From wartime bombings to the creaking of tree bark, Janet Beat  has always been fascinated by sound. Now in her 80s, this contemporary of Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire is finally  being recognised for her pioneering electronic work

“Although I lived in the countryside, we had three bombs fall on our little road,” says Janet Beat with softly-spoken stoicism. “One of them fell onto a neighbour’s house when I was in it. I only lived to tell the tale because the bomb didn’t explode, but I heard it come down.  They spin and there’s a screaming noise. And before  they land, because of the way sound travels, there’s a silence. We were taught to throw ourselves to the ground at that moment. 

“I heard it crash right through the roof and I was later told that it was  an incendiary bomb, so we wouldn’t have survived. The heat generated by  it sears the lungs. But I remember not being afraid, just being fascinated,  until I heard the adults start to scream.”

I don’t mind admitting that I am completely in awe of Janet Beat. She is  genuinely extraordinary. Born in 1937 and raised in rural Staffordshire, her hair-raising wartime memories alone form part of an essential social history. But they are just one tiny element of a life defined by her unyielding sense of adventure. Crucially, her abiding preoccupation with sound has led to her becoming one of Britain’s first – and perhaps most unjustly unrecognised – pioneers of electronic music. A contemporary of both Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire, Janet has had to wait until her 84th year for the first release of her collected electronic works.

“I was always very sensitive to sound,” she notes. “I spent a lot of time on my own and I used to put my ears to the bark of trees. If it was windy, you could hear them creaking deliciously. The rest of the scientific world have caught up now – they’ve got microphones and they can hear trees drawing  up their water. I did that as a child. I just didn’t have the microphones. 

“There was a big rhododendron bush that was hollow in the centre and  I used to crawl inside to listen to the nature all around me. Rabbits thumping and seed pods bursting. I noticed that different leaves make different sounds, according to whether they have a serrated edge or a smooth edge. Some make pink noise, some make white noise. I can still hear the difference.”

Her interest in composition began with a tune written on a toy piano at the age of three. When she was six, she overheard her mother suggesting the infant Janet might benefit from a spell in a children’s home “where the nuns will knock the music out of her”. Undeterred, her obsession was further fuelled by the BBC’s post-war radio output.

“There were only two radio stations – the Home Service and the Light Programme,” she says. “My mother and I used to search them for classical music. On the radio dial, it said things like, ‘Moscow – Oslo – Hilversum – Luxembourg’. The reception was very distorted. Sometimes it emphasised  the upper frequencies and sometimes other stations butted in. That taught  me about sound collage.”

Studying for a degree in music at Birmingham University in the mid-1950s, Janet began to assume more esoteric leanings.

“I first became intrigued by electronic music when I was a student,” she continues. “I went to a shop that sold second-hand records and I picked up an LP of work by Pierre Henry. I thought, ‘What is this?’. So with the money from my 21st birthday, which was in 1958, I bought a Brenell Mark 5 tape machine. It was mono, with an interchangeable capstan for very slow speeds. That was great. With the mono track being in the middle of the tape, you could play it backwards too. Later on, I did tape loops.”

Where on earth, I wonder, did that practical expertise come from? Those are pretty unorthodox pursuits for 1950s Staffordshire.

“There were books by various electronic engineers, so I learned about  tape loops from those,” she explains. “I was only the ninth person in the  UK to make musique concrète. There was Daphne Oram, a few men, and then there was me! Some of the others stopped because they were ridiculed.  But I bought a Tandberg stereo machine, which meant I could start to multitrack. I also took a correspondence course in electronics, after which  I built an oscilloscope. It was probably a bit like painting by numbers to begin with. And then I got into elektronische music after buying the 10-inch LP  of Stockhausen’s ‘Gesang Der Jünglinge’.”

Janet graduated from Birmingham in 1960 and accepted  a teaching post at Worcester College of Education.  It was here that she found an unlikely champion for  her interests – a man now widely recognised as one of the 20th century’s leading experts on church music. 

“The head of the department was Watkins Shaw,  the musicologist,” she says. “He was the person who encouraged me. We had lots of long talks. We bought our own little studio oscilloscope and everyone working in the physics department was delighted that a woman was getting involved in science. Their technician built a ring modulator for me, then a  low-pass and high-pass filter, and I introduced a course on electronic music  to the students. Everywhere else that I have been, I’ve had opposition from department heads.”

Buoyed up by the experience of watching Wendy Carlos performing on television in the early 1970s, Janet spent a year marking Open University coursework to earn the money to buy her first synthesiser.

“The EMS Synthi A!” she exclaims. “In suitcase form. Watkins Shaw came with me and we went to Peter Zinovieff’s place in Putney. God, he was arrogant. He wasn’t certain whether he wanted to sell me one of his synths because I was ‘provincial’. And when I mentioned Daphne Oram… that was a red rag to a bull. He couldn’t stand her. The prices were going up all the time, but his secretary said, ‘This is Friday and the price doesn’t go up until Monday… so I’ll sell it to you at today’s price’.”

In 1972, Janet joined the teaching staff at the Royal Scottish Academy  of Music and Drama (RSAMD, now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland)  and founded another electronic studio. During her time at the Academy,  she finally encountered her musical kindred spirit.

“The director of studies at the RSAMD had been a BBC producer and he invited Daphne Oram up to give a talk,” she recalls. “He took me to lunch with her and she was thrilled to find another woman who was interested in technology. She asked me to visit her at Tower Folly, her home in Kent. It was a converted oast house and she had a studio in her garden shed. She was delightful and told me about various suppliers that I could visit to help me build my own circuits.”

Electronic music is far from the sum total of Beat’s lifetime of work.  In the 1960s, she worked as an orchestral horn player until her technique  was limited by a serious mouth operation – “I was told I would never play again… ‘Stop trying to be like a man, go away and have babies’, they said” – and her electronic experiments have always gone hand in hand with a prolific body of classical material. In 1980, she was a founder of the Scottish Society of Composers. In 1992, she became visiting composer at Hochschule für Musik Nürnberg, the respected German conservatoire. She sees no great divide between the electronic and classical disciplines.

“They seem like two sides of the same coin to me, because I’m a person  full of curiosity,” she insists. “I think the world is a wonderful place to live.  I still pick up stones to see what’s underneath them.”

Inevitably, her tirelessly inquisitive nature has found its way into her teaching practices.

“When I started the studio at the RSAMD, I’d tell the students about harmonics and get them to miaow like a cat,” she chuckles. “When a cat goes ‘miaow’, it’s acting like a band-pass filter. So I’d say, ‘Sing on a note to suit your voice and then miaow, and you should be able to hear the sine waves inside your head’. The rest of the staff always knew they were my students when they went into the refectory miaowing.”

Perhaps no less predictably, her unorthodox approach also brought her into conflict with the more traditionally minded patricians of 1970s and  1980s academia.

“I worked alongside three different principals and 10 heads of department… and only one of them was helpful,” she sighs. “At times, I was told to stop composing. Some of them increased my teaching hours to try and stop me.  I said, ‘You cannot tell me what to do in my leisure time’. Somebody once said to me, ‘I bet you’re pleased about the Sex Discrimination Act’. I said, ‘In one way, yes, but in another, it just makes the misogyny go underground’. I like to know where it’s coming from, so I can be prepared for it.”

In 1981, ‘Dancing On Moonbeams (An Electronic Fantasy)’, a twinkling 10-minute ambient track by Janet Beat, was included on a compilation called ‘Music By Scottish Composers Volume One’. For 40 years, it remained the only commercial release of any of her electronic work.

“I’d bought some more units for my Roland System-100M synthesiser,” she says gleefully. “In fact, with the various keyboards  I had, I was able to run 16 oscillators together, like ‘A Clockwork Orange’!  But I made the mistake of writing tongue-in-cheek sleeve notes for it – ‘Close  your eyes and become an aural astronaut…’. Big mistake. All of the other composers on the disc had written very serious notes about their music.” 

‘Dancing On Moonbeams’ is the opening track on Trunk’s new collection of Janet’s work, the mischievously titled ‘Pioneering Knob Twiddler’. The album also includes two 1983 modular pieces produced to accompany Eddie McConnell’s atmospheric ‘Lighthouse’ film for the Channel 4 series ‘Second Glance’, a wordless documentary following the daily travails of these lonely maritime outposts. Another absorbing track is ‘Echoes From Bali’, a hypnotic Yamaha DX7 recreation of Indonesian gamelan music.

“When I was a schoolgirl, there was a 78 rpm ‘History Of Music And Sound’ record of a gamelan orchestra,” she says. “I loved it, particularly the tuning of the metal bars of their instruments to be – to Western ears – slightly out of tune. You get a shimmering effect. That made me want to go to Java to hear the real thing.”

It was an ambition that she fulfilled decades later.

“I chose a tourist holiday, but then stayed behind to play Javanese-style gamelan,” she recounts. “It’s very beautiful and the dancing is incredible.  The devils and the demons and the monkey characters move so rapidly. In fact, the monkey gambolled and landed with his head in my lap. And said, under  his mask, ‘Sorry’. But when he made his next entry, he was eyeing me up  and I thought, ‘He’ll do it again…’. He did, and this time he whispered, ‘Nice’.”

Recorded in 1987, ‘Echoes From Bali’ is the newest track on ‘Pioneering Knob Twiddler’. Although she continues to compose in the classical idiom, Janet’s electronic work stopped over a decade ago with the sale of her ailing studio. Much of her earliest music, she admits wistfully, is now lost forever.

“A lot of my old tapes are missing,” she reveals. “My father used some of them to tie things up in the garden. I don’t think he did it to deliberately destroy my music, he was simply a great recycler. I came home once and found his raspberry canes tied together with my tapes. So I lost everything that was on them. We had a blazing row. The tapes still performed though,  by acting as a wind chime. If I could have dragged the Brenell Mark 5 into  the garden, which I couldn’t because it weighed a ton, I would have written  a piece called ‘Phoenix’.”

You might be forgiven for assuming Janet had a fractious relationship with her parents, but there’s a heartrending sting in the tale. As we wind up our conversation, she tells me about ‘Aztec Myth’, a 1987 composition for voice and tape. She shares the anecdote as an example of her multifaceted thought processes, but it becomes something else entirely.

“I’d remembered reading an extract from an Aztec poem,” she says.  “But it wasn’t long enough for what I wanted. So this is where my curiosity came in again. I’d heard that a scientist was considering whether viruses were once part of our DNA. I’d also heard that, in trying to help people with brain damage, researchers were experimenting with enzymes. And also…  my mother died of myeloid leukemia. In the 1970s, it was a death sentence.  So I put all these elements together…”

She pauses for a moment and then recites the lyrics to me.

“Your enzymes changed my brain cells / Then my pulsing heart came verdant / Greener than the springtime grass / I put forth crimson flowers /  But oh, alas, like the rosebush / I flowered and withered…”

At which point, she breaks off, clearly emotional.

“Sorry,” she apologises, entirely unnecessarily. “I’m getting upset because it reminds me of my mother. Don’t worry, I’ll get over it.”

And that softly-spoken stoicism swiftly returns. She finishes the recitation undaunted. We’ve talked for two hours and my time with Janet Beat has been both an education and a privilege. She signs off in an upbeat mood.

“I’ve come back into fashion,” she laughs as we say goodbye. “Normally, that happens after you’ve died, so I’m enjoying being here to appreciate it.”

‘Pioneering Knob Twiddler’ is out on Trunk

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