Cheryl Tipp on Ludwig Koch, Memoirs of a Birdman

With an Ear to the Earth

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In the depths of the British Library lies one of the most important collections of wildlife sound recordings in the world. From the common to the endangered, the familiar to the exotic, this treasure trove of animal sounds has captivated listeners for the past forty years. All manner of species are included, from birds and mammals to frogs and even fish. The collective sounds of planet Earth, from quintessentially English woodlands to the steamy rainforests of South America, make up the collection, helping us to learn how animal voices come together to create the soundscapes of our world.

I’m lucky enough to spend my days curating this wonderful archive. Though it was founded in the 1960s, the practice of wildlife sound recording goes back much further than that – in fact to nineteenth-century Germany and a young boy called Ludwig Koch. His father’s gift of an Edison phonograph and a box of blank wax cylinders set Koch on a path that would lead him to become one of the most inspirational figures in sound recording. Determined, patient, innovative and at times bloody-minded, he led the way in overcoming the challenges faced by wildlife sound recordists, and persevered until he achieved what had, until then, been impossible.

Koch’s Memoirs of a Birdman opens in 1889 when, at the age of 8, he made the world’s first ever recording of an animal, and closes in 1953 when he fulfilled a lifelong ambition to visit Iceland and record the mournful calls of the Great Northern Diver. This collection of anecdotes, reflections and regrets opens a window on the past, and allows us a glimpse of the character of this remarkable man.

It’s all too easy now to make a sound recording. You might not be any good at it, but with the advent of handheld recorders, cheap microphones and even smartphones, anyone can have a go. So it’s a real eye-opener to read Koch’s tales of the trials and tribulations of location recording almost a century ago, when th

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About the contributor

Cheryl Tipp is Curator of Natural Sounds at the British Library. Her recent online publications include Listening to Lost Voices (Noch, 2013) and Edward Avis and the Art of Mimicry (Caught by the River, 2013).

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