Category Archives: Music

‘Objects at an Exhibition’: experience the Science Museum as never before

Tim Boon, Head of Research & Public History, blogs about an exciting new project at the Science Museum for 2015.

The Science Museum will be the venue for an exciting musical event in autumn 2015. Six contemporary composers are writing new pieces of music inspired by key objects and spaces in the Museum. On the night of the concert, audiences will travel through the Museum to hear the pieces performed live next to the objects of inspiration. This unmissable event is a collaboration between the Museum, NMC Recordings and the Aurora Orchestra, which are both renowned for their support for innovative music and engaging musical events.

Music is a natural subject for the Science Museum: intellectually it provides a powerful example of the interaction of technology and culture; practically it has the power to deeply enhance the variety of what we can offer our visitors; and emotionally it has the potential to move and deepen engagement with our collections and spaces.

Together, we have commissioned Gerald Barry, Barry Guy, Christopher Mayo, Claudia Molitor, Thea Musgrave and David Sawer who – with their diverse approaches, techniques and styles – will offer Museum visitors, Aurora audiences and NMC listeners new and interactive listening experiences in a setting overflowing with landmark achievements and innovations in science and technology.

Barry is working on an extraordinary graphic score based on Charles Babbage’s difference engine workings.

Difference engine No.2

Difference engine – Image Credit: SSPL, Science Museum

Claudia is exploring ‘non-music’ inspired by the BBC 2LO transmitter and the idea that music was originally prohibited on BBC radio.

2LO

BBC 2LO transmitter – Image Credit: SSPL, Science Museum

Gerald’s piece is about ‘the mysterious and unnameable aspects of outer space’Chris’s work will be presented in the Flight Gallery where he hopes the audience will make some of the same connections he’s making ‘on the journey from idea to inspiration’; reflecting on a world where there’s an increasing emphasis on speed David has chosen the mail coach in the Making the Modern World gallery to seek clarity in time standing still; and Thea says: ‘I do like the idea of composing something for the Energy Hall… I plan to place two or perhaps three performers on the upper level with the rest on the lower level facing people as they enter the Museum. I am thinking generally of the wonders of discovery, with soloists ‘taking off’ with flights of fancy against the more earthbound group below.’

To find out more about the project and how to support it, please visit our Oramics Machine Facebook page.

Objects at an Exhibition Big Give

In search of perfect sound – introducing Britain’s largest horn loudspeaker

Aleks Kolkowski, former sound artist-in-residence, remembers his first encounter with the Museum’s exponential horn.

 A long black metal tube, slightly tapered and almost 9-foot-long lay on a row of filing cabinets at Blythe House, the Science Museum’s storage facility. The object was pointed out by John Liffen, the Museum’s Curator of Communications, who guided me during a research visit of the collections in 2008. It was all that remained of a mighty horn loudspeaker that was demonstrated in the Museum during the 1930s, John explained. A demolition accident had almost totally destroyed it in 1949.

John Liffen holding the only surviving section of the Science Museum’s exponential horn. Credit: Science Museum

John Liffen holding the only surviving section of the Science Museum’s exponential horn. Credit: Science Museum

Now the tube assumed a more fascinating form, like a fossil or a dinosaur bone as we delved into audio archeology. The story of the horn, researched in great detail by John, sparked an interest in me. Four years later in 2012, on being appointed as the Museum’s first-ever sound artist-in residence, I was given a wonderful opportunity to initiate its reconstruction.

The exponential horn loudspeaker was designed in 1929 by the Museum’s curator of  ‘Electrical Communication’ R. P. G. Denman who also personally built a radio receiver to run in tandem with it. The purpose of this new sound system was to provide the public with demonstrations of the highest quality broadcast sound that was obtainable at the time. Denman saw it as setting a benchmark for audio quality, his aim was, in his words “to provide a standard by which commercial apparatus could be judged”.

The horn measured 27 feet (8.23m) in length with a cross section that curved exponentially from 1 1/16 inches (27mm) to a massive 7-foot-1-inch square (2.16m sq.) at the horn mouth. The science and theory of how horns propagate sound had only begun to emerge in the mid-1920s. It was found that a horn with an exponential shape was the most effective means of converting the sound energy from high pressure, low velocity vibrations produced at the narrow end of the horn, into low pressure, high velocity vibrations at its mouth, then radiated into the outside air. However, in order to reproduce the lowest sounding frequencies, this type of horn has to be very long with a correspondingly large opening.

An early photograph of the horn prior to its installation at the Science Museum. Published in Amateur Wireless, October 19, 1929. Credit: British Library

An early photograph of the horn prior to its installation at the Science Museum. Published in Amateur Wireless, October 19, 1929. Credit: British Library

Denman, an expert on loudspeakers, specially designed the horn in order to reproduce frequencies as low as 32Hz and up to 6kHz. This was achieved by loading it to one of the latest moving-coil driver units from the Western Electric Company (U.S.A.) namely the WE 555W, widely used in cinema sound systems of the time and now considered to be one of the greatest loudspeaker drivers ever made.

The Museum’s Western Electric 555W Compression Driver used with the Exponential Horn Loudspeaker from 1929 – 1939. Credit: Science Museum

The Museum’s Western Electric 555W Compression Driver used with the Exponential Horn Loudspeaker from 1929 – 1939. Credit: Science Museum

From 1930 until the outbreak of WWII in 1939, the apparatus was demonstrated daily in the Museum’s Radio Communication gallery. The giant horn mouth appeared through the wall above the entrance while the rest of it hung conspicuously in the adjacent Agricultural Implements gallery. It was built into the Museum’s infrastructure and may be described as being its very first sound installation.

Concerts broadcast on the BBC’s London Regional programmes provided the content for the demonstrations. Critical reactions were positive and for audiences at the time, accustomed to limited bandwidth, interference and distortion, the sound must have truly been a revelation. The Museum’s Radio gallery became a popular lunchtime destination, where sandwiches were cheerfully munched while listening to the classics or Wurlitzer cinema organ music, the audio reproduced in glorious full-range. It left an indelible impression on those who heard it, including John Liffen’s own uncle. Writing in the Audio Engineering Society Journal of April 1975, the audio experts Percy and Geoffrey L. Wilson opined that “no superior loudspeaker has to date been demonstrated in Britain”.

The horn’s mouth over the entrance to the Radio Communication gallery is shown by a museum attendant standing on a showcase! From Popular Wireless, October, 1930. Credit: British Library

The horn’s mouth over the entrance to the Radio Communication gallery is shown by a museum attendant standing on a showcase! From Popular Wireless, October, 1930. Credit: British Library

Fast-forward to 2014 and we have an opportunity to hear the horn again.

This is thanks in no small part to the magnificent efforts of the Museum’s Workshops who undertook the reconstruction project with gusto. The missing 18-feet of the horn was rebuilt over an intense 8-month period following Denman’s original specification, although fibre-glass was used in place of the original lead and tin alloy. Led by the Workshops manager Steve Long, the team has succeeded in recreating the single largest loudspeaker in Britain.

The newly reconstructed horn being tested by the author at Blythe House in August 2013. Credit: Science Museum

The newly reconstructed horn being tested by the author at Blythe House in August 2013. Credit: Science Museum

The programme for the upcoming installation is a mixture of past and present, allowing us to listen to the horn in old and new ways. Archive material from the BBC will be heard alongside recent recordings made within the Science Museum. Resonance 104.4FM will be resident in the space, broadcasting live from the Museum, while lunchtime concerts via BBC Radio 3 will mirror the original demonstrations of the 1930s. A series of events, including live music, poetry and performance will also showcase new works for the horn created by a variety of artists, writers and radio programme-makers.

The title, “In Search of Perfect Sound”, refers to Roderick Denman’s quest for audio nirvana. Our modern ears may have become accustomed to high fidelity audio and surround sound, but the exponential horn, with its extraordinary sound presence and a distinct three-dimensional effect, still holds an immersive power of its own.

I’m very proud to have played a part in giving the Denman horn a new lease of life and to have witnessed its exponential metamorphosis, from that modest-looking metal tube, cocooned above all those filing cabinets.

The Exponential Horn: In Search of Perfect Sound opens at the Media Space Studio on 20th May. An afternoon of talks and presentations about the horn and the history of radio in Britain will be held on 12th July. Speakers include John Liffen, Aleks Kolkowski, Dan Wilson and Seán Street.

Aleks Kolkowski is a sound artist, violinist and composer with a special interest in early sound recording and reproduction technology.

Wonderful Things: VCS3 Synthesiser

Stella Williams from our Learning Support Team writes about one of her favourite Science Museum objects

The VCS3 was more or less the first portable commercially available synthesizer, unlike previous machines which were housed in large cabinets and were known to take up entire rooms. It was created in 1969 by EMS (Electronic Music Studios), a company founded by Peter Zinovieff. The team at EMS used a combination of computer programming knowledge, advanced engineering and musical ambition to create a brand new instrument for all to use. The electronics were largely designed by David Cockrell and the machine’s distinctive visual appearance was the work of electronic composer Tristram Cary.

VCS3 synthesiser by EMS

VCS3 synthesiser by EMS
Credit: Science Museum/SSPL

The VCS3 was notoriously difficult to program but, a year before the appearance of the Minimoog and ARP2600, it brought synthesis within the reach of the public. It sold for £330 and became very popular in a short space of time. By the mid ’70s, the VCS3 (and its little brother, the suitcase-bound model AKS) had become something of a classic and was used by many famous bands like Pink Floyd, Yes, The Who and Roxy Music.

This unique instrument allowed musicians to experiment with a range of new sounds never before available to them. Along with other early synthesisers it came to shape ‘the sound of the future’ in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and with further developments came the drum machines of the ‘80s setting the foundation for electronic dance music. Much of the music we take for granted today would not be possible without the pioneering work of groups like EMS and as long as there are developments in technology, there will always be people applying these innovations to music. Inventor Steve Mann has developed many interesting instruments such as the hydraulophone which uses pressurised water to make sounds, while artist and scientist Ariel Garten uses an electroencephalophone to turn brainwaves into music.

What sort of instrument do you think will make the sound of our future?

The VCS3 Synthesiser can be found in the Oramics to Electronica exhibition, on the second floor of the Science Museum.

Kraftwerk Uncovered

Tim Boon, Head of Research & Public History, uncovers Kraftwerk and the connections between music and technology ahead of a live performance at the Science Museum.

Music and technology are intimate companions. Every instrument is a machine that extends the human capacity to make music. It’s why the relationship between music and technology is of interest to the Science Museum, and why we are hosting Kraftwerk Uncovered on 24th January 2014.

The evening features two performances by Icebreaker of new work exploring the origins of Kraftwerk’s sound and their preoccupations with technologies of all kinds. Before Kraftwerk became the world’s most influential technopop outfit, they emerged from the improvisatory new music scene in Cold War Germany.

In stunning new realisations, the highly respected composer, producer and soundscapist J. Peter Schwalm has reimagined Kraftwerk’s earliest recordings, from albums that have long been deleted. These origins lie in the sixties and seventies – exactly the same period as Daphne Oram, Electronic Music Studios and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop were creating their visions of electronic music in the UK, revealed in our Oramics to Electronica exhibition.

An EMS Synthesizers from the Science Museum collection. Synthesizers like this were used by Kraftwerk .

An EMS Synthesizers from the Science Museum collection. Synthesizers like this were used by Kraftwerk .

These performances incorporate a new video work by visual artists Sophie Clements and Toby Cornish that explores the urban spaces of Kraftwerk’s origins. You can see a preview here.

But that’s not all. During the evening, you will also be able to enjoy the Balanescu Quartet’s wonderful re-workings of Kraftwerk’s Man Machine era technopop. These pieces, originally released on the album Possessed, reveal the music in a new, humorous light, picking-up on the dry wit of the originals.

The evening also features two talks: David Toop will explore how Kraftwerk’s music absorbed free jazz and soul, then refracted back into African-American music; with Richard Witts speaking on ‘Vorsprung durch Technik – Kraftwerk, Germany and England’, will investigate how Kraftwerk were received on their first tour of Britain in the 1970s.

Tickets for Kraftwerk Uncovered on 24 January 2014 can be bought online here

T. Alva Edison and his Amazing Phonograph!

Jared Keller, a researcher and former Science Museum Explainer, discusses some of our hidden objects and the science behind them. 

Today we’re looking at the Sound Section of Launchpad and one of my favourite exhibits, “Sound Bite”. If you’re a bit rusty on your Sound Bite science, HERE is an old BBC refresher course on the principles of sound travelling through a medium/solid.

Launchpad’s World Famous ‘Sound Bite’ – Credit: Man Chiwing

The important thing to remember is that sound waves can travel through a solid material like a metal rod the same as they can through the air. Proof of this lies in the fact that you can feel the rod vibrating if you pinch it with your fingers. When you bite down, those vibrations are passed up through your teeth, through your jaw, and up into your ear where they vibrate the same bones in the inner-ear that normally vibrate from sound waves in the air.

Edison stares intently at his new invention - Credit: Science and Society Picture Library

Edison stares intently at his new invention – Credit: Science and Society Picture Library

In 1877 a very ‘bright’ man named Thomas Alva Edison put this principle to use in what he called a phonograph. Whereas the more familiar gramaphone ‘records’ are flat two-sided discs of vinyl, Edison’s original phonographs used 10 cm cylinders made of soft tin-foil (and later wax).

Edison's original phonograph cylinders - on display in the Secret Life of the Home gallery

Edison’s original phonograph cylinders – on display in the Secret Life of the Home gallery – Credit: Science and Society Picture Library

Whatever you call them, the science is simple: he knew, just like you, that sound travelling through a metal causes it to vibrate. His great insight, was in realising that vibrations in a metal could then be turned back into vibrations in the air – what we normally hear as sounds!

The first words spoken into Edison's new phonograph recorder? ... "Mary had a little lamb" - Credit: Science and Society Picture Library

The first words spoken into Edison’s new phonograph recorder? … “Mary had a little lamb” – Credit: Science and Society Picture Library

In the drawing above you can see Edison speaking into one of his phonographs. As he spoke into the cone and tube, it captured his voice and funneled it down until it was intense enough to vibrate a small, incredibly sharp piece of metal. As the metal vibrated with the sound of his voice, the soft tin cylinder was rotated underneath the vibrating tip which caused the tip to cut into the tin. If you want to see a real phonograph player and its cylindrical record, simply head to the ‘Secret Life of the Home’ gallery in the basement.

Closeup of the grooves on a phonograph cylinder - Credit: Science and Society Picture Library

Closeup of the grooves on a phonograph cylinder – Credit: Science and Society Picture Library

Edison knew that once the vibration of his voice had been carved into the soft tin, passing another tip through those grooves in the now hardened tin would make the needle vibrate in exactly the same way! All he had to do then was take those vibrations and amplify them so they were loud enough to be heard by the human ear. But being the veteran Sound Biters that we are, we know that if Edison had simply attached small metal rods to that vibrating tip we could bite down on them and let the vibrations pass up our teeth, through our jaws, and up to our ears, just like with Sound Bite!

A dapper Edison pumps music directly into our skulls! – Credit: Matteo Farinella

Though maybe Edison was right: listening to a song through the air is much more satisfying than biting down on a metal rod!

2LO transmitter in Marconi House, the Strand, London, 1923

This is 2LO, London Broadcasting Station calling!

This is 2LO, London Broadcasting Station calling! Ninety years ago today, at 5:33pm on 14th November 1922, the first British Broadcasting Company transmitter, 2LO, crackled into life – a moment when radio listening changed from a specialist hobby to a national pastime.

2LO transmitter in Marconi House, the Strand, London, 1923

The BBC 2LO transmitter at Marconi House. Despite 22,500 volts running through the transmitter, the only attempt at health and safety was a flimsy metal barrier and small ‘Danger’ signs visible at the back of the picture. Source: Marconi Company

To celebrate this 90th anniversary, we invited the BBC to broadcast a special edition of Simon Mayo’s Radio 2 Drivetime show live from the Science Museum and in front of invited guests, including acting Director General Tim Davie,  and part of the original BBC 2LO transmitter.

Damon Albarn (l) talks to Acting Director General Tim Davie (r) ahead of the broadcast of 2LO Calling live from the Science Museum

Damon Albarn (l) talks to Acting Director General Tim Davie (r) ahead of the broadcast of 2LO Calling live from the Science Museum

At 5:33pm, marking the exact time of the first ever BBC broadcast, 2LO Calling, a specially commissioned piece of music curated by Damon Albarn, was simultaneously broadcast to almost 80 million people across the globe via 60 BBC radio stations. This was an ambitious first for the BBC and a great way to celebrate the enduring power of radio.

Tim Boon, Head of Research and Public Histories at the Science Museum and Damon Albarn discuss the history of 2LO live on BBC Radio 2 in front of the original 2LO transmitter.

In the museum, we’re celebrating with a new exhibition opening on Nov 15, The Voice of the BBC. You can explore the history of early radio with the legendary 2LO transmitter used for the first BBC broadcasts, a ‘meat-safe’ BBC microphone and a 1923 copy of the Radio Times in this special exhibition.

The ‘Meatsafe’ Microphone

Known as “Meatsafe” due to its appearance, these microphones were wheeled into studios for recording. Source: BBC Photographic Library

These objects are part of the BBC Heritage Collection; 946 historical broadcasting objects celebrating 90 years of BBC history which have been donated to our sister museum – the National Media Museum - some of which are now on display in Bradford.

[yframe url='http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xp89JJmpnwY']

Aleks Kolkowski records Aaron Williamson, Camberwell, 2009

Phonographies – Live Wax Cylinder Recordings

Aleks Kolkowski records Aaron Williamson, Camberwell, 2009. (© Helen Petts)

On Wednesday 30 May Sound Artist-in-residence, Aleks Kolkowski, began his series of live demonstrations of wax cylinder recording, using an original hand-cranked Edison phonograph c.1909.  Aleks was joined by the talented Jason Singh, a beatboxer and vocal sculptor, who is currently the Sound Artist-in-residence at the V&A museum. Both residencies are part of Supersonix, an Exhibition Road Cultural Group project.

Aleks gave a fascinating introduction to the process and technology used to inscribe sound onto a wax cylinder; the pressure of sound energy channelled down a large horn makes a Mica membrane flex, pressing a sharp sapphire stylus into the softened wax to literally cut a grove of the sound vibrations. This historical technology was then used to record a series of very modern beatbox performances with Jason testing his full vocal range to mimic instruments and create experimental sonic environments that were captured in the wax.

The success of a wax recording is affected by the quality of the wax and any invisible imperfections that it might hold, so there was great anticipation as the first recording was played back on an antique concert horn.  The effect was quite magical with the wax offering not so much a faithful reproduction of the performance but one that was layered and softened by the recording process.

 

The series continues with special guests:

Wednesday, 20 June 2012: Mick Jackson – Writer-in-Residence, Science Museum

Wednesday, 27 June 2012: Cheryl Tipp – Wildlife Sounds Curator, Sound Archive, British Library

Thursday, 28 June 2012: Nahum Mantra, Thereminist

Events are free but bookable through the Science Museum bookings line 0870 8704868 or at any sales desk inside the museum (maximum capacity 25 people) 

Aleksander Kolkowski is a composer, violinist, sound artist and researcher born and based in London. His career as a professional musician has spanned over 30 years and, over the past 12 years, Kolkowski has explored the potential of historical sound recording and reproduction technology; combining his unique collection of horned string instruments with gramophones and wax cylinder phonographs, to make contemporary mechanical-acoustic music. This work has been shown across Europe and in the USA, and broadcast by the BBC, WDR, Deutschlandradio and others.

This series is part of his major project Phonographies an archive of contemporary musicians, artists and writers recorded exclusively on wax cylinders.

 

 

Image of tuning forks

Hearing Artefacts – A Science Museum Radio Diary

Image of tuning forks The Science Museum is very pleased to announce our first ever Sound Artist in Residence, Aleks Kolkowski.

In recent years Aleks has explored the potential of historical sound recording and reproduction technology to make contemporary mechanical-acoustic music. His works for singers, instrumentalists and even singing canaries often feature live-made sound inscriptions onto wax cylinders and lacquer discs using Edison phonographs and old disc recording lathes.

Other activities include repurposing discarded digital CDs as 45rpm analogue records and both sound installations and performances where historic sound reproducing machines, mechanical musical instruments and archival recordings are combined with state-of-the-art electronics. Such practice-led research using antiquated audio technologies and investigations into little-known forms of mechanical amplification led to the award of a PhD from Brunel University.

His major project to date has been an archive of contemporary musicians, artists and writers recorded exclusively on wax cylinders. Begun in 2006 and continuing, the entire Phonographies collection may be listened to online.

Busily recording away, Aleks has developed a series of weekly radio programmes documenting the sounds of the museum. Granted unfettered access to our collections and in close co-operation with curators and staff, Aleks has recorded objects, machines and instruments and the stories associated with them. The radio series will be aired on Resonance 104.4 FM  at 4.30 on Thursday afternoons every week beginning March 22nd and repeated on Sundays at 11am.

 From the service corridors and basement workshops to restricted areas on the upper floors, the sounds of the entire building will be also be traced in an attempt to map the sounds of one of the world’s greatest museums.

 This week’s show: Thursday 5th April, 16:30 – 17:30, repeated on Sunday 8th at 11am

Machine Music: Sounds of Steam; Double Beam and Mill Engines; Loom

 This week’s show focuses on the giant steam driven mill engine in the Energy Hall on the ground floor of the museum and the largest working exhibit on display. Ben Russell, curator of Mechanical Engineering talks about its history and maintenance engineer and steam specialist John Shulver fires up the boiler and blasts some excess steam out into the museum courtyard. We hear the engine in all its glory from close up on the deck down to its thudding echoes in the basement. Also heard on the programme are the clamorous clacking sounds of the Toyoda Loom and the rhythmic chug and whir of an exquisitely engineered model double-beam steam engine from 1840. 

 Last week’s show: The Museum as a Sonic Space

 Tim Boon, the Science Museum’s Head of Research, muses on how sound operates in the museum, whether accidental, incidental or deliberately created, through a guided tour of particular galleries and exhibits. In the second half of the programme, Aleks  accompanies Exhibit Maintenance Manager Sean Wogan as he starts up the Water Garden and other delights.