BBC ended its musical ambitions with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop already back in the late 90’s, but the core team cling on to the name, although ditching the BBC, and kept on performing as The Radiophonic Workshop. Back in 1985 they had their latest commercially available album out, and now thirty years on they are at it again. The historic significance of BBC’s venture into musical experimentation cannot be underestimated so it is with some great respect and anticipation we can look forward to the upcoming release due on May 19th. Below is their first teaser from the upcoming album, filled with synthesizer bleeps and quirks, but also ambient textures paired with airy piano chords.
In spirit of the BBC tradition, The Radiophonic Workshop team, has worked on this album in an improvised manner or as they state themselves – in the blind. Here’s a statement from the group elaborating on the foundations of the new album:
The improvisation was done blind – with no preconceptions nor any real start point. We wanted to see what happened if we allowed people to react together with their machines in a very unplanned and spontaneous way. The computers and sequencers were switched off and it led to a very human interaction between all of us. It is important that we maintained this feeling of spontaneity on the final discs – so minimal editing has taken place. What you hear is what happened in the moment. It was liberating to work in such a formless, freeing and immediate way. As we listened back it became obvious that some sections had evolved naturally as “dark” themes, others “watery”, another felt like a journey and so on. We started looking for titles that might reflect these improvised movements and moods. The titles for each piece here are taken from Francis Bacon’s incomplete New Atlantis novel/poem. Bacon portrays a future vision of human discovery and knowledge, expressing his aspirations for humankind, a utopian vision of a perfect and highly functioning technological future. The book depicts a land where “generosity and enlightenment, dignity and splendour, piety and public spirit” are the commonly held qualities of the inhabitants. Strangely relevant in our post-digital age many of the predictions are startling in the way they map against current ideologies and technologies.
While the poem itself was not the influence nor starting point for the improvisations that make up the body of the Burials In Several Earths the ideas in the novel seemed to fit the work as well as provide an obvious link to the history of the Radiophonic Workshop itself and the infamous Room 13 where the workshop began its work at BBC Maida Vale. In 1957 Daphne Oram, one of the founders of the workshop, took a section of the novel and framed it as a sort of manifesto for the workshop and its role as an avant garde and experimental electronic space for BBC radio and television productions. Manipulating sound was a relatively new practice then and our use of early electronics and tape effects was seen as futuristic and somewhat challenging. The section on the wall of room 13 was there to remind us that when producers complained or people wrote to the Radio Times saying the music was unlistenable that we were trying to design future sounds – it was an experimental space. The section was chosen to be morale booster you might say.
It was back in April 1958 that Desmond and Daphne founded the Radiophonic Workshop in the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios (a former ice-skating rink). They were joined later in the year by ‘technical assistant’ Dick Mills. Brian Hodgson came along in 1962 and he eventually ended up running the place. Brian adds: “Workshop was then a very popular word among theatre ‘types’, and it gave away the Drama Department origins. It was originally going to be called the Electrophonic Workshop, but it was discovered that ‘electrophonic’ referred to some sort of defect of the brain, so it had to be changed! A board was set up to see that the place was run properly. Unfortunately, one board member had a doctor friend, who advised that three months should be the maximum length of time that anyone could work there, as staying any longer could be injurious to their health; they’d go mad, or something. This problem recurred throughout the Workshop’s history — just as a recruit was getting into the swing of things, they’d have to leave.”
Daphne Oram was the first to fall foul of this rule. After three months in her new job, she was ordered back to work in a control room at Broadcasting House. But for some reason Desmond Briscoe was not required to leave: instead he was appointed as the Workshop’s Senior Studio Manager. For the BBC’s women, it seemed, the war was over. A lengthy and bitter row ensued, and eventually, Daphne left the BBC for good in 1959, moving to an oast-house that she’d bought in Kent and establishing her own Oramics Studios for Electronic Composition. She was replaced by Maddalena Fagandini.
Today’s The Radiophonic Workshop continues, saying:
“We have also sound-houses, where we practise and demonstrate all sounds, and their generation. We have harmonies which you have not, of quarter-sounds, and lesser slides of sounds. Divers instruments of music likewise to you unknown, some sweeter than any you have, together with bells and rings that are dainty and sweet…” It was something we returned to again and again during our existence at Maida vale as it seemed to present a rationale for what we did and for some of the work itself.
The remaining titles for the release are taken from a section of the novel where one of the characters describes the benefits of the land and the kind of society and cultures they have set up on the island.
Looking back there, of course, existed a lot of DIY stuff in the studio and one that was quite exciting, was the Wobbulator. The versatile “wobbulator” was a sine-wave oscillator that could be frequency modulated. It consisted of a metal box with a few switches and one very large knob that could sweep the entire frequency range. You can try it for yourself right here. Another cool thing was how the producer Joe Meek was using the monophonic, valve-operated Clavioline and a method was devised for controlling 12 oscillators at a time, triggering them from a tiny home-built keyboard of recycled piano keys. Each oscillator could be independently tuned by means of a range switch and a chunky Bakelite frequency knob.
Probably their most famous recording was the BBC Radiophonic Music, the so called Pink Album, which you can listen to below:
Ultimately, it was costs that killed off the original Radiophonic Workshop. The controversial appointment of John Birt as the BBC’s Director–General in 1992 was the writing on the Workshop wall — for Birt brought ‘producer choice’ to the BBC. The asylum would be run by lunatics no longer: the accountants were taking over.
With ‘producer choice’, staff producers at the BBC could now either use the BBC’s carefully costed in-house facilities, or they could choose to go outside — all that mattered was the cost. And everything in the BBC was costed. So what happened? In London, staff producers and directors cleared off to Soho in droves, to work with their old mates who’d already taken redundancy and gone freelance. For about a year, many BBC buildings felt empty. Everyone was eventually recalled and producer choice was ‘modified’, but the damage was done — it resulted in a catastrophic lowering of morale within the BBC.
‘Burials In Several Earths’ will be out on the Room 13 label on 19th May. It’s available now for pre-order as a double CD or – or as a 4×10-inch box set. Go here to do your shopping: www.smarturl.it/rws-burials
The album was created with guest input from Martyn Ware and there are live dates on March 22 at the Jazz Café and the Blue Dot Festival in July.