Alchemists of Sound


I watched a fantastic documentary called Alchemists of Sound about the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. I've long admired the Radiophonic Workshop — both for the quality of their output, and because they seemed to embody the same kind of 'high innovation on a shoestring budget' ethos that also typified the British rocket industry of the same period. I'm in awe of the skill and patience required to record and manipulate sounds on to analogue tape, and then cut, splice, speed up, slow down and re-record those loops until you have something that sounds completely unearthly.

The workshop had some — for the time — expensive and ground-breaking kit, but they also made a lot of stuff themselves from old tobacco tins and components scavenged from skips, as well as testing lots of everyday objects for their potential to generate interesting sounds. One thing that made me laugh out loud for ages afterwards was an archive shot that wasn't even commented upon in the commentary. It showed a box with lots of interesting looking knobs, dials and buttons. Attached to one knob was a handwritten label in stern capitals which read, "DO NOT FIDDLE WITH".

Another reason for admiring the Radiophonic Workshop is that several women played a very influential part — something that was unfortunately unusual for a technical field at that time. The most famous of the workshop women was Delia Derbyshire, who was a mathematician and musician, and was turned away from Decca Records in 1959 because they said that they didn't employ women in the recording studios. Their loss. Delia's most famous piece was the Doctor Who theme, which she arranged from Ron Grainer's composition. Every time I hear her arrangement, I'm astounded by how modern it sounds. Plenty of people have tried to 'update' it, but I think that the best you can hope for is not to mess it up too much. Perhaps it should have a "DO NOT FIDDLE WITH" label on it. Her version sounds grittier and weirder than any of the subsequent synthesised arrangements, and I like the tiny variations in timing that you get with edited tape loops. Sometimes synthesisers are just too regular, and it makes the music seem cold. I also didn't know before I watched the programme that the bass line in the Doctor Who theme was produced by plucking a string; not a musical string, but just an ordinary bit of string.

They featured some of Delia's other compositions on the programme, including the slightly creepy 'Ziw-zih Ziw-zih oo-oo-oo' and the utterly haunting and evocative Blue Veils and Golden Sands. I must try to get hold of some of her recordings on vinyl.

One of the people interviewed made a very interesting point about technology. He said that in the early days, the imagination of the composers outstripped what the technology was capable of. People had a clear idea what they wanted to achieve, and would work away until they got as close as possible to their vision. However, as technology improved, the possibilities outstripped the imagination of the composers. So now, there's a tendency for composers working with electronics to try out buttons randomly until they find something they like, which isn't the same thing at all.

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