrill when you make a decent wax recording and listen back through the phonograph horn together with the performers. They may never have heard such a recording reproduced this way before, and often react as if entranced. Illogically, it’s as if we are hearing something new! But it was the keen interest and support from the technical staff and curators that was especially gratifying in this case. Most had never seen a cylinder being recorded before and as they have worked closely with the medium, through listening or making transfers, they were fascinated by the process.
What have you got planned for when your project has ended?
I have a new exhibition opening in La Station, Nice, October 2016, following a residency where I’ll be producing a series of original sound postcards. My latest sound installation, ‘Edison’s Eve’, currently showing at the Saint-Brieuc Museum of Art and History, will move to Le Bon Accueil sound art gallery, Rennes, in October for one month. The installation is based on Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s science fiction novel ‘The Future Eve’ (1886). But I will continue working at the British Library Sound Archive for a collaboration with historian James Mansell and BLSA radio curator Paul Wilson as part of the ‘Being Human’ festival late in November. We will present a soundscape based on archive material from the interwar and Second World War period in response to the festival’s theme of ‘Hope and Fear.’
History, or the history of sound recording, seems to be a major focus of yours. What do you think the greatest game-changer in the history of recording is?
It has to be the advent of electrical recording around 1925. This changed everything: sensitivity and range, it opened the parameters for nature, field and location recordings, brought ‘realism’ to audio as well as creative possibilities with microphone placements, depth and ambience. It was now even possible to successfully record the sound of a room, hall or outdoor environment. All these sound like positive developments, but the relentless electrification of music, through new instruments, recording, reproduction and amplification technology, has resulted in the loss of human qualities in music-making in my view.
If you could have access to the sources in any archive in the world, which would you chose?
The Library of Babel.
What is it about wax-cylinder phonograph recording in particular that fascinates you?
Being able to record something and instantaneously ‘age’ it - the process seemingly transports the subject to a bygone era, 125 years ago. The surface noises produced by the sound inscription process, the surface marks and also imperfections in the wax substance create a patina or scrim of noises that force you to listen more closely to the recording. These acoustic recordings are also very impressionistic, they capture the essence of a sound remarkably well, but the missing frequencies, the fragility and faintness, all work on the imagination to fill in what might be missing as well as evoking the past. I always liken the listening experience to the recalling of memory, as opposed to modern electrical reproduction where you hear a virtual copy. Then there are the acoustic cylinder recordings of electronic music: when reproduced on the phonograph, it will sound as if the machine has transformed into an automaton - the electrically generated music becomes mechanical.
Why do you feel it is important to keep old recording techniques alive?
It’s not only a question of importance solely for historical research. There are musicians who work with old recording techniques and technology in order to recreate a specific sound, say of 1950s rockabilly records, the most impressive musician and recordist in this field being Louis Durham. Then there are those such as Paul Morris (Paul Morris Music) and Duncan Miller (Vulcan Records) who have devoted much of their lives to cylinder recording and manufacture of blank cylinders through a fascination with the medium. These individuals trade in nostalgia, but it shows that there is a lively commercial demand that keeps a range of supposedly obsolete recording methods alive, such as from radio, TV and film national archives, individual collectors, artists and the pop industry.
Learning about how recordings were made can help to inform archivists and technicians on how best to transfer the physical records to a digital format. It helps to have a deeper, more comprehensive, understanding of the medium you preserve and archive. Re-enacting early recording techniques, learning about how they were made, also can lead to a greater appreciation of the recordings and the ingenuity that went into making them. While the technology has survived in museums and collections and may therefore be studied and reconstructed if necessary, generations of skilled technicians who operated the equipment and made the recordings are dying out. We are losing a huge amount of tacit knowledge and it is important to engage these former recordists in research, to document their experiences and involve them as expert advisers in historical re-enactment projects.
The historical practice of ‘music on the bones’ involves recording music straight onto x-ray film. Can you describe what this was all about?
In post-war Soviet Russia, certain musics were banned, such as western jazz, rock and roll and even music by Russian emigres. Enterprising music devotees took it upon themselves to make such recordings available by copying forbidden records or radio broadcasts direct-to-disc, using discarded x-ray film as the blank recording medium, thus producing home-made flexi discs. They went as far as making the recording lathes and equipment from scratch, apparently modelled on a portable German Telefunken machine looted by Red Army soldiers during the war. What’s remarkable is that these bootleg records were made in their many thousands, each one individually cut or embossed in real-time. They were nicknamed ‘bones’ or ‘ribs’ records after the images on the x-ray film but are better known as ‘roentgenizdat’. While today we have a similarly flourishing DIY recording scene, where people share knowledge and skills to help construct disc recording lathes, in those days such activity in Russia could land you in a Gulag camp. The government campaigned against the bootleggers and some individuals received stiff prison sentences, only to continue making illegal records after release. The motivation wasn’t money but love of music and a desire to share it. The practice stopped, unsurprisingly, after tape machines became available in the Soviet Union during the 1950s. X-Ray Audio is a project initiated by musician Stephen Coates and photographer Paul Heartfield who have researched the history of roentgenizdat, collected the records and interviewed some surviving bootlegers and their former customers. They have created a touring exhibition, published a book and have staged events both in the UK and abroad. My role is in the recreation of x-ray recording using a vintage lathe during our live events where we have invited a variety of musicians to participate. There’s more information on the X-Ray Audio website.
This repurposing of media, using photographic material as the ground for a grooved sound recording, forms a part of my ongoing artistic practice. I am also making an edition of x-ray records in collaboration with the vocalist Ute Wassermann.
What do you feel ‘experimental’/’avant-garde’ music’s place is in contemporary arts, including pop-culture?
I remember when ‘experimental,’ improvised and avant-garde music still existed very much outside of mainstream culture. It used to horrify people, especially other musicians. These days it’s became more respectable; it’s studied, researched, institutionalised. While it’s good that people are no longer stigmatised or marginalised for making music that’s different, I think that the contemporary avant-garde has long lost its radical nature. But you ask if today’s pop culture can be radicalised by avant-garde music? I don’t think so. Noise music and industrial bands are the antithesis of pop; live coding requires a long attention span while silent or quiet musics are just not cathartic enough.
Is there a message within your music – if not to simply explore sound?
Messages from the dead are hidden within the surface noises of my cylinder recordings - WEVP (Wax Embalmed Voice Phenomenon).
Any message is left to the listener’s imagination. I don’t set out to make programme or rhetorical music, but I often collaborate with a poet or use texts or voices and there are often rhetorical concepts that underpin the work. In my solo performances where I use ‘found sound’ I will often structure it with non-musical narratives, but these are not made known to the public. I do get inspired by research and this definitely influences my music-making. Perhaps the most obvious use of metaphor and symbolism happens in my historically inspired sound installation pieces, where I compose for an array of autonomously sounding, antiquated music machines, instruments and other objects.
Do you have any recommendations of composers/artists to look out for in the next year?
These are only a few that come to mind and I’m sorry to all those friends and colleagues who I’ve missed out.
Aleks will be performing with Larry Achiampong at the British Library Sound Archive on Tuesday 12th July! Find out more about the free even here>>
Interview by Emma Sugarman (Communications Intern - Sound and Music)