With an almighty album of analogue improvisations spread over four 10-inch vinyl discs about to remind the world that Radiophonic Workshop’s influence on electronic music is immeasurable, we meet them to find out how the old days shaped the future
In a small studio tucked behind an anonymous steel shutter somewhere in suburban High Wycombe, a very quiet rehearsal is taking place. Mark Ayres, Roger Limb, Peter Howell and Paddy Kingsland, who are later joined by Dick Mills, are using in-ear monitoring. They can hear what they’re playing in glorious individually mixed stereo. I can glean something of what’s going on through a small malfunctioning Peavey amp which is crackling and spitting horribly, and it gets particularly surreal when Mark Ayres and Peter Howell play their Akai wind controllers, emoting and expressing very convincingly, but without the slightest tootle being audible.
These venerable gents are the Radiophonic Workshop. Between them, they’re responsible for hundreds of hours of electronic sound, beamed into the brains of millions of British citizens between the years 1958 and 1998 via the BBC radio and TV programmes for which they composed scores and bespoke sound effects. Once part of a motley collection of composers housed in the dark studios of the BBC’s Maida Vale complex (“It looked like a mildewed wedding cake,” former Workshop head Brian Hodgson once said of the place), they’re now a recording and gigging band in their own right.
Becoming a band was an obvious and welcome move. The Radiophonic Workshop albums the BBC released in the 1960s and 1970s have long been collectors items, sought out by DJs, studio samplers and electronic music historians. The cult of Workshop icon Delia Derbyshire grows by the year, especially since the successful 21st century ‘Doctor Who’ reboot (although without a Workshop score) reignited memories of her best-known work.
The gathering retromania for pre-digital synthesis techniques – particularly modular and analogue gear – and the sheer overwhelming mother’s milk-scale influence the Radiophonic Workshop output had on generations of shivering British school kids who went on to become, say, The Human League or Orbital (to pluck a couple of obvious examples, there are countless others), meant that we wanted to see this curious, quintessentially British, obsolete-yet-future-defining institution in some kind of action.
“It’s not easy,” says Dick Mills, “being able to get the right repertoire for the audiences who come to see us.”
“We’re trying to present electronic music and musique concreté in a live setting,” says Mark Ayres.
They hit the road in 2014, delivering crowd-pleasers like the ‘Doctor Who’ theme tune, the music to ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy’, which Paddy Kingsland composed, and Delia Derbyshire’s “lost” 1966 Dadaist musique concreté piece ’Ziwzih Ziwzih OO-OO-OO’. After a few shows, they found themselves on the bill at the Glastonbury Festival without anyone batting an eyelid, except the band themselves. “It was quite frightening actually…” confesses the outfit’s raconteur Dick Mills. Dick is, astonishingly, 81 years old. He started at the Radiophonic Workshop in 1958 as a technical assistant and continued until the 1990s, making sound effects.
They can trade on their past, but they knew they needed to forge a new future for the Radiophonic Workshop if the project was to continue. After all, creating new futures was their stock-in-trade, and that’s what they’ve been doing, with a new album of electronic mastery in the blocks.
Sandwiches consumed, the rehearsal continues. All the synths are patched through a digitally controlled Behringer mixing desk and a couple of laptops which Mark Ayres marshals, programming in monitor adjustments at the requests of his bandmates. He also has control of the visuals and the backing tracks. The gear is a mix of the hyper-new, like the Arturia MatrixBrute they’ve been road testing (Mark Ayres is very impressed with it, based as it is on the matrix concept of the EMS VCS 3 synthesiser, perhaps the defining Radiophonic Workshop tool), classic analogues like Paddy Kingsland’s Jupiter 8 and Mark Ayres’ first generation Korg MS-20, and unglamorous workhorse keyboards and controllers. Oh, and Peter Howell’s DX7.
Radiophonic Workshop are about to release a new album, ‘Burials In Several Earths’, on their own Room 13 Records via Warp. The album has been painstakingly put together by Mark Ayres from a day-long recording session of improvised analogue electronics with Martyn Ware and Steve ‘Dub’ Jones, whose production and engineering work for New Order, The Chemical Brothers and UNKLE more than qualifies him.
‘Burials In Several Earths’ is, I’m happy to report, magnificent. Fully analogue and played by hand without computers, the hours of recordings have been edited and mixed down to nine tracks for the quadruple 10-inch vinyl boxset edition and five tracks for the double CD. It’s a collection of lengthy and rich sound worlds made on the fly, responding to the machines they’re using and seasoned with flourishes of piano and guitar. Martyn Ware is on the kind of analogue form he produced for The Human League’s ‘The Dignity Of Labour’ suite on his System 100 back in 1979. It fully explores the experimental and conceptual side of the Radiophonic Workshop, the kind of outrageous electronica which won them the admiration of generations of electronic musicians who came after them. It’s a reminder that, at their best, the Radiophonic Workshop wasn’t cutting edge; it was the knife itself. Since the ‘Burials’ recording, Paddy Kingsland and Roger Limb have completed another session, this time with Tom Middleton of Global Communication and Tom Szirtes (aka Shur-I-Kan).
“Because we have the album coming out, we thought we ought to put something in the show, so we’re working on a five-minute piece,” explains Mark. “I’ve had to go back over what we recorded and transcribe bits of it, and then give parts to everyone, but without them being exact parts, because I still want that live feel. I still want to it be different every time we do it, I still want it to be improvised.”
“With my sight reading, it always is,” says Howell.
When they started working on ‘Burials In Several Earths’, they had no such structure, no concept, nothing except the self-imposed restriction of working with analogue synths and no computers. The title came afterwards, while Mark Ayres was mixing and editing the recordings, from the book ‘New Atlantis’, an unfinished novel written in 1627 by Sir Francis Bacon. When Daphne Oram set up the BBC Radiophonic Workshop with Desmond Briscoe in 1958, she took a quote from the book and had it framed and hung on the wall of Room 13 at Maida Vale:
“We have also sound-houses, where we practise and demonstrate all sounds, and their generation. We have harmonies which you have not, of quarter-sounds, and lesser slides of sounds. Divers[e] instruments of music likewise to you unknown, some sweeter than any you have, together with bells and rings that are dainty and sweet…”
“It was something we returned to again and again during our existence at Maida Vale as it seemed to present a rationale for what we did and for some of the work itself,” explains Mark. “‘We have higher sounds and lower sounds…’,” he continues, adding more quotes from the novel.
“‘And this is a VCS 3…’,” says Paddy Kingsland, making a quote up.
“I started thinking, ‘What are we going to call these tracks, what are we going to call the album?’,” says Ayres. “And I’ve always had this ‘New Atlantis’ quote in the back of my mind, because it’s a fantastic piece of writing. It’s science fiction, really. So I sat down and read it one night in the middle of mixing and there were these little phrases, describing their science labs; ‘We did experiments, burials in several earths…’ and ‘This is things buried in water…’, and these titles seemed to fit the music. So the album wasn’t inspired by ‘New Atlantis’, but the titles came from it. It was reverse inspiration. I suddenly realised that what we’d done was something which fitted that concept very well.”
It’s a conceptual full circle that suits the Radiophonic Workshop down to the ground. That a piece of writing, which is effectively a kind of proto-science fiction by an Elizabethan intellectual (Bacon is the “father of scientific method”) should have been used by Daphne Oram to motivate the composers of the new-fangled Radiophonic Workshop in 1958 was, in the first place, inspired. And then for that same piece of writing to create the framework for a new Radiophonic Workshop piece nearly 60 years later sets up a time travelling symmetry of ideas, of a futurism rooted in the intellectual ideals of the original BBC remit to inform, educate and entertain.
This May marks what would have been Delia Derbyshire’s 80th birthday. There are various events planned to commemorate her life and work, including the digitisation of an archive of over 200 reel-to-reel tapes that were found in the attic of her house after her death. With the Radiophonic Workshop also busy releasing new music and playing shows, it’s going to be a big year, and 2018 will perhaps be even bigger, as it marks the 60th anniversary of the Workshop’s foundation.
The BBC Radiophonic Workshop is dead, long live the Radiophonic Workshop!
‘Burials In Several Earths’ is released by Room 13 Records