The Radiophonic Workshop, whose ‘Doctor Who’ theme changed modern music, return with another deep-dive into the world of electronic sound. Andy Gill takes the plunge
Radiophonic Workshop, Burials In Several Earth
Download this: Burials In Several Earths; Things Buried In Water; Some Hope Of Land; Not Come To Light; The Strangers’ House
In America, science fiction of the ‘50s and ‘60s was soundtracked by the elegant whines of the theremin and ondes martenot, their sleek tones intimating a future of luxurious mystery in parables from Forbidden Planet to Star Trek. By contrast, British sci-fi from Quatermass to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was darker, more dystopian, and built on a budget from Heath Robinson bits and bobs and balsa-wood backdrops – characteristics echoed in the scores created by the Radiophonic Workshop, whose classic dunga-dunga-dunga-dunga theme for Doctor Who was created from gigantic loops of a single note, pitchshifted by speed differential.
That single piece is one of the landmark musical works of the last century, just as much as The Rite Of Spring, “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Like A Rolling Stone”: and notwithstanding the competing claims of Kraftwerk, Giorgio Moroder and Jean-Michel Jarre, it made the Radiophonic Workshop probably the most widely-heard electronic artist in the world. Not that you’d recognise them in the street: though the late Delia Derbyshire’s name is relatively well-known, few have heard of her colleagues Peter Howell, Roger Limb, Dick Mills and Paddy Kingsland, founding members of the group started in 1958 at the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios by Desmond Briscoe and Daphne Oram.
To emphasise its avant-garde principles, Oram took as the group’s manifesto a section of the philosopher Francis Bacon’s utopian novel New Atlantis, detailing the musical modes practiced in the sound-houses of the newly discovered land of Bensalem. These included “harmonies which you have not, of quartersounds, and lesser slides of sounds… divers instruments likewise to you unknown, some sweeter than any you have, together with bells and rings that are dainty and sweet.”
For this latest project the aforementioned quartet, along with associate Mark Ayres, have returned to New Atlantis for the track titles of the works comprising Burials In Several Earths. These were created from “blind” improvisations by the group, with no computers or sequencers involved, and minimal postproduction. The results are remarkably coherent, affirming the players’ empathic instincts for mood, texture and tempo.
The title-track is typical: opening with a gently undulating drone, it builds quietly with darker, more concrete tones – the bark at two minutes, the aptly subterranean deep, diving bass at three minutes, etc – disturbing its progress, until a machine-like figure establishes a more purposive character around the sixminute mark. Around ten minutes in, the electronics fall away to leave just a plaintive, hesitant piano; but it’s the way that the most harmonious, melodic moments are left until the last few moments, after the piece has wowed and fluttered its way close to 20 minutes, that packs the weightiest emotional punch.
“Some Hope Of Land” and “Things Buried In Water” are similarly lengthy, absorbing bouts of musique concrete, although the latter’s sounds are often closer to helicopter blades and plummeting jet-planes than anything sub-aqua, until sprays of marimba-like tones arrive, 17 minutes in, like fluttering shoals of fish evading the distant whirring pulse of a turbine screw. These are the kinds of evocations only possible in this genre of music, and then only in the hands and minds of skilled, imaginative technicians like these. Thank heaven they’re still out there.
Gentle drones, plaintive piano and absorbing musique concrete pack an emotional punch