The BBC Radiophonic Workshop now has its own cover band.
Arturia have done a new documentary on England’s proudest home for electronic sound, the legendary BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Founded in 1958, the laboratory had the wildly ambitious mission of producing any sound any BBC program might ask for – foley to sci-fi. That of course took on especially unusual possibilities thanks to this trippy show for kids about an eccentric time traveler, Doctor Who – and the inventiveness of the likes of Delia Derbyshire made sounds with brute-force tape manipulations that seem futuristic even today.
Derbyshire and Daphne Oram may no longer be with us, but surviving Radiophonic veterans Mark Ayres, Peter Howell, Dick Mills, Roger Limb, and Paddy Kingsland join in this film. Apart from watching way too much Who, I feel especially inspired by the Workshop thanks to growing up with Kingsland’s score for the radio Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and getting to work with my composition teacher Thea Musgrave, who spoke fondly of her own adventure working in the facility.
What’s interesting now is, apart from Ayres’ efforts to archive the exhaustive products of the lab, the gang have formed a live band to play greatest hits and experiment with new compositions. That generation’s efforts seem nicely aligned with younger artists’ own fascination with DIY technology – now mixing analog, acoustic, mechanical, and digital – and the growing interest in live electronics.
The plucky playground spirit of the early BBC seems right at home with today’s post-digital experimentalism:
We’d crash, bang, hit, stretch, reverse, and everything with tape. Most things were done with tape, cutting with razor blades, and putting things together. It was highly skilled and took weeks to make things. Whatever’s available, that’s what you’ve got to use.
Everything was highly original, because the sounds were all ‘found sounds’ so it might be a cork coming out of a bottle if it was a sort of theme tune, anything that twanged or clanged, scraping stuff, highly manipulated to get the final sound.
Of course, now with your phone a recording device, finding sounds is easier than ever.
That may mean that revisiting media archeology will prove a respite for those bored with presets and predictable outcomes. So, take a lesson from Delia:
When Delia Derbyshire did the Doctor Who theme, the bassline is basically a plucked string, a single plucked string. She’d record the single plucked string onto tape, make a loop of it, then record that onto another machine and you’d have a whole line of these notes, but then you’d vari-speed the loop so to create all the pitches, then you’d record those loops all onto the other tape, so you’d have half an hour of D’s and half an hour of E’s and half an hour of F’s, and that’s the way you’d go through it, that’s how you’d make music, you’d cut your notes from a piece of tape.
If you’ve got an Arturia MatrixBrute (you lucky sound pioneer, you), you can download a free sound pack from Arturia made by these BBC pioneers – and everyone can learn more about their work: