Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Unsung Heroes & Heroines

Been delving into a BBC Radiophonic Workshop 2CD. At over 100+ tracks lasting an average of 1 minute each, it's a fragmentary but historically intriguing experience. The RW was set up in 1958 in the Beeb's Maida Vale Studios with a remit to produce music and sound effects for TV and radio. Back in those days it was mainly musique concrete: natural sounds recorded on tape, reversed, speeded up, slowed down, looped etc with a few oscillators and filters thrown in. 
The creators were pretty much invisible, portrayed (if at all) as white-coated 'engineers' rather than musicians or composers (an image that Kraftwerk proactively sought). The anti stars of that first decade included Delia Derbyshire, Daphne Oram, Maddalena Fagandini, Desmond Briscoe, Brian Hodgson, John Baker and the only one still alive, Dick Mills. The fact that there were three women in their ranks is slightly staggering given the era. 
Delia Derbyshire
The most famous piece of music was of course the Dr Who theme tune, written by Ron Grainer but utterly transformed by Delia Derbyshire in 1963, still amazing 50 years on. But there were plenty of other weird & wonderful (as well as trite and tacky) theme tunes as the RW struggled to keep up with demand through the 70s and 80s. By the 90s, though, there was competition. Synthesisers, home studios and music software were becoming commonplace and the RW closed down in 1998 (although a virtual version was established last year, headed up by Matthew Herbert). 
Listened to out of context, much of the music now sounds rather dry, if not cheesy. Technically adventurous but artistically mundane. But one could say they paved the way for a lot of electronica and ambient music, an assumption supported by the fact that this CD is released on a subsidiary of Mute Records (home of Depeche Mode, Erasure and Goldfrapp). 

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