when and where: room 13, maida vale studios, 1958
"This programme is an experiment. An exploration. It's been put together with enormous enthusiasm and equipment designed for other purposes." -Donald McWhinnie
|Jul 28, 2020|
(screenshot of delia derbyshire from The Alchemists of Sound documentary )
welcome to issue #28 of “tusk is better than rumours,” a newsletter featuring primers and album rankings of experimental and ‘outsider’ musicians. artist primers are published every other monday, and on off-weeks i publish a variety of articles ranging from label and genre primers to interviews to guest writers.
this week we’ve got another installment in the occasional “when and where” series, which focuses on music produced in a particular time and place. previous issues looked at music of the guinean “authenticité” movement in the 1960s and ‘70s and at onkyo produced in the shadow of the docomo yoyogi building in shinjuku, tokyo, japan in the early 2000s. here, i recommend some albums produced in room 13 of maida vale studios, london—canny readers will recognize this space as the bbc radiophonic workshop—in the late ‘50s and ‘60s.
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the work done at bbc’s radiophonic workshop was groundbreaking in several ways, though its contribution to experimental music was for a long time obscured by its belated adoption of musique concrète and its deployment of the form in “low-brow” genres like science fiction. the institution was planned in 1957 and officially began in 1958; at that point halim el-dabh’s early experiments with tape music were over a decade old and pierre schaeffer’s groupe de recherche de musique concrète (grmc) had already been founded and dissolved and was about to be reborn as the groupe de recherches musicales (grm). contemporaries like the columbia-princeton electronic music center were directed by eggheaded professor-types like milton babbitt and vladimir ussachevsky, while the workshop’s biggest claim to fame was the theme song to a goofy sci-fi t.v. show.
still, from room 13 in maida vale studios (they also had access to room 14, but that’s not as fun) a group of eccentrics and weirdos produced professional-level theme music, sound effects, and radio programs with nothing more than “a lot of old tape recorders and a few pieces of test equipment that could make noises.” if they didn’t invent musique concrète, they did more than anyone else to deploy it in popular media and thereby expose it to the average listener. and while it was as much a boy’s club as the grm or columbia-princeton, in recent years important figures of its early years, including delia derbyshire, daphne oram, and maddalena fagandini have increasingly been given their due as some of the first and most inventive female electronic composers.
the history of the workshop can be divided fairly easily into three eras. daphne oram and desmond briscoe petitioned for the radiophonic workshop to be created as an in-house recording studio for bbc radio and television programs in the late ‘50s. these ragtag years, when the workshop’s productions were made with lampshades, broken clocks, dismantled pianos, and tape recorders, ended by the early seventies when the bbc invested in new synthesizers which the original group of composers felt diminished the primary modus operandi that made them unique. by 1974 oram, fagandini, derbyshire, brian hodgson, david cain, and john baker had all resigned. through the rest of the ‘70s and ‘80s a new group of composers, including paddy kingsland and peter howell, embraced the new electronic instruments. then in 1992 a fellow by the name of john birt was appointed director of the bbc and instituted the same type of profit-centered policies that have killed off so many other great arts organizations. he decided that bbc departments would have to charge one another for their services and compete against outside providers; anyone who couldn’t cover their costs under this system would be axed. by 1998 he had his way and the radiophonic workshop was closed. anyhow to no one’s surprise birt was later knighted and then became an advisor to tony blair.
the question of when the “golden age” of the workshop ended is vexing to a lot of folks. david cain, who worked there from 1967-1973, defines the end of the golden age as follows:
It is the point where the desires of the creator are greater than the technology which is available. There comes a moment where the technology gets closer and closer to the imagination and creativity of the writer, and in the end, if you’re not careful, it overtakes. And suddenly, serendipity which before was from your own sweat and blood—but you created something and thought “Goodness me, that’s great”—serendipity comes by saying, “If I press one of these 397 buttons on this synthesizer, maybe I’ll get something out of it.” Now at that moment, the machinery is driving the creativity, and creativity is not driving the machinery. And maybe that is where the golden age stops.” (from an interview in Alchemists of Sound)
peter howell (at the bbc 1974-1997) disagrees:
There's still this prevailing idea that we were somehow almost traitors for using modern gear and computers! Some people still believe that the original Workshop, with virtually no equipment, was the only incarnation that mattered. But we were there to do a job. With the Fairlight I could play something live, in real time; why on earth should I spent three weeks chopping up little bits of tape to get exactly the same result? We had to catch up with the real world — otherwise we'd never justify the time and cost.
anyway call me a romantic but i agree with david cain because this talk of “justifying the time and cost” makes me a bit queasy—it’s not hard to see how that emphasis on productivity and efficiency got turned around on howell by birt and eventually killed the whole organization.
so below i’ve selected five recordings from the years 1957 (before the workshop was even properly founded) to 1969 (by which time the golden age was winding down). some are radio programs, some are proper albums, some are compilations, some are more well-known than others, but they represent the best of what the radiophonic workshop had to offer when it was at its most interesting and influential.
Daphne Oram and Frederick Bradnum, Private Dreams and Public Nightmares (1957)
daphne oram may be the most important figure in the history of the workshop, as it was largely through her initiative and creativity that the organization got its start. still, she left less than a year after its opening because she felt it was not doing enough to push experimental music into the mainstream. she instead started her own organization called the oramics studios for electronic composition (osec), “oramics” being her own method of composing electronic music on a special synthesizer that “read” marks made on clear 35mm film. anyhow, this early radio program (credited only to oram’s collaborator frederick bradnum) was meant to explain the concept of “radiophonics.” after a spoken introduction by producer donald mcwhinnie in which he delineates the differences between that term and musique concrète, the listener is treated to a rather harrowing 15 minutes of psychedelic invocations of fear and despair. “you see that head crowned with a band of thorns and black stones,” intones the narrator. “that bodiless head, sunk into the landscape of rock and desert sand / almost like a bomb dropped by an airplane at the moment before explosion / that is your fear / your crown is waiting.” more terror per word there than most black metal lyrics. in the background are bangings and clangings, echoed and reverbed and reversed. it’s not an easy listen today; it’s incredible that it helped oram and briscoe get funded 60 years ago.
Delia Derbyshire and Barry Bermange, The Dreams (1964)
the emphasis on dreams and dream-states continued through delia derbyshire’s work with playwright barry bermange on this radio play. derbyshire, to my mind the greatest of the workshop composers, provides a tense ambient atmosphere for a series of speakers relating their dreams of running, falling, land, sea, and color. whereas oram and bradnum’s piece creates unease directly through its frightening content, however, derbyshire and bermange rely on the delivery of the actors more than any specific thing they say. each one struggles to describe what they saw and how they felt in their dream, and it is in this gap between personal experience and the relation of that experience that the discomfort arises. derbyshire’s haunted hums leap into this gap, increasing the discomfort to the point of alienation. we can never really know what one another has experienced, and the album is about the futility of communicating interior states as much as dreams themselves. where traditional spoken word albums often lack replay value—after all, if you know the story you know the story—the fracture and the formlessness here keeps you coming back.
BBC Radiophonic Workshop, The Pink Album (1968)
this compilation, released a decade into the workshop’s run, gathers pieces from delia derbyshire, david cain, and john baker. with 31 tracks in 47 minutes, you can guess that most songs included here are short themes and radio identification jingles. this two-minute slice of tv soundtrack may be the best thing that derbyshire, and thus the bbc, ever recorded. the track above was made for radio sheffield, and was created by david cain with nothing but silverware (i guess sheffield is known for its silverware), showcasing what was possible with the bbc’s simple reel-to-reel equipment. as cain and derbyshire are covered above and below, we should mention john baker here. he was a trained jazz drummer and a favorite among his peers. cain says that “john was unbelievable. he chain smoked. he was very quiet. and he produced a lot of stuff with the most miniscule pieces of tape you have ever seen in your life.” he had a mathematical mind that allowed him to calculate and cut lengths of tape in order to double-track them—no easy task. witness the insanity of “milky way,” for instance, and consider it was made entirely by splicing and pitch-shifting physical lengths of tape. this untitled album is informally known as The Pink Album, and is a classic among early electronic records along the lines of beaver and krause’s Nonesuch Guide.
White Noise, Electric Storm (1969)
delia derbyshire and fellow workshop composer brian hodgson would embrace their more psychedelic interests by gigging together in a band called unit delta plus. after hearing derbyshire lecture about electronic music, american engineer david vorhaus approached the duo concerning a new album commissioned through island records. the result is Electric Storm, credited to the three as white noise. it’s a classic of early electronic music, and probably the most famous one listed here. returning to it now, though, what strikes me is its blatant weirdness. some tracks are poppy on the level of nancy sinatra (“my game of loving”), some are bizarre on the level of frank zappa (“here come the fleas”), and some are confrontational on the level of suicide—i imagine one inspiration for “frankie teardrop” was “black mass,” as they each present comparable audio portraits of hell (the latter recorded nearly a decade before the former). much of side one is nsfw due to sounds of sexual gratification, while much of side two is nsfl due to sounds of torturous pain. the heaven/hell, pleasure/pain, sin/punishment theme is obvious in conception but boschian in execution.
David Cain, The Seasons (1969)
in a list of weird albums this may be the strangest, but it achieves that designation through a very understated approach. poems by ronald duncan are soundtracked with primitive electronic themes by bbc composer david cain. the theme is simple—the progress of the year. each month has a track dedicated to it, as well as each season and the year itself, for a total of 12+4+1=17 songs. but listen closer: in “february” we have “gaunt elms” that “shudder within the groin of grief” and in “october” we have “mountains, which are tortured images of a tranquil star” that “stand sentinel and keep cruel dreams confined in the white loins of sleep.” behind all these groins and loins the music quite simply rips. try and listen to “march” without throwing a fit that nobody has told you about it before. and then notice that, yes, even that track features a “rusty plowshare” that “takes strength from her thighs.” it’s not david’s fault that ronald was so horny for agriculture though, and his instrumentals really do hold up.
quarantine quorner: bbc radiophonic edition
youtube is chock-a-block with documentaries about the bbc radiophonic workshop. the best one is here—you’ll notice a link in the description, which will take you to Alchemists of Sound (2003) streaming on something called “mega.nz.” a bit sketchy but i did it and my computer did not suffer one whit. this one provides a full overview of the workshop from 1958-1998, with great interviews with dick mills, david cain, and maddalena fagandini among others. look for the goofy man in the background of every talking head interview.
this one here, The Electric Music Machine: Five Days at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, is a short documentary that provides exactly what it says “on the tin.” note though that the five days take place in 1985, long after the heyday of the bbc rw.
there are also two great radio documentaries produced by the bbc. this first one, The Sound Makers from 1963, is an introduction to what was still at the time a strange new institution. the second, Wee Have Also Sound-Houses (1979), focuses on daphne oram’s early contributions to the organization.
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