Fifty years of Radiophonic influence

Regular readers may know that I have an interest in electronic music. 2008 has been a bit of a treat for fans of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. This year marked 50 years since the establishment of the hugely influential sound effects and music department of the BBC. That, combined with a coincidental discovery of new tapes, has brought a feast of Radiophonic Workshop-related CD releases during the year.

I love the work of the composers of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. For anyone with even a passing interest in electronic music, some of these CDs are an absolute must. Over the years, the Radiophonic Workshop produced some of the world’s most famous electronic music.

It is probably most famous for providing music to Doctor Who. The Radiophonic Workshop was, however, originally set up to meet the growing demand for music and effects to be used in experimental plays and “radiophonic poems” on the Third Programme for which suitable library music could not always be found.

But eventually, the Radiophonic Workshop’s music and effects were in fact used by programmes in every single department of the BBC, meaning that few people in Britain can have been untouched by this magical music. Low-budget education programmes made particularly frequent use of the Workshop’s output. An early exposure to experimental electronic music inspired many to become electronic musicians themselves.

Of course, almost all music produced today is electronic in some form. What we take for granted was largely pioneered by a rather unexotic bunch working away painstakingly in a Maida Vale studio. Initially, the equipment they worked on was old and unreliable even by contemporary standards, having been recovered from the BBC’s “redundancy plant”.

At first no-one could work at the Radiophonic Workshop for longer than six months, as the BBC had a fear that prolonged exposure to electronic music could cause mental illness! Meanwhile, the time-consuming musique concrète techniques largely employed in the 1960s would have many of today’s musicians, who practically have electronic music on tap, running for the hills. Brian Hodgson says he once stayed up for three successive days and nights in order to meet his deadline.

“Radiophonic” music was made possible by the increasing availability of tape recorders which allowed inquiring minds to manipulate sounds in interesting ways. The majority of early electronic music was made by cutting and splicing tapes, changing their speed in order to create the right notes and sounds. Delia Derbyshire always carried with her a book of logarithms so that she could make the calculations required to do her work.

BBC Radiophonic Workshop -- A Retrospective artwork One CD released this year, BBC Radiophonic Workshop — A Retrospective, provides an excellent overview of the output of the Workshop over its forty year life. It showcases the extraordinary diversity of the Radiophonic Workshop. It ranges from a comedy belch produced in 1959 for The Goon Show, to the 1997 theme tune for Michael Palin’s Full Circle, via local radio station jingles and news stings.

The double disc compilation is arranged in chronological order, allowing the listener to track the development of electronic music-making techniques over time. The earlier tracks are, oddly enough, the ones that have stood the test of time much better.

The introduction of the synthesiser may have enabled composers to create electronic music much more easily and quickly. But it also brought with it a set of identikit sounds that were mostly devoid of the charm of the earlier compositions. In my personal view, even though the mastery of the composers remains fairly high throughout, the quality of the sound diminishes as the CD goes on, particularly from the mid-1980s onwards.

By that time, Radiophonic Workshop was struggling to set itself apart. While in the 1960s and 1970s the Workshop had unrivalled access to excellent electronic music making equipment, the 1980s brought about the more widespread availability of such equipment, along with a quality that today sounds rather naff. Soon enough the Radiophonic Workshop found itself being undercut by freelance musicians.

With the BBC’s cost-cutting era under John Birt well under way, the Radiophonic Workshop struggled to justify its existence. It was finally wound up in 1997, just short of its fortieth birthday, by which time just one composer, Elizabeth Parker, was working for it.

Although it is easy to let romance get the better of you, listening to the CD makes me think that the Radiophonic Workshop had ceased to be relevant by then. Fifty years ago, electronic music was a largely unexplored area, ripe for experimentation. By the 1990s, any musician could make music from his home that sounded just as good as what the Radiophonic Workshop could produce.

Nonetheless, there are some real gems to be found on this album. Maddalena Fagandini’s ‘Interval Signal’ is hypnotic and magical. Along with Delia Derbyshire’s ‘Dance from “Noah”‘, it sounds decades ahead of its time. Meanwhile, Peter Howell’s ‘Greenwich Chorus’ sounds so fantastic that it reportedly jammed the BBC’s switchboards when it was broadcast.

This excellent retrospective CD was just one of many Radiophonic wonders that we were brought this year. My next post will look at some of the other Radiophonic Workshop-related gems that have been unearthed.

3 comments

  1. I’m sure I remember reading about this when it came out but for some reason I had completely forgotten about it! I quite enjoyed the BBC Radiophonic Music compilation so looking forward to giving this a listen 🙂

  2. In early 1962, George Martin and Maddalena Fagandini (Dr. Who sound effects wizard) were tinkering about in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop – and came up with these two tunes:

    (Ray Cathode (Maddalena Fagandini and George Martin) – Time Beat + Waltz In Orbit – 1962 45rpm)
    A few weeks later George met four lads from Liverpool – and, as they say, the rest is history!