Housed in a former roller skating rink, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop opened the world's ears to entirely new soundscapes with little more than imagination
Doctor Who, the British time-traveling series, has proven remarkably resilient; created 48 years ago, its newest season premiered Saturday, setting a new ratings record for BBC America. Even more remarkable is the resiliency of its theme music (embedded below). Swooping, hissing and pulsing with electronic verve, it manages to be at once haunting, goofy and ethereal. More than just a warbling masterpiece of TV music, it's the best-known work of a ragtag group of technicians who unwittingly helped shape the course of 20th-century music.
The theme music was created in 1963 by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, a poorly-funded department charged with making ghostly or wacky sound effects for the Beeb's radio and TV programs. From this modest assignment, they explored the fringes of sound and stretched the the idea of what music could be. Ignored for decades by music historians, the now defunct Workshop has in recent years gained a reputation as one of the forebears of electronica, psychedelia, ambient music and synth pop.
The original version of the Doctor Who theme -- it's undergone a few adjustments -- featured electronic oscillators, some plucked strings and a lot of technological hocus-pocus. Various sounds were captured on magnetic recording tape, which was then cut, spliced, threaded through playback machines and otherwise conjured into something viewers at the time had never before heard. The theme is representative of the department's work as a whole, which brought to a wide audience methods once exclusive to the high modernism of experimental composition. Many of the Workshop's compositions, for instance, drew from musique concrete -- a precursor of sorts to sampling in which recordings of everyday sounds are coaxed into a strange kind of music.
Near-constant beeps and bloops and other electronic tones harass our 21st-century ears, so the Doctor Who theme might not blow you away. But the Workshop was founded in 1958 -- well before synthesizers were effectively available. Making electronic sounds was possible, but it took lots of time and lots of work. Making them sound good took even more. Tape loops were a Workshop signature years before the Beatles were praised as visionaries for using them on "Tomorrow Never Knows." A loop for today's musician is a repeating snippet of digitally stored sound triggered by a keystroke. For the Workshop's members, it was literally a loop of tape. Some loops circled the Workshop's studio; one stretched down the hallway to the receptionist's desk.
The Doctor Who theme took days of cutting and splicing individual notes. In his book Strange Sounds, Mark Brend notes that without multitrack recorders, the final mix was achieved by putting all the tracks on separate machines. With the tapes cued up exactly, the "play" buttons were deployed with a "one, two, three, go!" It took a few tries. Although the music was written by Ron Grainer, an outside composer hired by the BBC, it was Workshop member Delia Derbyshire who masterminded the otherworldly production. Upon hearing it, a very impressed Grainer barely recognized it as his composition. Due to BBC policies at the time, Grainer -- against his objections -- is still officially credited as the sole writer.
Equally inclined to music and mathematics, Derbyshire grew up during the war in the heavily bombed city of Coventry. "My love for abstract music came from the air raid sirens ... that was electronic music," she once said. That influence is heard most explicitly in her "Music of Spheres" (below).
For those raised on Doctor Who and other BBC programming, the Workshop created a soundscape that made the once harsh and alien sounds of electronic tones not just familiar but beautiful. It's not much of a stretch to assume that the Radiophonic Workshop had a lot to do with why the best synth-pop bands of the 1980s came out of the U.K.
Housed in a former roller skating rink that provided few resources, the Workshop relied on a DIY ingenuity. The members, of varying levels of musical training, scrounged up oscillators from other BBC offices, tuned them to different pitches and connected them to an octave's worth of keys ripped from an old piano. They rigged up their own instruments, such as a wooden plank outfitted with a single string and two pickups. The sounds of silverware being jostled, a metal lampshade struck, or water poured from a cider jug were recorded and then slowed down, sped up or reversed until a jaunty tune emerged. Doing away with traditional instruments, composing was no longer just arranging notes; the Workshop built from scratch the very sounds of those notes. Take, for example, the description embedded below of creating the music for the reading letters portion of Woman's Hour.
And the sounds were a hit. Early electronic music had a reputation for being unlistenable, but the Workshop's version of it was embraced by a nation still buoyed by a post-war optimism toward technology.
The Workshop may well have been the perfect intersection between avant-garde and pop. State-run broadcast studios in Cologne and Paris played a big part in mid-century music experiments, and the early Workshop members closely studied the compositions they produced. Fusing catchy melodies to the electronic work of Karlheinz Stockhausen in Germany and the tape compositions of France's Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry, the Workshop arrived at an altogether new sound that served as the soundtracks of adventure series, children's shows and news programs.
While Stockhausen and Schaeffer very consciously set out to revolutionize music and the way we regard sound, it's unlikely that the creators of sound effects for The Goon Show assumed their work would inspire the next few generations. And yet, musicians from Pink Floyd to to Aphex Twin have cited the Workshop as an influence. At the 3:02 mark, you can hear the Doctor Who theme quoted in Pink Floyd's "One of These Days" (below).
Electronic music fans also have Samuel Beckett to thank. In his book on the Radiophonic Workshop, Special Sound, Louis Niebur writes that the Waiting for Godot playwright recognized storytelling possibilities in radio that no other medium could offer. He wrote his first radio play, All That Fall, with the intent that sound design would play a major role. For the BBC's 1957 production of the play, the use of audio to convey inner tumult and blend reality and fantasy drew raves from critics. It was enough to convince the BBC to create a separate department for this kind of experimentation.
The department was first run by Daphne Oram (a mark of the BBC's surprisingly progressive policy toward hiring women), who recognized early on the music-making potential of magnetic tape. She left the BBC two years later, and went on to develop a new system of making music called Oramics in which music was made by drawing on strips of 35MM film. Her composition "Snow" is embedded below.
BBC higher-ups were nonetheless skeptical that all this experimenting had any artistic value, even refusing Workshop members the title of "musicians." BBC employees' rotations in the Workshop were initially limited to three months; longer than that, management feared, would lead to psychological distress.
By the 1970s, synthesizers became widely available; the BBC purchased a few for the Workshop. Many in the department's old guard, who had worked tirelessly to create previously unheard sounds, no longer felt they had a place there. The easier it became to make electronic sounds, the less special the Workshop's output seemed.
Since the BBC folded the department in 1998, there's been something of a growing cult around the Radiophonic Workshop in the UK. Derbyshire, who died in 2001, remains its most famous member. "Standing Wave," a play about her life was staged in 2004, and she made news again in 2008 when it was announced that 267 tapes of her music had been discovered.
But other members have also come in for critical reevaluation. Oram died relatively unknown in 2003, but her work is being re-discovered. Her Oramics Machine will go on display in the Science Museum in London this summer, and in a case of technology coming full circle, an iPhone app based on Oramics is currently in development.
Image: Adapted from flickr/brizzlebornandbred