bbc radiophonic workshop

Showing 34 posts tagged bbc radiophonic workshop

How I discovered radiophonics—an introduction

Back in the early days of cable TV, Nickelodeon didn’t have much—if anything—in the way of original programming. It was all ganked from the UK or Canada, so there was some small subsection of my Generation X cohort that spent lazy summer days getting dosed up on Bagpuss, Bod, Simon in the Land of Chalk Drawings, and other twee-yet-somehow-disturbingly-mental British children’s television from the 1970s, along with some terrific YA SF&F and horror. Anyone else remember the anthology show The Third Eye, with Children of the Stones, The Haunting of Cassie Palmer, and Into the Labyrinth?

And then there was The Tomorrow People. That show, originally broadcast in the UK starting in 1973, was the show for me: the adventures of a group of teenagers who were the first emerging strains of Homo Superior, the next stage in human evolution. They were telepaths, and they could get from place to place by teleporting, or “jaunting”, as they called it. (Years later, I would learn that “jaunting” was itself a lift from Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination.) I was nine. I convinced my friends to pretend we could communicate telepathically, and I borrowed my father’s military-issue uniform belts to serve as “jaunting belts”.

Flash forward some twenty-odd years to 2006. On a typical weekend afternoon trip to End of an Ear with my husband, I found the Trunk Records release The Tomorrow People: Original Television Music. I hadn’t thought much about the show in years, and it wasn’t as if the music had any influence on my musical tastes—it was entirely due to Bruce’s influence that I was able to listen to electronic music at all without hearing undifferentiated noise. But some stab of childhood nostalgia prompted me to pick it up and over the next few weeks, I got reacquainted with the strange, spiky, jazzy opening title theme—a Proustian recall to summer days in the playground of a Maryland Air Force base military housing. 

Right around that same time, the obsession that succeeded The Tomorrow People in my preadolescent brain returned to the American airwaves in a new incarnation: Doctor Who. A few associative leaps and I’d acquired the multi-CD collection Doctor Who at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and from there it was all manipulated tape loops, all the time.

Well. Not exactly. But the more I dug into the Workshop’s output, the more intrigued I was, especially by the fact that some of the most significant players in this peculiar commercial offshoot of musique concrete were women. It was also (unsurprisingly) the perfect soundtrack to the British New Wave science fiction that I was reading and re-reading at the time. It was music with a story, and I liked that.

This week, I’ll be talking mostly about Delia Derbyshire, one of the most famous composer-engineers of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop—and somewhat inevitably, I’ll also be talking quite a bit about Doctor Who. But you can’t cover these subjects without an acknowledgement to at least some of the other players of the time—Daphne Oram, John Baker, and Tristram Cary—and I’ll be writing about them as well. 

In many ways, I’m an outsider on this subject. I’m an American, and I was born the year that Delia Derbyshire retired from music. Nickelodeon aside, I didn’t really grow up with radiophonics the way you might have if you were a child in Britain in the 1960s and 70s, when that sort of thing was present not just in sci-fi TV, but in station idents, advertisements, and news programme lead-ins. When it comes to commentary and criticism, my usual bailiwick is SF&F and comics, not so much music. All the same, I hope I can share my enthusiasm for radiophonics while I’m holding down the fort here, and pique your interest as well.

The Tomorrow People

The Tomorrow People wasn’t a BBC show—it was an ITV show, and the music wasn’t actually from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop—the theme’s composer, Dudley Simpson, was a freelancer who had worked on many BBC shows, including Doctor Who and Blake’s 7, but wasn’t officially a member of the Workshop. But seeing as how it was my gateway drug into the world of radiophonics, it seems only fair that I spend at least a little time on it. 

(A quick word about the term “radiophonics”: I’m using it here as a convenient term for electronic music and special sound created via sound generation and musique concrete techniques, although there may inevitably be some slippage to refer to the Workshop’s synthesizer music as well.)

The opening drumroll and bassline sound almost like conventional instruments, which is all the better as a contrast to the electronic melody and bridge. The theme is compelling on its own, but positively hypnotic when combined with opening credit visuals (to which, perhaps, The X-Files owe some small debt?). It may not be as strong or as catchy as, say, the Doctor Who theme, but it’s got an enjoyably swinging vibe that fits in well with the youth-culture themes of The Tomorrow People (it is, after all, a show about the youngsters who are the true future of the human race, and the ensuing chagrin of the establishment).

In his liner notes for the 2006 release of the Tomorrow People: Original Television Music album, Jonny Trunk writes that the show made heavy use of a particular piece of library music—specifically a Standard Library album known as “ESL 104”. There are three composers credited there: Li de la Russe, Nikki St George, and David Vorhaus—and it turns out that the first two names are pseudonyms for Radiophonic Workshop stalwarts Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson. Derbyshire and Hodgson were officially under contract to the BBC when ESL 104 was recorded in 1969, hence the pseudonyms. Still, the clues are fairly obvious in the track titles, which include, none too subtly, “Delia’s Theme”,  “Delia’s Psychadelian Waltz”, and “Delia’s Reverie”. 

I’ll have more to say about Ms Derbyshire later, but for now, you can give “Delia’s Psychadelian Waltz” a listen here.

References:

  • The Tomorrow People: Original Television Music, liner notes by Jonny Trunk. Trunk Records, 2006.
  • delia-derbyshire.org: Deliaography.

Daphne Oram and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop

Excerpt from “The Same Trade as Mozart”: a rare film in which Daphne Oram demonstrates the Oramics machine.

***

The BBC Radiophonic Workshop officially came into being on April 1, 1958, on which day Daphne Oram posted the following quotation on the door of Room 13/14 at Maida Vale Studios, London:

Wee have also Sound-houses, wher wee practise and demonstrate all sounds and their Generation. Wee have harmonies and lesser slides of sounds. Wee make diverse tremblings and Warblings of Sounds … Wee have also diver Strange and Artificall Eccho’s. We have also means to convey Sounds in Trunks and Pipes, in strange Lines and Distances.
—Francis Bacon, New Atlantis (1624)

The Radiophonic Workshop, which was very nearly the Electrophonic Workshop, was born after a fairly contentious battle between the Drama and Music departments of the BBC. Though radiophonic effects had been deployed in a number of radio and television dramas to highly acclaimed effect (the 1957 broadcast of Samuel Beckett’s All That Fall being one of the most noteworthy), the conservative Music department was resistant to the possibility of “undesirable music” (as they largely perceived such Continental innovations as musique concrete). After much debate and several heated internal memoranda, Features head Lawrence Gilliam prevailed with an argument that the lack of suitable electronic equipment was inhibiting British composers whose worth could not be denied even by the most straitlaced members of the Music department, and that exploration of new musical methods and techniques would be good for everyone.

The initial staff of the workshop included two Studio Managers (SMs) and one engineer; in theory, the SMs were the creative brains (who would be rotated on a regular basis, so as to prevent the fatigue that might be induced by too much exposure to electronic music) and an engineer would run and maintain the equipment. The plan was later modified to place an SM and an engineer on each project, but in the way of such things, the exact staffing on any given production was subject to alteration, with the result that much of the Workshop’s output, rather that being credited to any individual composer, was simply credited to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

The first two SMs on board were Desmond Briscoe and Daphne Oram. Briscoe, who had worked on All That Fall, was a well-established figure in the drama department, with a solid background in producing electronic effects. Briscoe would later go on to become head of the Workshop, remaining in that position until 1983. Oram was a skilled musician and engineer; in 1942, at the age of 17, she turned down a place at the Royal Academy of Music and went to work for the BBC instead. Her 1957 work for Amphitryon 38 was the first electronic soundtrack to be commissioned by the BBC.

The BBC Radiophonic Workshop began with a brace of tape recorders, oscillators, filters, turntables, and a mixing desk, all scraped together from various sources on a parsimonious £1900 budget and jammed into the Maida Vale studio. Oram worked here for a year, but by 1959 she was, in her own words, “eager to explore wider fields than incidental sounds for plays would allow”, and so she left the Workshop and moved to Kent. She set up shop in an old Kentish oasthouse, known as Tower Folly, where she continued her experiments in electronic music and developed the Oramics system, which you see demonstrated in the video at the beginning of this post.

References:

  • Special Sound by Louis Niebur. Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • Daphne Oram: Oramics. Paradigm Discs, 2007. Liner notes by Jo Hutton, Daphne Oram, Alan Douglas.

The interior of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, from BBC Engineering Monograph No. 51, “Radiophonics in the BBC”, by F.C. Brooker, M.I.E.E. (Engineer-in-Charge, London (Sound)), published in November 1963.

Track

Pompie Ballet (Excerpt)

Artist

Daphne Oram

Album

Oramics

Daphne Oram, “Pompie Ballet”

So you’re probably curious as to what music produced by the Oramics system sounded like; here’s an example, “Pompie Ballet”, from 1971. According to the Oramics liner notes, “no further details are known”.

If you didn’t know what you were listening to, you might at first thing you were listening to a string chamber music ensemble recorded at the end of a very long hallway. But the closer you listen to it, the more the sound takes on a quality not unlike that of a pipe-organ. About 1:15 in, you start getting the really odd sounds and atonalities, not immediately recognizable as a known conventional instrument and distinctly unlike most of the synths familiar to modern electronics aficionados. I find the Oramics sound to be much warmer and softer than many analog synths; there’s hint of reverb and a delicacy of tone that’s really unique. 

Daphne Oram is undergoing a bit of a rediscovery at the moment, beginning with the Paradigm release of Oramics; currently, the exhibit “Oramics to Electronica” is running at the London Science Museum. There you may see one of the original Oramics machines, just one part of the last fifty years of electronics music history. And coming soon is The Oram Tapes, vol. 1—the first release from an enormous archive of previously unreleased material. 

References:

Track

Blue Veils and Golden Sands

Artist

Delia Derbyshire

Delia Derbyshire and “Blue Veils and Golden Sands”

If you’ve heard of anyone from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, you’ve heard of Delia Derbyshire. If nothing else, you might have heard her referred to as the “composer of the Doctor Who theme”—not strictly true, but we’ll get to that in a bit. You’ve probably also seen the iconic photo of the lady: a delicate-featured young woman wearing a cardigan, bent over a reel-to-reel tape deck, her thick auburn hair held back by an Alice band. 

Derbyshire was a graduate of Girton College, Cambridge, who came to work for the BBC after being told by Decca Records that they didn’t hire women. She joined the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1960 and quickly made her mark, beginning a prolific career both within and without the confines of the BBC. You can hear her contributions in the special sound for Four Inventions in Radio, beautiful, haunting sound collages composed in collaboration with playwright Barry Bermange. If there is a complete list of her credits for the BBC, it remains to be found or compiled; her known corpus includes such works as 1963’s “Know Your Car (Get Out and Get Under)”, a peppy circus-like melody punctuated with the sound of a car backfire; the titles and incidentals for a 1962 documentary on increased leisure time in an automated world (!) called “Time On Our Hands”, which start out loose, ethereal, and suggestive of technologically-induced ennui and soon turn harsh and anxious; and “Science and Health”, the titles for a 1964 radio sex education programme. (The last was deemed “too lascivious” by a producer; it’s hard to imagine how the cheery harpsichord-like melody could have received that verdict. Maybe it’s the bouncy, reverb’d rhythm line, which has just a bit of a saucy wobble to it.)

“Blue Veils and Golden Sands” was composed for a documentary on the Tuaregs. Derbyshire began with the sound of an industrial green metal lampshade being struck: a sound she analyzed and re-synthesized through the Workshop’s oscillators and sound equipment. The oscillator sounds were looped and woven back together; there’s a sound in there that Derbyshire referred to as her “castrated oboe”, and also the sound of her voice, cut-up and re-sampled out of all recognition—I challenge any listener to find it. It’s a deceptively simple piece, but there are subtle depths to it, and it rewards repeated listenings.

References: