140 Years of Recorded Sound sounds a somewhat overwhelming notion for an exhibition, but it turns out the British Library’s new initiative to highlight the preservation of their sound archive is a tightly structured affair. It’s a fascinating, curious 10” EP on clear vinyl – rather than the blockbuster magnum opus/quadruple concept album the V&A might stage. Or at least that’s the initial impression: an interesting display with a few curios of cool vinyl and snippets of sound and film, rather than the full works. And it is free. But then, when you think about it – and you find yourself spending longer and longer (OK, just another two minutes while I catch the mating call of a haddock from 1967) in one of the sound booths – sound doesn’t really need all that much space. The space is actually in your head, and that is infinite.
Where: Entrance Hall
The British Library,96 Euston Road. London NW1 2DB
When: Fri 6 Oct. 2017 – Sun 13 May. 2018
The British Institute of Recorded Sound started assembling recordings of steam trains, industrial machinery, folk songs, church bells, bird songs, all kinds of music and far-flung ethnographic documentation in 1955. In 1983 the archive came under the auspices of the British Library. Today the library is in a race against time to digitise over a million discs, hundreds of thousands of series of recordings, before increasingly obsolete technology crumbles to dust. At the launch event I should have got hold of one of the organisers and just asked for reassurance on the digital future: why that actually guarantees any more permanence than twentieth-century hardware. (It wasn’t any inherent technical fault that meant all those editions of The Likely Lads got wiped.) Especially as, in the foyer, Aleks Kowlkowski was doing a brisk trade in cutting beautiful clear-lacquer 7” singles of people’s own voice recordings straight to disc using a fine-looking 1957 Cartavox recording machine with seemingly no hitch, no smoke coming out the back or any smell of burning solder. (My other regret: not bringing along some Dick Higgins poem or somesuch, to immortalise myself in wax.)