BBC Radiophonic Workshop

Showing 34 posts tagged BBC Radiophonic Workshop

Acknowledgements

I hope you’ve enjoyed this pocket overview of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. I don’t pretend that this is anywhere near comprehensive, but if this taster has instilled in you a desire to seek out more of the “unsung heroes of British electronica”, then I consider my job successful. 

The really interested reader will want to find Louis Niebur’s Special Sound, on which I’ve relied heavily for many details about the history of the Workshop and the lives of its major players. Want to know what equipment was actually in the workshop when it opened on April 1, 1958? Curious about people I’ve only been able to mention in passing, like Paddy Kingsland, Malcolm Clarke, and Elizabeth Parker? It’s all there.

I strongly encourage everyone who’s interested in this subject to seek out the following documentaries: 

  • Alchemists of Sound: a highly watchable history of the Workshop, full of interviews and archival footage.
  • Sculptress of Sound: a very well-made radio biography of Delia Derbyshire with some priceless reminiscences and archival sounds. 
  • Inside Out: Delia Derbyshire”: a ten-minute mini-documentary made for TV, good for shorter attention spans, if a bit loosely-written.
  • What the Future Sounded Like: a thirty-minute TV documentary about Tristram Cary, Peter Zinovieff, David Cockerell, and EMS.

I’d like to thank Jonny Trunk for taking the time to respond to my Q&A, and if you haven’t already, I urge you to head over to the Trunk Records site right away. Jonny and his operation brought us The John Baker Tapes and It’s Time For Tristram Cary, as well as the thing that started it all for me, The Tomorrow People: Original Television Music

Other albums I couldn’t have done this without: Doctor Who At the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, vols. 1 and 2; Daphne Oram, Oramics; Delia Derbyshire, Electrosonic; White Noise, An Electric Storm; and BBC Radiophonic Workshop: A Retrospective.

Thanks to the many radiophonics and Doctor Who fans on YouTube and Vimeo whose uploads I borrowed for the posts this week.

Many, many thanks to Hendrik for giving me the chance to share all of this with you. I sort of dropped this proposal on him out of the blue, and I’m very grateful that he took a chance on it.

Enormous thanks and love to my parents, whose decision to get cable back in nineteen-eighty-splunge and patience with my insufferable Anglophilia inadvertently planted the seeds for all this.

And vast, immeasurable buckets of gratitude and love for my husband Bruce “rocketsandrayguns” Levenstein, who has been the Virgil to my Dante in the world of electronic music—in music in general, in fact. He has also been a top-notch research assistant, and his encouragement and support have gotten me through all the moments of stark raving terror to where I could actually do this thing. Bruce, I couldn’t have done it without you.

And thank you, OWOB readers, for your indulgence. This is Karin Kross, signing off.


A Few Parting Words on the Doctor Who Theme

“Every time a new producer came or a new director came, they wanted to tart up the title music. And they wanted to put an extra two bars here; they wanted to put some extra feedback on the high frequencies—they kept on tarting it up! Out of existence! I was really very shocked with what I had to do in the course of so-called duty.”

—Delia Derbyshire on the Doctor Who theme, quoted in Sculptress of Sound

Considering that I’ve devoted three posts to the Doctor Who theme, and also its status as Most Recognized BBC Radiophonic Workshop piece, it seems like I ought to say a few words about its latest incarnation. But my mother always told me that if you can’t say anything nice, you shouldn’t say anything at all. 

Oh, all right. The 2005-2007 version, posted at the top here, is tolerable; sure, there’s a lot of orchestral frippery, but at least the bones of the original are detectable; Murray Gold gets the bassline right, for one thing, and there’s a good amount of the old-fashioned electronic weirdness mixed in with the big new sounds. The 2008-2009 version isn’t that bad either, even if it’s accumulated more frippery. But in the latest renditions, Gold has managed to almost completely bury the signature bassline under a thumping mess of bombast—the terrible new opening counter-melody, the backing choir, for pity’s sake. “Tarted up” barely begins to cover it. It’s absolutely the wrong kind of cheese (to which, alas, the show itself has been occasionally prone in the last six years—not that the classic series was without its flaws either, of course; they were just different kinds of flaws). (But that is another discussion for another blog.) And the soundtrack in general, despite having some enjoyable moments (such as Donna’s theme in series 4), has become increasingly overwrought, and often it also seems to be mixed far too loudly in comparison to the rest of the sound on the show. It’s enough to make one long for Malcolm Clarke’s score for “The Sea Devils”.

(Who fans being largely contentious sorts, I encourage the direction of any disagreements on this matter to my personal tumblr. Thank you.)

Everything New Is Old Again: D.D. Denham, Ursula Bogner, Pye Corner Audio Transcription Service

As the radiophonic revival continues apace, a few interesting new albums have turned up on the horizon. Electronic Music in the Classroom, by one D.D. Denham, purports to be a collection of experimental recordings by Denham and his/her music students. Two albums by East German hausfrau and secret synth genius Ursula Bogner have been released—Recordings 1969-1988 and Sonne=Blackbox. (Her “Punkte” is included above.) And Pye Corner Audio Transcription Services have been releasing collections of tape transfers, such as Black Mill Tapes Vol. 2.

The stories of recovered and rediscovered radiophonics associated with these releases certainly sound plausible enough, but they’re actually all fictions. D.D. Denham is the creation of Jon Brooks, who also records as The Advisory Circle (and a little digging reveals a character by the name of D.D. Denham in the Hammer Horror film The Satanic Rites of Dracula). Bogner appears to be the creation of German electronic musician Jan Jelinek (and Momus has suggested that the photos of Bogner are no less than Jelinek himself in drag). Pye Corner Audio Transcripts “magnetically aligning ferrous particles since 1970” is more of an enigma, headed up by a mysterious Head Technician who occasionally surfaces to play live sets—but the sound of something like Black Mill Tapes Vol 2., while certainly owing much to the golden age of radiophonics, seems a bit more up-to-date than it claims to be. There’s a certain contemporary polish to all of these recordings, and an ear that’s spent a lot of time listening to the genuine vintage material can hear the occasional anachronistic tone or texture.

However, these aren’t hoaxes, not in the sense of something like the Piltdown Man or James Frey’s faux memoir. It’s not strictly meant as a deception; it’s a kind of historical fiction by way of music. In his Poptimist essay on Jürgen Müller Tom Ewing refers to this kind of invented history as “‘retcon,’ the comics or film term for the re-ordering of fictional continuums by new works”. The musicians behind Ursula Bogner, D.D. Denham, and Pye Corner are part of the ranks of what Simon Reynolds calls “hauntologists”, operating “in a zone of British nostalgia linked to the television programming of the sixties and seventies.” (In Bogner’s case, of course, Jelinek is operating in a German idiom rather than a British one, but the basic principle still holds.)

Why retcon? Why not simply release that kind of music under one’s own name, without all the fictions and the aliases? Well, there’s much appeal in the narrative of a “lost work”; after all, what’s the narrative of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop that I’ve been presenting here but that of lost work, unacknowledged genius labouring in obscurity? The packaging of these albums and the narratives constructed around them comprise a series of signifiers that connote nostalgia and anti-commercialism—although ironically, the carefully arranged image is just as calculated as that of, say, Lana del Rey or Beyonce. It’s just aiming for a different sort of audience and tugging on a different set of responses. Much as fan fiction depends on the reader’s awareness of the source canon, so do the neo-retro-radiophonics—both the self-consciously fictive sort and those that show influence without playing with retconning—depend on the listener’s nostalgic longing for an era when the strangest sonic experiments could be found slipped into the opening titles of the most mundane family entertainment.

References:

  • Retromania by Simon Reynolds. Faber & Faber, 2011
  • Momus, “Electronic Drag”, imomus.livejournal.com, 11/12/2008
  • Tom Ewing, “Imaginary Stories”, Pitchfork.com, 9/23/2011

Radiophonic Reunion: The BBC Radiophonic Workshop Concert at the Roundhouse

In 2009, a remarkable thing happened: a BBC Radiophonic Workshop concert at the Roundhouse in London. Dick Mills, Roger Limb, Paddy Kingsland, Peter Howell, and Mark Ayres gathered together with a brass section and a live drummer to perform some of the Workshop’s greatest hits, including music from Doctor Who and The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. 

There has not been a full video or audio release of this event, but bootlegged pieces of it are available on YouTube and Vimeo (just search for “radiophonic workshop roundhouse” and kiss your afternoon goodbye). The piece above is an odds-and-ends selection of bits from the show, frustratingly incomplete, but fun to watch all the same—I quite like the bit with Dick Mills at the beginning playing a VCS3. At 1:15, note the crowd reactions to Daphne Oram’s name—and in particular to the reference to the BBC’s closure of the Workshop.

The whole concert—what we can see of it, anyway, in these bits and pieces—is really quite moving. Because it really is genuinely wonderful to see these jobbing musicians and composers, who for so long laboured in near obscurity, getting the adulation they’ve earned. And of course you cannot help but think of those who have gone and never quite received that recognition in their lifetimes, and be a little sad.

Q&A With Jonny Trunk

I’ve mentioned Jonny Trunk several times this week; since Trunk Records released the Tomorrow People CD that got me into all this, he’s the person you can (very, very indirectly) thank or blame for the epic word-count I’ve inflicted on you this week. Trunk Records deals in wonderful bits and bobs of otherwise lost or forgotten music for British television, film, and advertisements—here you can find the music for The Clangers, advertising jingles composed by Barry Gray, and library music by John Gale. In the words of Simon Reynolds, “With their aura of wistful reverie and faded decay, the sounds exhumed by Trunk offer a portal into Britain’s cultural unconscious.”

Trunk was good enough to take some time to answer a few questions of mine regarding the radiophonic revival.

***

What do you think accounts for the increased interest over the last decade or so in the output of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and other soundtrack, library, and advertising music from the mid-twentieth century?

It’s a mixture of several things; there was a generation of people who grew up watching good and strange TV in the 60s and 70s with radiophonic and library music as the soundtrack, and then (like me) wanted to hear it again and track it down. Also, the music is interesting, and not like anything else. As genres, library music, TV music, radiophonics etc are very deep, kaleidoscopic, creative and cover many small eras and styles, so unlike many other musical genres they can sustain your interest. Also, if you think back to the mid 1990s, this was a huge musical area that had not been properly explored and exploited, unlike every other kind of music. It was seen as trash. So now, 15 years on, there has been much excavation, research and issues, which in turn has brought in new listeners, and the cycle continues.   

The stories of a lot of composers in this line tend to be rather sad, even outright tragic, as in the case of John Baker; there’s a recurring underdog/labouring in obscurity theme. In what way do you think the narratives are a big part of the audience interest? Is that the case for you?

Yes, many of these composers had tragic lives in the end, some die alone and lost, others are alcoholic, suicidal etc. But this is pretty standard across the whole music business.  There are also a lot of film music and library composer who have been very successful indeed and have fabulous lives. I think good back stories in all music is important. 

As far as you can tell, what’s the demographics of the Trunk Records customer base? Musicians, music fans, casual listeners? Is it primarily UK? How much is overseas?

The music appeals to lots of collectors and specialists. These people are all across the UK, all across the USA, across Europe, Australia, all over. There are not many of us but we are everywhere… 

What do you think is the primary appeal of this material for your customers? 

First the appeal is in the music - what it sounds like, then the history of it, then maybe the nostalgic element, or the surprise element or just the madness. 

What’s the general process for sourcing, obtaining the rights to, and releasing material, such as the Tomorrow People soundtrack or the John Baker Tapes? What sort of challenges or barriers do you encounter?

It is much easier now thanks to the internet. You can normally find a company or a composer in seconds. Before we were all electronically connected, the process was much more complex, harder, much more work was involved - phone calls, letters, taxes, travel. Now anyone can find a composer and license his music, sometimes within hours. It is quite easy these days. What is difficult is to have the ideas and the motivation I think. 

Do you have a “wish list” of material you’d like to track down and release? If so, what are a few of the things on it?

Not really. My mind doesn’t work like that. I tend to wake up and think of something and then try and pursue it. If it doesn’t work then I wait for another brainwave…

Track

Assignment (Kofi Annan)

Artist

Elizabeth Parker

Album

The BBC Radiophonic Workshop - A Retrospective (Disc 2)

The Legacy of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop

There is much to be said about the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in the 1970s and 1980s—in addition to Malcolm Clarke and Peter Howell, there’s Paddy Kingsland’s compositions for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; Elizabeth Parker’s use of the Fairlight synthesizer to score The Living Planet; Jonathan Gibbs’ work in introducing MIDI to the Workshop; and Mark Ayres’ contributions both as composer and as librarian and archivist. Unfortunately, my time here is almost up, so that commentary and analysis must be saved for another day. In the meantime, though, there are a few more observations worth addressing about the legacy of the Workshop, particularly as it applies to the music we’ve covered this week. 

The rather woeful-sounding track presented here, “Assignment (Kofi Annan)” was composed by Elizabeth Parker; the work for the Assignment television show was the Workshop’s final project.  A major factor in the Workshop’s dissolution was the cost-cutting Producer Choice policy introduced in 1990. This policy gave producers the option of obtaining services from both within and without the BBC, depending on what was cheaper—and hiring freelance composers was cheaper than trying to keep up the in-house studio. The Workshop was slowly gutted and picked apart in 1990s, and by 1996 it had virtually ceased to exist, lingering on as an entity until the doors were officially closed in 1998.  

But even as the BBC was closing the Workshop down, the music from its “golden age” was on the verge of rediscovery. The Doctor Who at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop collections were released in 2000 and 2002, and in 2002 Mark Ayres re-mastered the collections BBC Radiophonic Music (1970) and The Radiophonic Workshop (1975). In 2003, Richard James, aka Aphex Twin, repackaged and re-released the Ayres remasters in 2003 as Music From the BBC Radiophonic Workshop on his Rephlex label; arguably, this release brought the Workshop material to the attention of a whole new audience that was hungry for new and different experimental electronic music. These releases were all the more timely due to the deaths of Delia Derbyshire in 2001 and Daphne Oram in 2003 and the attention their obituaries brought to the Workshop. The music came with the classic narrative of the unappreciated auteur, and was also appealingly non-commercial, created without an eye to album sales. And of course there was a significant nostalgia factor for many British listeners, and even some Americans, the “memoradelic imprint”, as Simon Reynolds calls it in Retromania, left by radiophonics’ ubiquity.

Both Derbyshire and Oram left enormous archives of unreleased material—Oram’s tapes are currently being restored and released, and Derbyshire’s archive (so disorganized that it included tapes crammed into cereal boxes) passed into the safekeeping of Mark Ayres, archivist for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. In 2008 David Butler of Manchester University officially announced the existence of the archive; for the last several years, they’ve been digitizing and archiving the vast quantity of material, and uncovering some hidden gems. Much has been made, for example, of a track that may have been recorded sometime in the late 1960s and which sounds as contemporary as any modern dance track.

By then, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop revival was in full swing amongst certain circles of indie and electronic music fans, thanks as well to the small “crate-digger” labels that were busily excavating and re-releasing the material. And you can’t overstate the importance of the internet, which made it possible for labels to publicize their music, and for fans (many of whom might not have been fans until they heard it) to access it—and having accessed, to talk about it, often at great length. (Ahem.) The Radiophonic Revival is small, but very enthusiastic, and where it goes next remains to be seen.

References:

  • Retromania by Simon Reynolds, Faber & Faber, 2011.
  • Special Sound by Louis Niebur. Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • Sculptress of Sound: The Lost Works of Delia Derbyshire. Hosted by Matthew Sweet. BBC, 2010.
  • John Plunkett, “Doctor Who Goes Dance”, 7/18/2008
  • Nigel Wrench, “Lost Tapes of the Doctor Who Composer”, 7/18/2008 

Doctor Who: Peter Howell’s 1980 arrangement

The Doctor Who theme was altered relatively little, apart from some edits for length and timing and a stereo rearrangement, until 1980, when John Nathan-Turner asked Peter Howell to arrange a new version. The theme tune to one of the BBC’s most popular shows was considered something of a sacred cow, and messing with it was not a task to be undertaken lightly. Howell was wise enough to not alter the key elements of the theme out of all recognition. He picked up the forward momentum of the bassline and rendered it on a Yamaha CS-80, and used a vocoder and an ARP Odyssey Mark III to create the electric-guitar-like sound for the main melody. 

In fact, I believed for years that parts of the melody had been rendered on an electric guitar, and it was only when I saw the DVD bonus documentary “Synthesizing Starfields” that I finally got set straight. I’ve announced my loyalty to the original 1963 version many times, and will continue to do so, but the fact is that out of all the rearrangements the theme has undergone over the years, the 1980 Howell version is definitely a very solid and respectable second place in my mind. I’m not sure that it ages quite as well, because there’s a slick, shimmery quality to the synth sounds that feels particularly 1980s (especially the thunderclap at the end). Of course, that kind of sound has become quite popular again of late, so to many listeners, that’s more of a feature than a bug. What Howell really gets is the power of that bassline, and also the swirling atmospheric details that strike the right balance between familiarity and spookiness that the Doctor Who theme requires.

References:

Malcolm Clarke and Desmond Briscoe in a January 1972 newspaper photo. Briscoe appears to be leaning on the Delaware. It’s very likely that Clarke is here working on his score for the Doctor Who serial “The Sea Devils”, a score that’s somewhat (in)famous for being … well, not exactly an easy listen, as you can hear in these excerpts. It may not exactly be relaxing music, but it’s very distinctive, and I think it suits that Quatermass-like serial perfectly. High-res

Malcolm Clarke and Desmond Briscoe in a January 1972 newspaper photo. Briscoe appears to be leaning on the Delaware. It’s very likely that Clarke is here working on his score for the Doctor Who serial “The Sea Devils”, a score that’s somewhat (in)famous for being … well, not exactly an easy listen, as you can hear in these excerpts. It may not exactly be relaxing music, but it’s very distinctive, and I think it suits that Quatermass-like serial perfectly.