Dial a tune
Dial a tune
KIRSTEN CUBITT visits the
BBC's radiophonic workshop
IT STRUCK ME immediately as the contemporary equivalent of an alchemist's kitchen: to my lay eye the BBC's radiophonic workshop in Maida Vale took shape as an esoteric, slightly scary clutter of instruments, some quite dusty, other unintelligibly new, with fussy, jiggling dials, and a running commentary of gulping noises, and bumps, and whinnies.
I was at the workshop primarily to meet its only woman member, Delia Derbyshire. While she vanished to unfile some printed material which, she promised, would explain the setup with suitable simplicity, I had a chance to look over some of the equipment. A set of glass containers reminded me of the medieval waterclock I once saw in a cathedral. Near them stood a rather pretty box with perpetually changing numbers chasing each other across its face, and farther over was something they swore was called a wobbulator. I didn't know whether to laugh politely or to believe it. Its job, I learned, was to feed frequencies into the blue box, so that it could count them.
Most interesting, of all the hardware in the studio, is a brand new EMS VC3 [sic], a voltage controlled studio in itself, housed in a casing about the size of a small desk. Trustingly propped for the moment on an ageing swivel chair, this treasure box is said to be the equivalent of a whole roomful of ordinary instruments and by the end of the year the workshop hopes to take delivery of a £6,000 version on a larger scale, and even cleverer.
Though we hear a lot of it, not always wittingly, I think many people are as puzzled as I was about the music and sounds manufactured in this workshop and others like it. What, exactly, does “electronic music” mean? How is it made? What is it used for?
The BBC's own workshop was set up in 1958 by two studio managers at Broadcasting House, Daphne Oram, and the present organiser, Desmond Briscoe, mainly to handle special effects for radio drama. Now its range extends over the whole spectrum of sound and vision, with television taking 60 per cent of the output. Cheery call-signs for local radio stations, evocative sounds, and music for documentaries, plays, and weird effects for series like “Dr Who” are all the stock-in-trade of the workshop's four composers.
Delia Derbyshire, though only just into her thirties, is the longest-established of the four, and while Desmond Briscoe is away on extended leave she is monitoring the department. She sorted out for me, first of all, the basic definitions. Musique concrete has sound as its source, produced over a microphone and then deployed in different ways. Electronic music has as its source only electrical impulses. The workshop, of course, handles both.
The four staffers at Maida Vale, work on over 200 programmes a year, though this figure may include intensive treatments for six episodes of a series or one sound for a regional play. They specialise more by inclination than intent. John Baker is in demand for his catchy tunes—the call-signs are his.
David Cairns, the youngest at 29, straight-haired and monkish of feature, is preoccupied with medieval music and with jazz. His work for “The Hero Rises Up” helped to win its nomination for this year's Italia Prize. It was he who worked on the sound of the marathon “Rus.” Brian Hodgson is the progenitor of the notorious Dalek voices, a flamboyant figure with corn-coloured curls.
Like her colleagues, Delia is composer and technician in one. On the BBC's record of some of the workshop's compositions, her pieces tend to have atmospheric names like “Blue Veils and Golden Sand.” That was for a documentary on deserts and her music led the credit titles to the uneven beat of a camel train across the screen. Another of her compositions introduced “Zoos of the World” with a stunning fantasia of animal cries (in which the lion's roar was actually uttered by one of the workshop's multi-talented operational assistants). “Towards Tomorrow” is another of “her” programmes.
It is a demanding profession, and unusual for a woman. The only surviving daughter of a sheet-metal worker in Coventry, she was always good at music, though she says her grammar school resented the time she spent at the piano. Her teachers steered her towards maths and physics, and it was to read maths that she went to Girton, at one of its vintage periods when Judy Innes, the fashion writer, Andrew Sinclair, novelist and historian, and Peter Cook were in residence at Cambridge. Enthusiasm for acoustics and theories of sound led her to move across to the music faculty for part II of her degree, working for her LRAM in the meantime.
The corporation, usually so jealous of its servants, has allowed her to build up her own studio with Brian Hodgson, in Camden Town. As “Kaleidophon,” they have done the music and effects for the Round House “Hamlet,” the Greenwich “Medea,” and Peter Logan's Mechanical Ballet. This summer, Edward Lucie Smith, who had worked with Delia on a schools radio programme, asked her to set some verse for an evening called “Poets in Prison” at the City of London Festival.
But her studio at Maida Vale remains in the foreground. “People seem to think I'm just working with funny noises, that it isn't quite serious or something,” she told me. “I think a lot of people have a sort of block about electronic music, they think it must sound frightening and oppressive."