Special Sound: The Creation and Legacy of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop

Electronic music innovation paved the way for the future, says David Toop, despite being frowned upon

February 10, 2011

Forty years ago, veteran Radio 3 producer Madeau Stewart let me into a secret. Within the BBC of her day, status was measured in curtains - not their size or quality, but whether employees were given dispensation to hang such luxuries in their offices. Stewart appears fleetingly as a footnote in Louis Niebur's study of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, but her moment is typically thought-provoking. In 1957, she and Daphne Oram, another BBC iconoclast, created radiophonic effects for a radio production of Shelley's Prometheus Unbound. The recording of their experiment is now lost, but perhaps it is sufficient to know that it happened. At a time when the British musical establishment was mounting a virulent defence against foreign avant-garde tendencies, a few pioneer spirits were inventing their own pathway to connect the listening public with the sounds of the future.

British readers may react with a mixture of dismay and amusement to Niebur's forensic analysis of these early days. As he reminds us at the conclusion of his book, "it can be easy to forget that the BBC has served as a central cultural producer with near-monopolistic power for nearly seventy years, essentially controlling and distributing musical styles and techniques".

The extent of that control is startling. In 1956, the Electrophonic Effects Committee warned that musicians and engineers would be able to work with electronic sound effects only for a limited time before succumbing to mental instability. This alarmist view suited both the BBC Music Department, in which the priority was a nationalistic "guardianship of rational development of musical aesthetics", and conservative critics such as Reginald Smith Brindle of The Musical Times, who described experimentalists as the "lunatic fringe".

Strenuous efforts to keep a lid on the crazies were moderately successful. Musique concrète and tape music expansionism in France, Germany, Italy and Japan was conspicuously absent in Britain. Steam built up in the pressure cooker, however, and so a very different type of electronics broke out from under this cultural regulation. Populist, utilitarian, technically primitive and often humorous, its impact on British musical aesthetics was more radical than the conservatives could have foreseen.

The Doctor Who theme is the apotheosis of this unlikely outcome. Ron Grainer's basic score was effectively simple as a signature tune but Delia Derbyshire's electronic realisation of the notes that he sketched on a single sheet of paper entered new territory. Yes, it was catchy enough to lock into the collective memory for perpetuity, but the music was a world in itself, alien and vibrantly uncanny. Like Telstar by The Tornados, produced by Joe Meek in even more primitive conditions a few years earlier, it sounded as if the future had finally arrived. And yet, unlike the work of Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luciano Berio, this was a future that was recognisably connected to the past.

Niebur's research into this early history of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop is wickedly illuminating. We gain insight into the bureaucratic struggles over equipment purchase and the status of employees (although there is no mention of curtains), an increasing range of commissions and the pressures of fulfilling them all. Intriguing questions hang in the air. How was it, for example, that so many female composers flourished in this resolutely male world, and would they have been allowed such prominence in the avant-garde scenes abroad?

As the story gradually deflates (ending in background music for a Michael Palin series), tomorrow's people are remorselessly overtaken by yesterday. Although the book loses focus somewhat in a nerd's paradise of Doctor Who scripts and synthesiser inventories, we have to accept that this is the way the future ends: not with a bang but with a whimper.

Special Sound: The Creation and Legacy of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop

By Louis Niebur

Oxford University Press

2pp, £60.00 and £17.99

ISBN 9780195368406 and 8413

Published 4 November 2010

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