The Odditorium is a compendium of eccentrics, trickers, deviants and obsessives, many of whom are largely unacknowledged in the usual histories of science, politics and the arts. This book has been compiled and edited by David Bramwell (founder of the Brighton salon The Catalyst Club) and Jo Keeling, publisher of Earnest Journal.

“…the most sensational plant in Britain – like a thing from outerspace”. Muriel Howorth with her ‘atomic peanuts’.


‘ve written a chapter on the extraordinary life of Muriel Howorth, an amateur nuclear scientist who experimented during the Cold War in the UK seaside town of Eastbourne. Inspired by scientists at Oak Ridge, Tennessee (home of the Manhattan Project), Howorth composed and directed her own amateur atomic ballet Isotopia. She also founded the UK Atomic Gardening Society – an example of citizen science and mass experimentation, conducted through the Post Office.
The Odditorium

Published online by Wire Magazine (June 2014), Unheimlich Manoeuvres  is a short essay on ventriloquism and the uncanny. It’s illustrated with videos of many fine ventriloquists including Ray Alan, Arthur Worsley and the great Terri Rogers. A ventriloquist and inventor of magic tricks, Rogers was famous for her haughty on-stage persona and never ending exasperation with her foul-mouthed knee pal Shorty Harris.

The article includes an interview with performance artist Dickie Beau – his act may fascinate anyone with an interest in sound and disembodiment (or re-embodiment). There are also some thoughts on my relationship with Hugo, the dummy I wired up and roboticised after finding him at a Magic Circle bazaar.

Hugo (photo Melita Dennett)
Hugo (photo Melita Dennett)

Material Culture and Electronic Sound is edited by Tim Boon and Frode Weium, with a forward by Brian Eno. Published by Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press (2013), this is the eighth book in the Artefact series.

I’ve written chapter 4: ‘Mimics, menaces or new musical horizons? Musicians’ attitudes toward the first drum machines and samplers’. This essay examines how musicians responded to the first commercially available drum machines and samplers in the 1950s and early 1960s. In particular, it looks at how musicians’ unions in the US and UK pitted live musicians against machines by pointing out the ‘dehumanising’ influence of machines playing or facilitating music. This repeated a tactic they’d deployed unsuccessfully in the 1920s when they campaigned for talking pictures to be removed from cinemas and pit orchestras to be reinstated.


Material Culture and Electronic Sound chapter list

An Individual Note (Daphne Oram)

Funded by the Daphne Oram Trust, Anomie Academic have republished Daphne Oram’s An Individual Note: of Music, Sound and Electronics – a book that’s been out of print since 1973. This beautiful reprint includes many rarely seen photographs from the Oram family library, images that help to broaden our understanding of her rich and varied life.

I’ve written an introduction to the reprint, giving an overview of Oram’s life and her pioneering work in the early days of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and in her home studio in Tower Folly, Kent. I’ve included material from Oram’s correspondence, diaries and notebooks, all of which are archived in the  Special Collections and Archives, Goldsmiths, University of London.

This reprint was funded by a Kickstarter campaign, which successfully secured funds for the first 1000 copies. It was designed by Joe Gilmore (Qubik). The reprint is currently available on Wordery.

Thanks to Althea Greenan, James Bulley, Tom Richards and Mick Grierson for their advice and encouragement, editor Frances Morgan, publisher Matt Price, the Oram family, Richard Whitelaw and the Daphne Oram Trust.

Daphne Oram splicing tape

A report on the Foghorn Requiem

When sound escapes the confines of a building, it takes on an unusual caste. At myriad outdoor festivals around the country, we’re in denial about this oddness as we amplify outdoor sound, add reverb and otherwise try to fake the effect of boxing it up in bricks and mortar. But for forty glorious minutes on Saturday 22 June, we heard sound in the open, in the wild – music that played the sky.

Foghorn requiem - poster.I was one of thousands of people who heard about the strangeness afoot on a cliff top in South Shields, England, last weekend. And by Thursday morning, despite a near-empty wallet, I knew I couldn’t resist the call to down tools and journey north to the scene of the Foghorn Requiem. For the foghorn is one of those most evocative of sounds, one that never fails to instil a sense of excited, anxious alertness. I live in Brighton, a seaside town on the south coast of England where we still have a foghorn in operation. When I hear its notes dissipating through the fret that sometimes descends on our city, I’m sure I’m not the only landlubber who pulls the duvet around me just a little more tightly, imagining ‘those in peril on the sea’.

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This must be how it feels to see a unicorn.

Six months ago, I came face to face with a machine I’d read about often but never expected to see. A one-off invention, this oddity had been a dreamlike presence in my life, hovering into my consciousness at unexpected moments, something I imagined but couldn’t fully sketch in my mind. I’d dreamed of it since I was ten, a time when I was obsessing over a cassette tape my dad had given me. On it were some electronic sounds he’d recorded from the radio – sound pieces composed by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

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This Radio 4 documentary aired at 1:30pm on 5 July 2011. It’s repeated at 3:30pm on Saturday 9 July.
Now available on the BBC iPlayer.

For those of you who would like to know more about The Bird Fancyer’s Delight, here are some references I’ve found as I researched this topic, including transcripts from the British Library, music excerpts, photographs of a serinette and details of contributors to the show. I hope you find them interesting.

Thanks to the reviewers in the Observer, Telegraph, Times and Independent who were kind enough to give the show such a good write-up. Thanks also to the marvellous Project Moonbase, retrofuturistic podcasters, for giving the show an honourable mention in show number 38.


We know we can teach birds to talk and sing. But were birds ever used as primordial, feathered music recorders? Did we use them to bring popular music into our homes on command before the advent of the phonograph, the gramophone and radio?

In this Radio 4 documentary, produced by Neil McCarthy, I take this question to biologists, bird keepers, musicians and others and revealing some surprising curiosities in the archives — oddities that should fascinate anyone with an interest in birdsong, music or early sound recording.

This radio piece is packed with some of my favourite bird training ephemera, including  1700s dance tunes and some wonderful 1950s bird training records. Human contributors include ornithologist Geoff Sample, poet Katrina Porteous, behavioural ecologist Tim Birkhead, composer Aleks Kolkowski and Yorkshire’s ‘Champion of Champion’ roller canary fancyer Ken Westmorland.

Contributors to the show

This show was developed from a talk I presented a couple of years ago at Dorkbot London and later at The Last Tuesday Society, London. The show’s producer was Neil McCarthy – Neil and I met when I presented a short piece on the Edison phonograph and the alleged voice of Queen Victoria, for another Radio 4 documentary.

Here are a few of the people you can hear in the show (in order of appearance):

Aleksander Kolkowski – composer with an interest in bird song training and early sound recording and playback technology

Tim Birkhead – behavioural ecologist from Sheffield University, and author of the book the Red Canary, a book on the culture of breeding and rearing songbirds and the evolutionary biology of birdsong

Ken Westmorland – ‘champion of champions’ roller canary fancier

Geoff Sample – ornithologist and wildlife sound recordist

Katrina Porteous – poet, historian and broadcaster whose work is inspired by the culture and landscape of the Northumberland coast

I also spoke to these other very helpful experts who you don’t get to hear on the show:

Grant Findlay – former chairman of the Budgerigar Society

June Holmes – archivist of the Natural History Society of Northumbria. June is an expert on the late Sparkie Williams, who now graces a case in the Great North Museum: Hancock. Sparkie currently shares an exhibition case with a number of other bird specimens but June is trying to raise funds for a dedicated display.

Nicholas Lander – expert on the history of the recorder. The two woodcuts on this page are from Nicholas’ site.

Steve Nichols – Chief Executive of the Parrot Zoo (aka the UK National Parrot Sanctuary). Steve spoke to me at length about the ethics of keeping caged birds. Many of the parrots and parakeets at the sanctuary come from caring owners who are no longer able to look after their pets (with a lifespan in captivity in excess of 50 years, many parrots outlive their owners). Sadly, some parrots and parakeets end up at the sanctuary after being discarded by buyers who expected them to talk.  When birds don’t talk readily and are rejected by their owners and left alone for long periods of the day, they become lonely and exhibit distressed, self-harming behaviour – a problem Steve often finds with new arrivals at the sanctuary.

Don Rowell and Linda Heighton – champion budgerigar fanciers

Derek Smith – researcher of Sparkie Williams who is currently trying to make a documentary about Sparkie and his trainer Mattie.

The Serinette

La Serinette (the bird organ), Jean-Baptiste Chardin, 1751

Hanging in The Louvre, this painting by Jean Baptiste Siméon Chardin shows a woman playing a serinette or bird organ.

The serinette has short, high-pitched pipes so it plays tunes in the same register as birdsong when you turn the handle. It was used as an automatic alternative to wind instruments such as recorder or flageolet. Popular in France throughout the eighteenth century, the serinette was used to play tunes to birds to encourage or train them to sing (‘serin’ is French for canary).

In this painting, we can see the woman smiling at her caged birds, presumably because they were singing. But there’s a mystery: were the birds simply chirping along, with their own song, in the style of the canaries of Virginia Belmont? Or were they mimicking the tune of the serinette?

A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to see a serinette in the Musée de la Musique Mécanique, Les Gets, France. You can clearly see the pins which push up levers, opening pipe valves, as the barrel turns. The serinette can play several tunes which were listed on the lid. Tunes are selected by moving the barrel slightly to the left or right — this engages different sets of pins:

Lid of serinette, listing a Gavotte and other tunes
Lid of serinette, listing a Gavotte and other tunes

Barrel of serinette, showing the pins which were used to encode the tunes

Ken Westmorland’s Roller Canaries

Ken’s roller canaries are bred for their song, not their colour. Rather than singing the high-pitched trills and cheeps that attract female canaries in the wild, these birds have been bred over many generations to make soothing, low-pitched purring sounds and clucks. The roller canary makes most of these distinctive sounds with its beak closed. One element of its song, the glock, is said to be like the sound of water slopping in a bucket.

In the show, you hear Ken explaining that his birds’ talents are largely down to genetics. His prize specimens are particularly good at learning roller sounds.  In conversation, Tim Birkhead agreed that Ken, in breeding his prize birds, has been selecting the best students of these strange sounds. Morphologically, there’s nothing to distinguish Ken’s birds from other captive-bred canaries –  it’s all down to their ability to learn roller song.

Sound and Music


The Bird Fancyer’s Delight

The Bird Fancyer’s Delight

Throughout the show, you can hear my short renditions of these tunes from 1717, published by Richard Meares and his rival John Walsh. Each tune is named after a particular bird and was written to be taught to the bird in question. The bullfinch has more tunes than any other, adding some credibility to the claim that these were tunes to be taught to birds – bullfinches are known to be particularly good students of human song. You can hear a bullfinch whistling a German folksong in the show.

Some of the pieces are performed on the sopranino, a tiny recorder that pitches the tunes in a closer register to birdsong. The rest are performed on a treble recorder which is an octave lower and easier on the ears. As these tunes are used as incidental music, I’ve performed them without the customary repeats. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, these tunes were almost certainly played on a bird flageolet, a relative of the recorder which was very high in pitch.

There is a general consensus that these tunes were too long and complex to be taught to birds, although in conversation, Tim Birkhead and I agreed it would be fascinating play a tune on a sopranino to a bird several times a day, every day, and see if he could learn it. Early experiments with these tunes, by bird expert Bill Thorpe in the 1950s, presented birds with tape recorded versions of the songs. But songbirds may learn better from a live tutor who presents songs in a social context (Baptista and Petrinovich, 1984).

A selection of melodies from the Bird Fancyer’s Delight:

Virginia Belmont

Ave Maria

For canary chorus and pipe organ, featuring a vocal solo by George Sawtelle
From Virginia Belmont’s Famous Singing and Talking Birds

A former high kicker from The Ziegfeld Follies, Virginia was inspired to try bird training when she met Joseph Belmont in the early 1930s. Joseph was a ‘featured act’ in Ziegfeld’s show,  where he would perform a Canary Opera with his school of singing birds.

Virginia married Joseph and opened a bird shop in the roof gardens of the dazzling Rockerfeller Center, New York, in 1935 where she regularly performed with her own birds. She also toured America with her famous talking Mynah Birds, AC, DC and TV, sponsored by the electricity company Westinghouse. This is the company who also made the wonderful smoking, talking robot Electro who appeared in the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

At the end of the show, you can hear Virginia’s birds duetting with a live tenor. They are chirping along, in their own song, rather than mimicking the tenor’s tune.

Notes from Virginia’s own record sleeve (c1960?):

“Love of life – animals – birds – people – has kept this vibrant and charming human being almost decades younger than her age (now in her 65th year). She has a gift of magic with people and pets. They feel her warmth and enthusiasm immediately when in her presence, and she has an uncanny ability to heal them when they come to her”.

Hear more of Virginia’s birds and music on the wfmu.org archive.

Train your Bird in Stereo

Train Your Bird in Stereo

This minimalist masterpiece from 1958 claims to harness the power of stereo recording – a new technology at the time  – to increase the bird’s attention span and improve learning. Side one explains how to use the record and make the most of your ‘pet potential’. Side two is the training session itself – a trippy succession of endlessly repeating phrases, delivered from alternate sides of the stereo field. Side two was meant to be played in a darkened room ‘after winning your pet’s friendship and admiration’, through the taming tips on side one.

Published on the Americana label, Train your Bird in Stereo was devised and recorded by Henry J Bates and Robert L Busenbarn, a pair of bird fanciers who set up a bird farm together in 1952. Bates and Busenbarn claimed their vocal lessons were effective with parakeets, cockatiels, mynah birds, macaws, cockatoos, Amazons and ‘all talking birds’.

Hear Train your Bird in Stereo on the wfmu.org archive.

Sparkie Williams

Champion Talking Budgie, 1958, in conversation with Philip Marsden, the ‘TV Budgie Man’:

The Lark Ascending

Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1920

This quasi-improvisatory, pentatonic piece for violin and orchestra evokes skylark song and the soaring flight of this British songbird. Williams’ inspiration was the George Meredeth poem To a Skylark. According to popular legend, Williams was arrested when he was spotted jotting down this piece while watching troop ships out at sea, at the outbreak of the First World War – a young boy had seen him scribbling and assumed he was some kind of spy.

In this documentary, this piece plays under Katrina Porteous’ reading of her own poem Skylark.

A performance of The Lark Ascending with Janine Jansen and the BBC Concert Orchestra:

Music for Organ

Olivier Messiaen

Messiaen expected to be remembered as a transcriber of birdsong as much as a composer. Many of his works feature motifs transcribed directly from birds, which he slowed down to incorporate in his music. When Alex Kolkowski talks about the painting by Chardin, at the beginning of the show, you can hear some of Messiaen’s bird-inspired organ music under our conversation (exact reference for this music to follow – when I’m back at home with my CDs).

Here’s a charming video of Messiaen and pianist Yvonne Loriod, showing how his music is inspired by birdsong:

Whistling bullfinch

This recording of a bullfinch trained to sing a German folktune can be found on the British Library CD Bird Mimicry (2006). Also on this CD is the sound of a jay imitating a computer modem, a starling making the sounds of a chicken and a bowerbird mimicking workers sawing wood and hammering. There’s also a brief appearance from Newcastle’s finest: Sparkie Williams, champion talking budgie 1958.

Aleks Kolkowski with a Stroh violinMechanical Landscape with Bird

Aleksander Kolkowski, 2002

Kolkowski wrote music in imitation of canaries which was played to a group of canaries every day, just like the music in the original Bird Fancyer’s Delight. The music was played on a new serinette, designed and built by Martin Riches. The canaries were reared and trained by Helmut Mossmann.

Eventually, the canaries were brought into the concert hall where they duetted with human musicians playing Stroh violins. Fashionable in the early twentieth century, Stroh violins had phonograph-like horns, rather than a violin body, to amplify the sound of their strings. Some of the canaries’ performance was recorded on their successor, The Edison phonograph.

The Mechanical Nightingale (incidental music for the documentary)

Sarah Angliss 2011

I composed these short snatches of incidental music in response to some of the themes of the show – in particular the story of the Emperor and the Nightingale, an allegorical tale from Hans Christian Anderson which Katrina Porteous tells in the show.

In this music you can hear slowed-down nightingale song, as sung by the nightingale then imitated by a ‘mechanical nightingale’ – my robotic carillon. I was inspired to experiment with slowed-down birdsong after my conversation with Geoff Sample. Towards the end of the show, Geoff plays skylark song and slows it down 14 times, revealing its great complexity and musicality.

Transcripts from bird training treatises

Treatises for teaching birds to sing and talk were written from the early eighteenth and were in fashion until the phonograph came along at the end of the nineteenth century. Here are a couple of examples – I’ve transcribed these from originals in the British Library.

These transcripts mention the cruel practice of ‘stopping’ – depriving a bird of food and light to give the impression that spring is starting later in the year. Many songbirds come into their song at the onset of spring so stopping could be used to make birds sing out of season. Stopped birds were used as tutors for next year’s birds – and to lure migrating birds into bird catchers’ clapnets.

John Ramlings

October 1st 1794

The New and Complete Bird-Fancyer; or Bird-Fancyer’s Recreation and Delight. Containing the Newest and Very Best Instructions for Catching, Taking, Feeding, Rearing, &c. all the Various Sorts of Song-Birds, particularly Nightingales, Larks, Goldfinches, Bullfinches, Robins, Canary-Birds, Black-birds, Thrushes, Starlings, Linnets, &c. &c. Including, among other particulars, A full Account of all their several Distempers, and the best Methods of curing them. Likewise the surest Means of distinguishing the COCK from the HEN, and of learning them to sing to the greatest Perfection. Together with Many other useful Particulars relative to Singing Birds, too numerous to mention in a Title-Page.

The whole Revised, Corrected, and Improved, By Mr. William Thompson, Late Gardener to the Duke of ANCASTER (sic), and Author of New Gardeners Calendar; who has made the Management of Birds his favourite Study upwards of Twenty Years.

Assisted by the most eminent Fanciers.

Embellished with a beautiful Frontispiece, elegantly designed and executed.


Printed for Alex. Hogg, at the Original King’s Arms, No. 16, Pater-Noster-Row

[Price only one shilling]


No well executed work of this kind having yet appeared, treating wholly of Singing-Birds, we here present the Public with one, compiled from our own observations, and confirmed by the experience of others, who have been curious in the breeding and bringing up of Singing-Birds. And as nothing magnifies and sets forth the power of the Supreme Being more than these pretty harmless animals, whether we reflect  on their velocity, beauty, or the variegated colours of their feathers, so, in every respect they raise infinite delight and satisfaction to their keepers, and sweetly recompence their trouble and charge in bringing them up, by their pleasant harmony. We enjoy in our houses or aviaries, all the melody of the woods. ..

How to stop a Linnet, or any other Bird, and make them sing after they moulted off


The stopping of a bird is of greatest use to the bird-catchers, and likewise such as would have them a sweet song, you must let your bird, before you stop him, be a year old or better, and keep him in a back cage, so that he may be able to find his victuals in the dark; you may put him in a stop about the middle of May. The nature of a Stop is, to have a case made fit for the purpose, then put in your birds and leave the door open till you are satisfied they have found their meat and water, then darken them by degrees ‘till they are quite dark, and when you see they have found their meat and water then cover them with a blanket or any thick cloth that is warm, keeping them very hot; you may look at them, once in two or three days, give them fresh water, and blow their seeds:

It is not best to clean their cages above once a month, by reason the hotness of their dung forces them to moult. You should take a bit of stick or knife, to keep their dung down, to prevent dirtying their feathers, and then let them continue in this close stop for three months, by which time they will be moulted off, then open them a little and a little by degrees; take off the blanket first, and let them stand so three or four days, then open the door a little way, then take them out and clean their cages, after that put them in again with the door half open for two or three days longer, then take them out and put them in a warm place, so that they come to the air by degrees; put them a little beet-leaf and liquourice in the water, this with a blade of saffron, which is a very good thing, when he is drawn of a stop. After you have drawn them out of a stop, you will find them to sing still more and more, so that they will be for the bird-catcher’s use, or to learn any other birds their song; those birds will continue in song ‘till about Christmas, or after, by which time most young birds are come to their song.

The bird-branchers are very plentiful to be catched in June, July, or August, and likewise flight-birds about Michaelmas in great quantities: I have known forty of fifty dozen catched in one day with clap-nets.


The Bullfinch

This is a very fine bird both for its beauty and learning songs, but his natural one is very indifferent. He may be learned to pipe almost any tune at command, you may also learn him to talk. Some are tought to speak and whistle at command; and when they have once got a tune, they seldom forget it, not even if they hand amongst other birds. They are very valuable, if well brought up, and are sometimes sold for nine or ten guineas a bird.

How to feed them

You may feed them and bring them up the same way as you do a Linnet, only when they feed themselves, give them more canary-feed than a Linnet. Generally give them the better half canary-feed, and the rest rape; and if you find them out of order, give them a little fine hemp-feed, and a little saffron in the water; give them likewise a little Woodlark’s victuals, the same as you would do a Linnet. Take them out when about twelve or fourteen days old; when kept four or five days, or a week, you may begin to pipe, whistle, or talk to them what you have a mind they should learn. A gentleman that piped to one from a fortnight old to two months, and then being obliged to leave his bird and go into the country for six months, before he returned his bird whistled nearly three parts of the tune, notwithstanding he had no-body to pipe or tune to him in his absence.


The Canary-Birds

These birds we formerly had brought from the Canaries, and no where else, and are generally known by that name; but we have abundance of that kind come from Germany, so we call them by the names of the country, German birds, but I believe their first original were brought from the Canary islands. Those brought from the Canaries are not so much in esteem with us as formerly, for those brought from Germany and France far exceed them in handsomeness and song. German birds having many fine jerks and notes of the Nightingale and Tit-lark.

The nature of the Canary-birds is quite contrary to all others, for as other birds and subject to be fat, they never are, (I mean the cocks when in song) for the great metal of the birds, and his lavish singing, will hardly suffer him to keep flesh on his back.

To chuse a bird for song

If you hear him sing before you buy him, then you are sure you have not bought a hen for a cock. As to the song, I count it good, when it is begun something like the Sky-lark, then running on the notes of the Nightingale, which if he begins well, and holds it long, nothing in my mind can be sweeter; but as the fancies of men are as different as either the colours or songs of the bird, so their eyes and ears are the best judges for their fancies, yet I shall not fail to give me opinion and judgement to those who have not had experience in this delightful and innocent amusement.

The next obervation is, a bird that begins with the sweet of the Nightingale, and ends with the song of the Tit-lark, is both harmonious, sprightly, and very delightful to the ear.

These notes are distinguished by the Sweet Jugg, followed by a swelling slut/flut, with the water-bubble, and then the sprightly song of the Tit-lark, chewing and whisking several times in a breath; a bird that will go on sweetly thought his song in this manner, withouth breaking off, may be said to be a good song bird.

Some fanciers are pleased when a Canary-bird only sings the song of the Tit-lark, which is indeed very pleasant and delightful. Others only fancy that bird which begins like the Sky-lark, and holds his song all the while in the same manner, having long notes and sweet, but I think not much variety in it.

If these instructions may not as first truly qualify a person, let this serve in general, that they chuse which is most agreeable to their own ear, and that which holds the song the longest, without breaking off short, with harsh scraping notes, or disagreeable whining.

To know a cock from a hen


The way then to distinguish between the cock’s song, and the hen’s jabbering is, that the cock, let him sing ever so indifferent, almost every time he strikes a note, you may easily perceive the passage of his throat to heave with a pulsive motion, swelling like a little pair of bellows all the time he is warbling out his pretty notes, which never happens to a hen; for let her make what noise she will, and resemble singing ever so well, this motion is never observed in her throat as it is in the cock’s.

Bickers and Bush

The Thrush, Blackbird, Blackcap, Redstart, Mocking-Bird, Raven, Jackdaw, Jay, Starling, Magpie, Chaffinch, Bullfinch, Siskin and Hawfinch. How to Rear them in Sickness and in Health.

London 1861

The song-thrush, Its powers of imitation

…If you wish to teach a thrush to “pipe”, you must begin as soon as he is fledged, taking care even that during the first few weeks of his life he is not allowed to hear the voice of one of his own species; for, if he at once acquires his natural note, you will find considerable difficulty in making him discard it for the sake of your artificial music. A flute, or an ordinary tin whistle, is the best instrument with which to teach the thrush. You need not, however, as in the case of the bullfinch, blackbird, and some others, rise at daybreak to give your pupil his lesson; a bright warm afternoon will do very well, only it will be as well to cover up the cage, so as totally to exclude the light, for an hour before you begin.

Some thrushes possess imitative powers to a marvellous degree; tunes played on wind instruments, or whistled by the mouth, they will catch up and learn with a precision that is astounding. I have read and been told many stories, some ludicrous, some grave, concerning this faculty of the thrush; but the most curious and interesting is the following, furnished me by a friend at Manchester, a person on whose veracity I can rely.

There lived, on the skirts of the city, a thriving woodchopper; he had a capital business, employed several hands, and his workshop adjoined his dwelling-house. He was a particularly cheerful man, and from morning till night the din made by his chopper, and by the choppers of his boys, was rivalled by his incessant singing and whistling. Well, one day, in spite of his thriving business, in spite of his cheerfulness and singing and whistling, the wood-chopper committed suicide. To the surprise and dismay of his wife and his workmen, he was found hanged to a beam.

The woodchopper’s wife was a woman of business; therefore, after having her husband’s body removed to the house, and allowing the workpeople an hour or two to discuss the calamity, she set them to work again. It was a sultry summer afternoon, and, what with the heat, and the sight of the ugly beam, and the thought as to what had so shortly before been hanging there, the choppers rose and fell very languidly indeed, and the men and boys spoke to each other in whispers. Suddenly every mouth was ajar with terror, all the hair in the wood-shed rose on the heads of its owners, for, pealing through the place, was heard the familiar tune “William at the Garden Gate”, in the unmistakeable whistle of the dead wood-chopper! The men and boys rushed from the place, and went and told the widow; they then returned all together, and, just putting their heads inside the door, listened. With the exception of blocks, and choppers, and billets, the shed was empty; still, from invisible lips, issued “WATGG”, clear, shrill, unearthly! Neither for love nor money would man or boy venture within the shed to split another billet.

The place was haunted. Sometimes the most profound silence would reign in the shed for hours, and then would come a sudden burst of the ghostly whistling, scaring away listeners from chinks and keyholes. The widow advertised the business, but no man was found bold enough to buy it. So passed on three months, and the power woman was fairly on the road to ruin. One day, however, while seated at her window, she saw a bird fly from the neighbouring copse, alight on the roof of the deserted wood-shed, and immediately pipe up the now dreaded tune. Thus the mystery was cleared up. It was a thrush, who, attracted by the wood-chopper’s music, had listened until he had learned it, and, proud of the accomplishment, returned to the same spot every day to publish his scholarship.

How to teach the blackbird

The blackbird will learn any easy tune that is played to him on a flute or other wind instrument, and whistle it accurately. If, however, you wish to give him this sort of education, you must prepare yourself for some little trouble.  You must begin with the bird when he is two months old, and give him a lesson, all alone in a room, in the dusk of the evening and at daybreak in the morning. Some birds learn better while their bellies are empty, but the blackbird will not stand this treatment. Give him a moderate breakfast or supper, and then before you begin the lesson hang in his sight a lively worm. This is to be a reward for good behaviour. Then slowly and distinctly play a few bars of the air you wish the bird to learn. He will pay great attention while you are playing, with his head on one side and both ears evidently wide open. After you have repeated the lesson, say twenty times, leave off, and keep quiet, giving the bird an opportunity to try the air if he has a mind. If he should attempt it, instantly give him the worm, caressing him and making a great fuss all the while. Do not fear but that a few days he will understand all about the worm, will look out for it, and do his best to earn it.

When a blackbird once learns a tune, he never forgets it nor any part of it. I once knew a bird that could whistle “Polly Hopkins” with wonderful accuracy. His owner sold him, at the same time making the purchaser acquainted with the bird’s favourite tune. As soon as the gentleman got him at home he at once hung up the blackbird, and, going to the piano, struck up “Polly Hopkins”. The bird’s new master, however, introduced parts into the tune that he had never heard before; so, after listening awhile, he began hissing, fluttering his wings, and otherwise signifying his distaste of the entire performance. Much surprised, the gentleman left off playing, and then the blackbird opened his throat, and favoured his new master with his version of “Polly Hopkins”, nor would he listen with patience to any other version.

The same blackbird, after staying in the service of the above-mentioned gentleman for two years, was adopted by a serious family, where “Polly Hopkins” and all such profanity was sedulously avoided. Whenever poor “Joe” (the blackbird’s name) attempted to strike up the old tune, a cloth was thrown over his cage, and he was silenced. The family consisted of an old lady and her two daughters, and every night, at seven o’clock, prayers were read and the “Evening Hymn” sung, and Joe, who was an obedient bird, and anxious to conform to the habits of the house, speedily learned the tune, and regularly whistled it while the old lady and her daughters sang it. This went on for six or seven years, when the mother died, and the daughters separated, and Joe, now an aged blackbird, fell into new hands; but to his dying day he never gave up the “Evening Hymn.” Punctually as the clock struck seven he tuned up, and went straight through with it with the gravity of a parish clerk.

The polylogistic powers of blackbird are such that it can imitate almost every inhabitant of the farmyard,–the gobble of the turkey, the crowing of the dunghill cock, and the “cluck” of the hen to her chicks. Some naturalists even go so far as to assert that it may be taught to utter words; but it would require evidence of my own ears to induce me to give credence to that assertion.

The mocking-bird

…The Mexican name for this little creature is “the bird of four hundred tongues”. “In extent and variety of its vocal powers,” says Wilson, “the mocking-bird stands unrivalled by the whole feathered songsters of this or perhaps any other country. ….The ease, elegance, and rapidity of his movements, the animation of his eye, and the intelligence he displays in listening to and laying up lessons from almost any other species of the feathered creation within his hearing are really surprising, and mark the peculiarity of his genius. To these qualities we may add that of a voice full, strong, and musical, and capable of almost every modulation, from the clear and mellow tone of the wood-thrush to the savage scream of the bald eagle. In measure and accent he faithfully follows his originals; in force and sweetness of expression he greatly improves upon them. In his native groves, mounted on top of a tall bush or half-grown tree in the dawn of the dewy morning, while the woods are already vocal with a multitude of warblers, his admirable song rises pre-eminent over every competitor.”

Nothing comes amiss to the mocking bird, the bark of a dog, the tremulous quavering of the canary, the creak of a wheel-barrow, or the soft-cooing of a wood-pigeon. Southey well describes the marvellous bird :—

That cheerful one who knoweth all
The songs of all the winged choristers
And in one sequence of melodious sounds
Pours all its music.

In a domesticated condition, however, the mocking-bird’s chief characteristic renders it impossible that he should be regarded as a sober chamber musician. For awhile he will be content with his own natural melody, which consists of from two to six short full notes, but the least noise is sufficient to disturb the flow of his natural melody, and one suggestion giving rise to another, you presently hear a Babel of bird music almost impossible to bear. “His imitations of a brown-thrush”, says a well-known naturalist, “are frequently interrupted by the crowing of cocks: the exquisite warblings of the blue-bird are by no means improved by the screaming of swallows or the cackling of hens; the shrill reiterations of the whip-poor-will are introduced into the simple melody of the robin. The uninitiated look round for the original, and then find that what appeared to be the product of a number of performers is really that of a single bird before us.”










With jet black eyes and hair singed by the lights of John Logie Baird’s early televisor, Stooky Bill was the inventor’s ventriloquial sidekick. Stooky’s face appeared as a streaky blob on the second ever televisor image, around 1925. A ‘stooky’ is a plaster cast. Made of plaster himself, Stooky had sufficient contrast to be just about discernible on Baird’s earliest televisor images. And he stayed still, like the most patient human sitter, while Baird adjusted his televisor equipment.

Two Stooky BillsJohn Logie-Baird in Frith Street, Soho, London, c1925. This photo shows there were at least two Stookies.
Source: Here’s Looking at You, B Norman 1984

Spacedog’s own Stooky-like Hugo makes three:

Update August 2013: The material in this talk is now included in two peer-reviewed publications:

Angliss, S: “Mimics, menaces or new musical horizons? Musicians’ attitudes towards the first commercial drum machines and samplers”.  In Material Culture and Electronic Sound, edited by Frode Weium and Tim Boon (with forward by Brian Eno). Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, 2013.

Radcliffe, C and Angliss, S: “Revolution: Challenging the automaton: Repetitive labour and dance in the industrial workspace”. In Performance Research: A Journal of the Performing Arts Vol 17, Issue 6, 2012.


Thanks to everyone who came along to TEDx Brighton, January 2011. I had a great time – never knew I could hear so many new ideas in one day.

This is the first time I’ve put this material together to make one argument – so it was really encouraging to hear so many positive comments.  Taking a tip from Antony Mayfield’s inspiring talk on social networks, I’d like to share these links with you all.

These are some of the resources I’ve been using while I’ve been investigating the curious relationship between Lancashire clog dance, Kraftwerk and early Detroit techno. I hope you find them interesting:

Repeat repeat (Angliss and Radcliffe)

Cotton mills and clog dancing

Dr Caroline Radcliffe: Performer, musician and lecturer in theatre – Caroline is the dancer in the video who introduced me to The Machinery and its origins. Caroline has researched the history of clog dancing in its many forms in the UK and is a skilled Lancashire clog dancer. She’s also an expert on the life and work of Dan Leno.

Spinning the Web: A great resource on the history of the Lancashire cotton industry.

Sounds of Quarry Bank mill. Here’s an excerpt of the sound collage Caroline and I put together, using my layered field recordings of cotton mill machines in Quarry Bank mill. Of course, you’re only hearing half the performance here as this is missing the sound of Caroline’s live clog steps.

NB The stereo panning on this file is a little odd as it was prepared for a particular performance space.

Quarry Bank – this living history museum is packed with working cotton mill machinery from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Early drum machines

The Wurlitzer Sideman in Popular Mechanics Magazine, November 1960
Arguably, the Wurlitzer Sideman was first synthetic drum machine to go on sale. Earlier automatic drummers, such as the Rhythmicon (1931), from Henry Cowell and Léon Theremin, and Raymond Scott’s Circle Machine (1959), were one-off experimental units. The Chamberlin Rhythmate had been on sale since 1948 but only a dozen or so were sold. Using drum sounds pre-recorded on tape loops, rather than electronically synthesised beats, the Rhythmate was a precursor of the Mellotron.

The Wurlitzer Sideman (The Billboard, May 1960)

Robots and Electronic Brains
This book by Mark Brend includes a very interesting history of drum machines.

Inside a Wurlitzer Sideman:

From Peahix

From RoilNoise

Photos of the inside of a Wurlitzer Sideman on Deviant Synth.

The Musicians’ Union and the talkies

“It remains to be seen whether, when the novelty wears off, patrons of cinemas will be satisfied with this dehumanized form of entertainment.”
Musicians Union, c1930

Cartoon in Musicians’ Union Monthly Report, March 1930 (Source: Musicians’ Union Archive, University of Stirling)

Frank and Lillian Gilbreth

Archives of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, pioneers of time and motion study. Here’s one of their studies from the early 1900s. The worker has flashing lights strapped to her wrists so her movements can be tracked in this long-exposure photograph. The Gilbreths were looking for signs of ‘wasted motion’. They wanted to streamline manual tasks to reduce fatigue, increasing efficiency and give workers more ‘happiness minutes’.

Source: National Museum of American History

Excerpt from the film ‘The One Best Way’ (from emmaroses)


The archive of Frederick Winslow Taylor, pioneer of the ‘scientific management’ of work. At the end of the nineteenth century, Taylor pioneered the application of engineering principles to the management of people and labour. Taylor’s views influenced the development of the assembly line.

Job Matching for Women (1930). Source: US Dept of Labor.

Charlie Chaplin in the factory scene from Modern Times (1936).

Detroit: motor city

An interesting video on the development of the car assembly line (source unknown).

Cosmic Car  (Cybotron, 1982)

Here are some fascinating photos by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, showing Detroit in decline (on the Guardian website).



We Are The Robots (1977). Complete with a Gilbrethesque timer. Not an inch of wasted motion in this video.

Call Centres and ‘dark satanic mills’?

Here’s an article in Management Issues, January 2004, reporting on the HSE comment likening the worst call centres to ‘dark satanic mills’.

Here’s the HSE report in question, in which monotony and lack of autonomy are shown to be causes of stress. Interestingly, I don’t see the term ‘dark satanic mill’  here so there may be some discrepancy between the formal report and the words used in press releases and interviews with the author. I am now digging around my old hard disks to see if I can find the source of the original quote. At the moment, the best I have is a comment reported on a BBC website. Of course, the source may have been updated since 2004, as I remember this comparison caused quite a stir.

Here’s a BBC News report from the time, in which Christine Sprigg, author of the HSE report, is reported to use the term ‘dark satanic mills’. Here, you can also see comments from people who were working in UK call centres at the time.

Update 10 March 2011: Dr Christine Sprigg emailed me after the talk and told me some more about provenance of the ‘dark satanic mills’ statement. As far as she knows, it first appeared in this press release, from the British Psychological Society, early in 2004. Although it’s titled ‘Call centres are “not satanic mills”‘, the press release goes on to say:

Ms Sprigg said: “Not all call centres are ‘satanic mills’. Some do merit that description, but the best do not. The task facing organisations that use call centres is to match their aspirations for high service for their customers with high quality of working for their staff.”

…the inference is that some call centres deserve this epithet. And this was seized on by unions and journalists around the UK as it fitted prevailing concerns about these new work places. In a recent email exchange, Dr Sprigg recalled ‘personally I can’t remember even saying that! The Call Centre Association (CCA) got a bit upset at the time. It…snowballed massively.’

Just to add to the confusion, here’s a Channel 4 news page, dated 2002 but updated in 2005 that also makes the reference.

Dr Sprigg also pointed out this paper: ‘An Assembly Line in the Head‘ (Taylor and Bain, 1999) which talks about Taylorism in the call centre. The ‘assembly line’ in question is the stack of calls awaiting the call centre operator, no matter how swifty he or she can deal with their current caller. Here, the authors also refer to the stress of ’emotional labour’ – the need to keep check of your own emotions in the call centre, ‘smile down the phone’ and keep within certain boundaries of acceptable conduct and language.  They explain how call centre technology cuts out manual tasks, such as dialling numbers, that slow work down (see my notes on ‘wasted motion’ above). As one manager pointed out:

Dialling manually you can make only 30 calls and speak to 10 people. The power dialler will get 80 phone calls and you speak to everyone one of them in a four-hour shift. 10 to 80.

Automation like this boosts productivity but demands employees to keep pace with the relentless call centre machine. And the call centre technology can measure the pace of work of every employee, throughout the day.

Crucially, Taylor and Bain point out that call centre employees do sometimes resist this work structure – either individually, for instance by finding ways to manipulate management to get better shifts, or collectively, via unions. In the UK, unions have negotiated everything from more teabreaks to better maternity leave for its (majority) female employees. Of course, this paper was written in 1999, before the era of ‘outsourcing’, when faster data networks have enabled companies to site their call centres around the world, cherry picking countries according to their wage costs, labour laws and so on. It would be fascinating to know how closely this represents life in the call centre today, in Europe, India and beyond.

Breaking the monotony in the Call Centre:

Source: ‘yahoofun’

arp4A trip to the electronic musical instrument collection of the Science Museum stores, during a research trip on electronic sound (March 2010). I was shown around the stores by curators Tim Boon and John Liffen.

On the trip, I had a close look at some of the early synths, samplers and other machines in the collection, including three Mellotrons, a Fairlight CMI, Wurlitzer Sideman and Arp 2500 modular synth. Here are some technical notes and snaps, taken rather hastily during my visit. I’ve also include some  YouTube for examples of these machines in action.

Sadly, I wasn’t able to plug any of these in. These are reference instruments, left in a dormant state so they’ll give musicians of the future a chance to see an Arp, Mellotron, Fairlight or Sideman in their original, unrepaired state.*

Tech notes and pictures

Arp 2500 Modular Synth

4-octave carillon

Fairlight CMI



Wurlitzer Sideman

*Sadly, life isn’t that simple. If you switch off an electrical machine for too many years, it might never work again. Capacitors decay; tapes turn to dust. Arguably, there’s little point in preserving a ‘dead’ musical instrument if you care about the way it sounds, how it was played and how it influenced music culture. So the question of  whether to switch on or not has yet to be settled by historians and curators. I suppose it’s important that some instruments are conserved and only switched on very occasionally, while others are being worn out by the musicians who love them.

Some footage of Stonehenge, recorded on a handheld DVCam during a short, unscheduled trip, June 2005.

People travel great distances for a close-up experience with Stonehenge. But when they reach these ancient stones, an audio tour, delivered on a handheld plastic stick, competes for their attention.

Audio guides are becoming an increasingly common site in museums, galleries and ancient monuments. They enable you to give facts and figures to visitors speaking many different languages. But I have my reservations about them. In particular, I’m concerned about the way they grab attention, diverting visitors from their immediate surroundings.

Here, for example, you can see many people looking away from the stones – and from each other – so they can concentrate on their audio tour. At the end if the video, you can see a clip of someone who is so involved in the tour and the business of pressing buttons, he hasn’t looked at the stones at all. If you look carefully, you can also see him at the beginning of my circuit around the stones.

These are my personal opinions of audio tours – I’d be interested to hear yours so do comment below. I’m particularly interested in ways to impart facts and figures, without putting people in such a ‘cognitive bubble’. I wouldn’t want to clutter the site with labels. Would a multilingual preshow work better? How about using human tour guides?

Sarah Angliss plays the saw at the Tusk & Garter Club, Brighton (photo Peter Kalen)

Fancy learning the saw? Then you’ve come to the right page – just get yourself a saw, a bow and some rosin and read this short tutorial.

I have been playing the saw for thirty years – as a teenager I was taught to play by folk musician Bunny Nun in Watford, UK. I’ve since taught many others to play the saw, including the members of the mighty sawchestra in The Lost and Found Orchestra (Yes/No productions). I still occasionally feature the saw, alongside theremin, in my live act.


A track from my old band Spacedog – I’m on saw and Stephen Hiscock is on vibraphone.


Early test with Hugo the vent doll, before his head was roboticised, featuring a short saw solo.

Here’s a brief tutorial on the musical saw, a European skiffle instrument with a haunting, almost voice-like sound:

1) Any old saw?
2) How to make the saw sing
3) Developing your ear

Ethereal skiffle

The sound of the saw is so unexpectedly beautiful, some listeners find it hard to believe where it’s coming from. Played well, the saw really does sing. Its brilliant, ethereal sound is rather like the sound of a human voice. Saw players stroke the edge of the saw with a cello or bass bow (sometimes home-made) to make it vibrate. Occasionally they percuss it with a soft beater. They bend the instrument to swoop from one pitch to another, giving the instrument its characteristic portamento sound.

The musical saw is a wonderful ‘skiffle instrument’ – a cheap, everyday object that has been appropriated by musicians who have no money to buy classical instruments. I’ve encountered players of this traditional European instrument in Britain, Holland and the USA.

playing the saw
playing the saw

musical saw

Examples of saw playing

You can see some examples of my saw playing in the video on this page. An example of saw playing that’s easy to come by is in the film ‘Delicatessen’. One of the central characters plays the saw beautifully on his roof. Occasionally, I’ve heard what I think is percussive saw playing on recordings by the chanteuse Edith Piaf.

I’ve heard that saw playing is still quite common in Holland, for instance in bars in Amsterdam. My grandfather Emlyn was a saw player – sadly he died many years before I was born.

In 2015 I performed at the International Saw Festival in Brooklyn and was delighted to meet saw players from around the world.

These notes have been online since the mid-1990s and much copied and circulated – feel free to circulate them further but do please credit this source. I’ll add a tutorial video when I get a little time.

Thanks! Sarah