Ethnographic sounds are now coming out of the archives to be experienced in new ways at the Pitt Rivers Museum through Reel to Real, a sound curation project made possible by a grant from the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund in 2012. Reel to Real was designed to digitize the Pitt Rivers’ unique fieldwork collections. The majority of collectors within the UK and beyond donate their recordings to the British Library, home to one of the largest sound archives in Europe. However, the field recordings held at the Pitt Rivers, existing on a range of formats from fragile wax cylinders dating back to 1912, through to cassette reels, tapes and DATs, form part of wider collections of objects, photographs and other manuscripts. A very diverse range of sounds, including glowing nocturnal spirits in the rainforests of the Central African Republic, slit drum ceremonies from Vanuatu in the south Pacific, and children’s singing games in playgrounds across Europe, have recently been digitized and then played back in public to engage visitors.

On Friday November 23rd 2012, as part of a series of late night free public events, the lights at the Pitt Rivers Museum were turned off, plunging the galleries into a world of darkness and sound. A thick black curtain was pulled across the bottom of the entrance stairs, turning the entire museum into one large stage. Visitors were given wind up torches to explore the galleries in the dark, accompanied by a four-hour immersive soundtrack of Bayaka music selected from the Louis Sarno collection. Nathaniel Robin Mann, the museum’s Embedded composer in residence, collaborated with Noel Lobley, the museum’s ethnomusicologist, to deliver a range of archival sounds on multiple levels. Through a combination of PA systems, wireless mics, live streaming and localized sound installations, ethnographic sound was designed to become a tangible and physical part of the gallery experience.

Three of the Museum’s main audio collections – Louis Sarno’s recordings from the Central African Republic, Raymond Clausen’s recordings from Vanuatu, and Father Damian Webb’s children’s songs and games from across Europe, were presented so that the sound archive could engage visitors in different ways that reflected some of the variations in recording style and content. Webb’s recordings, made in playgrounds across Europe, were played back accompanied by a loop of Webb’s field photographs while Simone Dogherty, a Families Education Officer, taught some of the songs, games and activities to families. Sound artist and composer Robin Alderton was commissioned to plunder the archive and build a textural composition from the Raymond Clausen collection. Alderton searched for recording errors, reels recorded at wrong speeds, microphone tests, and the voice of the collector. Nestled amongst the cabinets of the lower gallery with collecting equipment, old Dansettes, dictaphones and other recorders, he composed loops that swelled into a localized soundscape. Alderton performed as a living collector, sampling and recycling archival fragments of voices and mistakes into an organic composition that brought life the hidden creative processes of sound collecting.

The Louis Sarno collection of Bayaka recordings consists of more than 1000 hours documenting the entire range of music making and soundscapes of a single community of hunter-gatherers recorded across more than a generation. Recorded in and around the rainforests of the Central African Republic and northern Congo, the archive includes every imaginable sound, from melodic water drums to rasping earth bows, from spirits speaking through the sounds of leaves popping, to stunning polyphonic swells of massed female choirs. Sarno has lived with a Bayaka community for almost thirty years, and his recordings are richly immersive, documenting the relationship between music and the wider forest environment. The most effective way to broadcast these in the museum spaces was to use PA systems to envelope the entire galleries so that the sound could be fully experienced as people walked around. Visitors moved through the sounds of laughter, forest hunting signals and songs, and water drums sloshing round the galleries.

In order to integrate Bayaka music more firmly within Sarno’s collection of images from the rainforests and into the gallery spaces, Nathaniel Mann designed a visualizer which displayed the sound wave generated by the music being broadcast and which could be seen on top of images being projected from the rainforests. The sound wave was directly generated from microphone inputs in laptops meaning that the projected sound wave and images would constantly change depending on the soundscape of the museum galleries at any particular moment. Visitors realised that they could change the sound wave, and hence the nature of the forest image behind it, by clapping, singing and making any kind of noise, and so began to participate in the music. The four-hour playlist of Bayaka music was streamed live via a webcam, and back in the Central African Republic Louis Sarno and some of his Bayaka friends walked for more than an hour to visit the World Wildlife Fund office in Bayanga in order to watch the live stream via satellite phone. Louis tells me that the Bayaka were immensely proud to see and hear their music being experienced in this way.

The Reel to Real Project website launches on March 20th, to read the Reel Project Blog click here.

Back to top