Cataloguing the Sound Archive – my last week!

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This is my last week as Cataloguing Officer on the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project. I will be hanging up my headphones and taking up a post as Assistant Registrar here at National Museums NI. As my time on the project draws to a close I find myself marvelling anew at the rich variety of sound material we are in the midst of preserving. I have been covetously eyeing up titles on tape boxes that are still to be digitised and savouring the final recordings in collections I have been working my way through.

Image: A few titles in the sound archive tape register © Amy Hamill
A few titles in the sound archive tape register © Amy Hamill

UOSH has made lots of progress since my last blog. We are on the cusp of completing the 564 tapes in the Linda Ballard collection and our brilliant and dedicated volunteers are currently cataloguing collections by agricultural curators Mervyn Watson and Jonathan Bell. I have to confess that I initially disregarded these collections. I anticipated yawn-inducing lists of grass seed varieties and long-winded discussions about dairy farm regulations. I was of course, proved wrong. Both those topics are covered in these tapes but they are truly fascinating! Mervyn and Jonathan delve into the techniques, processes and customs associated with Ulster farming practices with such attention to detail and genuine interest that it was impossible not to get sucked in. Turns out planting potatoes isn’t as simple as I thought! They also explore the declining arts of blacksmithing, plough making, creel construction and flax milling, all of which are only just within living memory of their interviewees. I don’t plan to take up farming any time soon but I am safe in the knowledge that my instruction manual will be there in the form of these collections if I ever do.

Another collection I recently completed was 87 tapes recorded by Janet Harbison. An incredibly talented harpist and composer in her own right, Janet was Curator of Music at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum between 1986 and 1994. In creating and archiving these recordings of traditional Irish music, Janet has preserved unique renditions of traditional songs and exquisite harp performances that could easily have been lost.  She also asks much bigger questions about cultural identity, sectarianism and the ties that bind us in Northern Ireland.

In my opinion Janet could also have had a successful career as a radio talk show host. She starts each interview with delightful details about the setting, mood and purpose of her recordings and has an easy rapport with everyone she talks to. The titles of her tapes read like a who’s who of traditional, folk and classical music in Ireland. Interviewees include ‘The man with the golden flute’, James Galway, and traditional singer, Paddy Tunny, as well as rising stars such as Janet’s own harp pupils (like the brilliant 6 year old who takes part in the 1988 Harp Festival at Cultra Manor[1]). As well as interviews there are informal ‘jam sessions’ between Janet and other musicians such as fiddle player, James Byrne[2]. These recordings give a fascinating glimpse into these performers’ innate understanding of their instruments and encyclopaedic knowledge of traditional Irish songs. I also found myself marvelling at Janet’s ability to accompany a piece based on a few hummed bars although in one recording she does say any harpist worth that salt knows how to fudge an accompaniment!

Image: Uher open reel tape recorder our curators used to record interviews © Victoria Millar
Uher open reel tape recorder our curators used to record interviews © Victoria Millar

There is a thread running through Janet’s collection that builds to a crescendo in a tape of the Belfast Harp Orchestra in concert. In this commercially produced recording the Orchestra’s performance celebrates the Bicentenary of the Belfast Assembly of Harpists, 1792.[3] Leading up to this tape, the collection is dotted with recordings of oral harp teaching preparing players for an earlier concert (I am now convinced I could play the harp if I had access to one!), performances of pieces by blind Celtic harper, Turlough Carolan and snippets of Janet evangelising the work of Edward Bunting on Northern Irish radio[4]. It is in these recordings that Janet’s deep passion for the subject grounded in extensive research shines brightest.

Image: HOYFM.C1992.5 A cassette of the Belfast Harp Orchestra in concert. © Aileen McEwen
HOYFM.C1992.5 A cassette of the Belfast Harp Orchestra in concert. © Aileen McEwen

Recordings of debates, seminars and conferences like ‘What is Ulster culture?’[5] and ‘Traditional Music - Whose Music?’[6] are where Janet shows her canny understanding of the power of music as a tool to unpick our prejudices. The talks and lectures that extol the importance of educating our young people to look beyond shallow musical and cultural differences feel just as relevant in Northern Ireland today as it did when these recordings were made 20 years ago. Janet herself side-steps any trite or reductive perceptions of ‘trad’ or conversely of ‘parade music’, interviewing silver band members and titans of Irish traditional music indiscriminately.

The next few collections for the Northern Ireland UOSH hub include secret societies, shirt factory workers, and steam engine sound effects. I am so looking forward to hearing what else the team uncovers.

[1] Sami.bl.uk UNMNI003/48 S1 C1-UNMNI003/52 C7 Harp Festival 1988, Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, County Down, Northern Ireland 

[2] Sami.bl.uk UNMNI003/48 S1 C1-UNMNI003/52 C7 Local fiddle music, Glencolmcille, County Donegal, Ireland

[3] Sami.bl.uk UNMNI003/85 Belfast Harp Orchestra in concert

[4] Sami.bl.uk UNMNI003/83 T1 Radio Foyle: Uphill & Downdale: The history of the harp in Ireland

[5] Sami.bl.uk UNMNI003/53 S2; S1 What is Ulster culture? [Debate]

[6] Sami.bl.uk UMNI003/66 S1 C1-UNMNI003/77 T1 Traditional Music - 'Whose Music?', Co-operation North Conference, Killyhevlin Hotel, Enniskillen