National phonography: field recording and sound archiving in Postwar Britain
Western, Thomas James
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Vast numbers of historical field recordings are currently being digitised and disseminated online; but what are these field recordings—and how do they resonate today? This thesis addresses these questions by listening to the digitisation of recordings made for a number of ethnographic projects that took place in Britain in the early 1950s. Each project shared a set of logics and practices I call national phonography. Recording technologies were invested with the ability to sound and salvage the nation, but this first involved deciding what the nation was, and what it was supposed to sound like. National phonography was an institutional and technological network; behind the encounter between recordist and recorded lies a complex and variegated mess of cultural politics, microphones, mediality, sonic aesthetics, energy policies, commercial interests, and music formats. The thesis is structured around a series of historical case studies. The first study traces the emergence of Britain’s field recording moment, connecting it to the waning of empire, and focusing on sonic aspects of the 1951 Festival of Britain and the recording policies of national and international folk music organisations. The second study listens to the founding of a sound archive at the University of Edinburgh, also in 1951, asking how sound was used in constructing Scotland as an object of study, stockpiling the nation through the technologies and ideologies of preservation. The third study tracks how the BBC used fieldwork – particularly through its Folk Music and Dialect Recording Scheme (1952-57) – as part of an effort to secure the aural border. The fourth study tells the story of The Columbia World Library of Folk and Primitive Music, produced by Alan Lomax while based in Britain and released in 1955. Here, recordings were presented in fragments as nations were written onto long-playing records, and the project is discussed as a museum of voice. The final chapter shifts perspective to the online circulation of these field recordings. It asks what an online sound archive is, hearing how recordings compress multiple agencies which continue to unfold on playback, and exploring the archival silences built into sonic productions of nations. Finally, online archives are considered as heritage sites, raising questions about whose nation is produced by national phonography. This thesis brings together perspectives from sound studies and ethnomusicology; and contributes to conversations on the history of ethnomusicology in Europe, the politics of technology, ontologies of sound archives, and theories of recorded sound and musical nationalisms.