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.