February 24, 2007
Last week I watched an absolutely inspiring documentary on the unlikely topic of the <a href="http://en see it here.wikipedia.org/wiki/BBC_Radiophonic_Workshop” title=”BBC Radiophonic Workshop, wikipedia”>BBC Radiophonic Workshop.
Set up as an experimental unit back in the days when the BBC had enough spare money to set up experimental units, the Radiophonic Workshop were providing BBC programmes with avant-garde electronic soundtracks years before the invention of the synthesiser.
I’d always imagined the Workshop to be staffed with comic-book stereotypical electronics boffins in white lab coats, but in actual fact most of the staff were experimental composers, with backgrounds in musique concrète and jazz, and the patience to piece together elaborate compositions produced entirely by manipulating and cutting up tape-recordings.
For someone with an interest in electronic music, it was inexpressibly exciting. These people, with only tape machines and basic oscillators, were making music that still — 40 or 50 years on — sounds futuristic, and far less dated than a lot of music from 10 years ago sounds nowadays.
It was also an interesting study in the ways that constraint often enhances creativity: at one point two former radiophonists complain that the day the workshop got its first synthesiser was the day the quality of their output began to decline — that up until that point they’d had only tape to play with, so they’d had to think about exactly what they were doing, whereas from that point on making electronic music began to be about faffing with a machine trying to find a sound you like.