The Ra­dio­phonic Work­shop

An­wen Craw­ford on the Ra­dio­phonic Work­shop

The Monthly (Australia) - - FRONT PAGE - An­wen Craw­ford

For 40 years, in­side a build­ing on a mod­est side street in Maida Vale, west Lon­don, on the site of a for­mer roller­skat­ing rink, there ex­isted a door­way to another world. Had you opened this door, you would have found your­self in­side a low-ceilinged room, amid a wel­ter of reel-toreel tape ma­chines, os­cil­la­tors, and heavy cabi­nets marked with in­scrutable di­als. Some of the equip­ment was exmil­i­tary, or sal­vaged from junk shops and mar­kets on the Por­to­bello Road, then mod­i­fied on site. Com­posers – their em­ployer pre­ferred the term “as­sis­tants” – moved among these ma­chines, ad­just­ing a dial here, splic­ing a length of tape over there, care­fully, pre­cisely, like al­chemists re­fin­ing their met­als. From their ex­per­i­ments arose bizarre and beau­ti­ful noises, of Mar­tians, the Milky Way, blue veils and golden sands. “Wee have Har­monies which you have not, of Quar­ter-Sounds and lesser Slides of Sounds,” read a pas­sage pinned to the door. It was taken from Francis Ba­con’s un­fin­ished utopian novel New At­lantis, first pub­lished in 1624. “Wee have also meanes to con­vey Sounds in Trunks and Pipes, in strange Lines, and Dis­tances.”

Here in Room 13, as it was known, time was han­dled like a ma­te­rial: the com­posers, with their tape ma­chines, could speed it up or slow it down, re­verse it, cut it into pieces, splice the pieces back to­gether. Past and present were looped un­til who knew where you were headed. What’s that you hear now? It’s a warped and screech­ing sound, an aeon bend­ing out of shape, and then you see it, a blue po­lice box, hurtling through space …

You may have never heard of the BBC Ra­dio­phonic Work­shop, but you have al­most cer­tainly heard it. Be­tween 1958 and 1998, the Work­shop was the in-house sound ef­fects and mu­sic pro­duc­tion unit for BBC ra­dio and tele­vi­sion. Founded by Daphne Oram and Des­mond Briscoe, the Work­shop em­ployed 17 com­posers in all dur­ing the course of its ex­is­tence, un­til the BBC dis­banded it in the in­ter­ests of cost ef­fi­ciency. Some were at the Work­shop for only a few months, while oth­ers stayed for decades, scor­ing quiz shows, sci­ence doc­u­men­taries and chil­dren’s dra­mas, craft­ing theme tunes and jin­gles. Sev­eral of the BBC’s best-loved pro­grams have borne the stamp of the Work­shop, in­clud­ing Spike Mil­li­gan’s ra­dio com­edy The Goon Show dur­ing the late 1950s, for which the Work­shop pro­vided sound ef­fects, and David At­ten­bor­ough’s 1984 tele­vi­sion se­ries The Liv­ing Planet, with a sound­track by Work­shop mem­ber El­iz­a­beth Parker.

As for Doctor Who, it could hardly have ex­isted with­out the Work­shop’s ef­forts. The sounds of ray guns, space bombs, time tun­nels, air­locks, ghosts, Daleks, the sonic screw­driver: all were made at the Work­shop. Mem­ber Brian Hodg­son con­jured the sound of the TARDIS in mo­tion by scrap­ing a house key over pi­ano strings, record­ing that noise onto tape, then re­vers­ing the tape. “I wanted a sound that seemed to be trav­el­ling in two di­rec­tions at once,” he com­mented, many years af­ter the fact, “com­ing and go­ing at the same time.”

For a long time it was BBC pol­icy to with­hold the names of in­di­vid­ual Work­shop em­ploy­ees from pro­gram cred­its, which meant that mem­bers were rarely af­forded the recog­ni­tion, or the money, that they de­served. The orig­i­nal theme tune for Doctor Who was re­alised in the Work­shop by Delia Der­byshire, from a one-page score by Aus­tralian-born com­poser Ron Grainer. As Hodg­son re­called, Grainer’s score “was a scrib­ble”; it was Der­byshire who ar­ranged it, us­ing os­cil­la­tors, a wire string, and a sine wave–gen­er­at­ing de­vice known in the Work­shop as a “wob­bu­la­tor”. Each note was recorded, cut, and spliced by hand onto quar­ter-inch tape. In 1963 there was no multi-track tape recorder at the Work­shop, so in or­der to cre­ate a mas­ter copy of the ar­range­ment the three tape reels – string bassline, os­cil­la­tor melody and em­bel­lish­ments – had to be played back si­mul­ta­ne­ously on sep­a­rate ma­chines, in the hope that they would syn­chro­nise. When Grainer heard the re­sults he in­sisted that Der­byshire be cred­ited and paid half the roy­al­ties; the BBC re­fused.

Sound de­sign has been al­ways been a part of ra­dio and tele­vi­sion pro­duc­tion. What dis­tin­guished the Work­shop – es­pe­cially in com­par­i­son with the light or­ches­tral mu­sic that had pre­vi­ously been com­mon in broad­cast scor­ing – was its com­mit­ment to ex­per­i­men­tal and elec­tronic meth­ods. Dur­ing the Work­shop’s first decade this meant la­bo­ri­ous, and of­ten in­ge­nious, tape ma­nip­u­la­tions. Ana­logue syn­the­sis­ers be­gan ar­riv­ing in the late 1960s, fol­lowed by dig­i­tal syn­the­sis­ers and sam­plers dur­ing the 1980s.

It was Daphne Oram who made the pas­sage from Ba­con’s New At­lantis into the Work­shop’s state­ment of pur­pose, and her in­ter­ests were the Work­shop’s in a nut­shell. She saw a fu­ture where, as she wrote in her 1972 trea­tise An In­di­vid­ual Note, “com­put­ers will be con­trol­ling crotch­ets”. But she also looked back to a long his­tory of utopian think­ing and its re­la­tion­ship to sound. The abil­ity of Work­shop mem­bers to pluck mu­sic from ma­chin­ery, or from ob­jects – Delia

Der­byshire favoured a “tatty green BBC lamp­shade”, which she played like a bell – was fu­tur­is­tic, and it was oc­cult, like an an­cient knowl­edge vi­brat­ing with la­tent power. It was, re­called mem­ber Dick Mills in a 2014 doc­u­men­tary, Pi­o­neers of Sound, “a very alien art form”.

Now the Work­shop is back, af­ter a fash­ion. Late last month a hand­ful of sur­viv­ing mem­bers re­leased the first of­fi­cial Work­shop record­ing since 1985. The al­bum is called Buri­als in Sev­eral Earths, a ti­tle like­wise taken from Francis Ba­con. The mu­sic is im­pro­vised, mostly on syn­the­sis­ers, and the mood is oth­er­worldly, as one might ex­pect, though there are hints of the pas­toral, even the ele­giac.

The open­ing ti­tle track starts mod­estly, with syn­the­siser notes so pre­cisely shaped that you can al­most see their wave­forms in the air. There is a touch of pi­ano, played in the bass oc­taves, but it’s the ar­rival of some seriously heavy low-end fre­quen­cies that com­mands at­ten­tion. ‘Things Buried in Wa­ter’ be­gins with re­flec­tive, al­most wist­ful pi­ano chords, be­fore mor­ph­ing into a sound­scape of white noise (he­li­copters come to mind, and laser beams), then tick­ing, over the course of sev­eral min­utes, to a close.

Freed from their back­ground role, the Work­shop mem­bers have cho­sen to play loud, and play long. This is mu­sic de­signed to be heard on its own, un­at­tached to any tele­vi­sion or ra­dio pro­gram. There are sev­eral in­stances of elec­tric gui­tar, bring­ing tracks like ‘The Stranger’s House’ in closer prox­im­ity to psy­che­delic rock than the Work­shop has pre­vi­ously ventured. It’s in­ter­est­ing to hear the mu­si­cians stretch out, but these new free­doms also risk di­lut­ing the Work­shop’s charm, not to men­tion its con­sid­er­able mys­tique.

The Work­shop, af­ter all, was a stealthy avant-garde, smug­gling its weird and won­der­ful elec­tron­ics into liv­ing rooms un­der cover of news broad­casts and fam­ily en­ter­tain­ment. Other mid-20th-cen­tury mu­si­cians and com­posers ex­per­i­mented with elec­tron­ics, in­clud­ing Pierre Boulez, Karl­heinz Stock­hausen and Pierre Scha­ef­fer. The lat­ter coined the term musique con­crète in 1948, and his phi­los­o­phy and meth­ods, based on the ma­nip­u­la­tion of found sounds and non-tra­di­tional in­stru­ments through the use of mag­netic tape, were com­pa­ra­ble to the Work­shop’s.

While the mem­bers of the Work­shop were aware of these dis­cov­er­ies, they charted a par­al­lel course: com­pos­ing to or­der, and for a mass au­di­ence. This gives its archival record­ings – par­tic­u­larly those made dur­ing the 1960s, many of which have been an­thol­o­gised – a unique pur­pose and spirit. To lav­ish so much time and skill on tiny snip­pets

of sound was gen­er­ous; it demon­strated to an au­di­ence that some per­son, or per­sons, cared about the small­est de­tails. The artis­tic chal­lenge that the Work­shop posed to an au­di­ence was also gen­er­ous, as it sug­gested that or­di­nary peo­ple, too, might be in­ter­ested in stranger things. For those who chose to step through the Work­shop’s por­tal, new uni­verses of sound and mu­sic awaited.

Its legacy has been pro­found, par­tic­u­larly in Bri­tain, where sev­eral gen­er­a­tions of bud­ding mu­si­cians were ex­posed to the Work­shop’s ef­forts through­out their child­hoods. Buri­als in Sev­eral Earths fea­tures pro­duc­tion work by Mar­tyn Ware, a found­ing mem­ber of The Hu­man League – one of sev­eral British groups to make syn­the­sis­ers a key part of their sound in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Dur­ing the ’90s and into the 2000s, elec­tronic pro­duc­ers such as Aphex Twin, and groups such as Por­tishead, Ra­dio­head and Broad­cast car­ried on the Work­shop’s spirit, us­ing the stu­dio as a com­po­si­tional tool, and blur­ring the lines be­tween mu­si­cal in­stru­ments, elec­tron­ics and found sound.

But the Work­shop was never it­self a band, which makes its re­con­fig­u­ra­tion now as one – there are live per­for­mances sched­uled – a lit­tle odd. On the one hand it’s nice to see the mem­bers step out of the shad­ows, but the shad­ows are, in their own way, use­ful. Buri­als in Sev­eral Earths works best when ap­proached as sound that grad­u­ally dark­ens the at­mos­phere. Lis­ten with one eye else­where, per­haps on the tele­vi­sion.

The vast con­tem­po­rary ap­petite for cul­tural rem­nants of the past has been to the Work­shop’s favour. An­cient episodes of Doctor Who float around on YouTube, while the per­sonal recorded archives of in­di­vid­ual Work­shop com­posers such as Delia Der­byshire and her ’60s col­league John Baker are grad­u­ally be­ing is­sued, or reis­sued. It’s never been eas­ier to in­ves­ti­gate the Work­shop’s back cat­a­logue, and bits of it keep turn­ing up, some­times in un­ex­pected con­texts. Last year, for in­stance, Detroit rap­per Danny Brown used a Delia Der­byshire composition called ‘Pot au Feu’ as the back­ing track for his own song ‘When It Rain’. You’d hardly guess that Der­byshire’s ar­range­ment, with its harsh, stac­cato melody and skit­ter­ing per­cus­sive ef­fects, was made in 1968. It still sounds like the mu­sic of to­mor­row. But that was, and is, the beauty of the Work­shop: its mem­bers con­ceived of no tech­ni­cal or tem­po­ral bound­aries. They were tech­ni­cians, mu­si­cians, com­posers, vi­sion­ar­ies. They were also, in the best British sense, tin­ker­ers. Dick Mills re­calls a favourite say­ing of found­ing mem­ber Des­mond Briscoe: “Be­cause we weren’t ex­perts, we didn’t know what we shouldn’t be ca­pa­ble of do­ing.”

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