Roberto Gerhard

Resident archivist Jack Dangers ponders a seven-inch called ‘Electronic Music’ by overlooked composer Roberto Gerhard

You don’t hear much about Roberto Gerhard, but he was one of the first electronic composers based in the UK. He was 68 when the music on this seven-inch was recorded.

Born in Spain in 1896, Gerhard’s father was German Swiss and his mother was from Alsace, which was part of the German Empire when she was growing up. He studied under Arnold Schoenberg in the 1920s and was an important figure in the Spanish contemporary music scene until the Spanish Civil War when he fled and settled in Cambridge.

According to one book, he was the first composer to provide electronic music for the stage in the UK – for the 1954 production of ‘The Prisoner’ by Bridget Boland at the Globe Theatre in London. The play was made into a film in 1955 starring Alec Guinness, but without Gerhard’s accompaniment. He also wrote for the Royal Shakespeare Company, creating an electronic score for their 1955 production of ‘King Lear’ in Stratford-upon-Avon. The modernist interpretation freaked many critics out, but it was considered a landmark theatrical production of the 1950s.

Gerhard wrote symphonies and did a lot of work for the BBC. There’s an album from 2014, ‘Roberto Gerhard: Electronic Explorations From His Studio + BBC Radiophonic Workshop 1958-1967’, released on Sub Rosa, that is very much worth seeking out. It’s fairly widely available on vinyl and CD.

This seven-inch record is rare, though. It was first released in 1964 on a 78 rpm 10-inch and a seven-inch in the UK on a label called The Southern Library Of Recorded Music, which was started in 1960 by Dennis Berry, who composed for film and TV and produced library music. The seven-inch also came out in the USA, and that’s the version I picked up.

It is brilliant. It has eight tracks over two sides – short pieces ranging from 30 to 90 seconds in length, probably intended for television and film producers to use as sound effects and atmospheres. The titles – ‘Telergic’, Bubblecade’ and ‘Speculum’ – are as weird as the music. I assume ‘Speculum’ refers to the Latin meaning of “mirror”, rather than the medical instrument. It’s manipulated tape music with a tinge of DIY. He was speeding up sounds and using shortwave radio stuff, which I’m a sucker for. It was John Cage who first heard that as being music. Lots of roads lead back to Cage.

Roberto Gerhard died in 1970, aged 73.

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