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

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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

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