The famous technicians hard at work in the Radiophonic Workshop.

From its inception in 1958 the BBC Radiophonic Workshop was synonymous with a peculiarly English brand of musical invention. Armed with reel-to-reel tape machines, rudimentary synthesisers and field recording equipment, technicians like Daphne Oram, Dick Mills and Delia Derbyshire created the strangest music ever made for television and radio.

Working on a shoestring budget, the workshop was briefed with providing incidental music, sound effects and titles, with an emphasis on electronics. Iconic pieces like Delia Derbyshire and Roy Grangers 1963 ‘Dr Who’ theme originated at the unit, whose collective artistic hallmark was a bloody-minded devotion to pushing oblique and cutting edge sound design into mainstream programming.

But although the influx of cheap audio digital technology saw the close of the original workshop in 1998, last month saw the launch of The New Radiophonic Workshop under the stewardship of electronic musician Matthew Herbert, alongside seven core artists.

Daphne Oram was the creator of the “Oramics” technique for creating electronic sounds.

Launched on digital platform ‘The Space’, the new workshop is a joint venture between the BBC and the Arts Council, exploring sonic possibilities in the digital environment. Humans Invent caught up with musician and games designer Yann Seznec – one of the core artists involved, and also the founder of the Lucky Frame gaming company  – to talk about sound, gaming and ‘musical pig sties’…

How did you get involved with the Workshop?

I’d been working with Matthew Herbert on his One Pig show, which charts the journey of a pig’s life. I created an electronic instrument called the ‘Sty Harp’; essentially a musical pig sty. The strings that comprise the ‘pen’ are sending signals to my laptop, attached to a custom-built midi controller that I use to control and manipulate individual component sounds. I was thrilled when Matthew asked me to be involved.

Were you aware of the history of the original Radiophonic Workshop?

I was aware – but I probably had different associations, being American. A lot of people in the UK when you mention Radiophonic Workshop will instantly say ‘The Tardis! Dr Who!’

But the people and the equipment and the recordings fascinated me… I’m less interested in the incidental music they produced for TV, and more interested in say, a really weird stand alone track by Delia Derbyshire or Daphne Oram, because the stuff they were making was just way out there: they were doing things in the 1950’s that took people a long time to catch up with.

That said, I think the Workshop may forever be associated with a certain English kind of grumpiness. Even now, we’re like, ‘why is everyone always talking about Dr Who…but why does the new Dr Who show not commission sound work from the new workshop….’

How has your programming work for Lucky Frame influenced your sound design?

I’m interested in the way one can think about games from a musical perspective and vice versa. Programming and musical composition share a huge amount. If you think of game play as a set of meaningful choices, then you can start to think about musical composition in that basic terminology – ‘play that sound, don’t play that sound’. It’s a structural approach. There is a lot the games world can learn from music and vice versa.

I think the gaming world is far more democratic these days, it’s a social thing now. Music can be very much culturally weighted, people will often say ‘I play such and such but I’m not a musician’ as if its somehow about the profession, rather than making music – are you in the union or not? If you play games, you’re a gamer, there’s less social kudos and complication attached.

Can you tell me a little about your ‘Secret sounds of spores’ piece for The Space?

I’ve never been 100% comfortable in the digital world. I enjoy being outside and exploring the sound possibilities that come from that. ‘Spores’ comes from a desire to remove control. So many hardware and software musical interfaces are all about complete control – giving control to the user. I thought it would be interesting to give control of sound design to the spores falling from a mushroom. The spores falling from the fungus are made visible by a laser, and the sound reacts to that movement.

But what’s more important to me than drawing attention to the fact that the natural process is triggering the sound is the process itself. This beautiful process is happening – something you normally can’t even see – thousands of spores falling from fungus. I guess it’s the association that the mind draws, knowing where it is coming from.  Like, what happens if I remove my own ability to move this slider, and give it to the sun instead.

What have you got coming up with the workshop over the next year?

There are a lot of potential projects in the pipeline. We’re particularly interested in the human response to sound. We keep coming back to the idea of ‘sound quality’ – and what constitutes ‘sound quality’, whether it can be measured and, if so, what form that measurement might take.  One idea was the making of a ‘Radiophonic Unit’ almost as if we’re talking about calories.

The next year will be exciting, there will be increasing work on musical software, and there is some stuff with the BFI working on re-scoring archive movies, all sorts!


For more information go to www.thespace.org.


Photo Credit: BBC Archive


 

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