Academic journal article Notes

The BBC Radiophonic Workshop: Recent Reissues of British Electronic Music from 1955-1996

Academic journal article Notes

The BBC Radiophonic Workshop: Recent Reissues of British Electronic Music from 1955-1996

Article excerpt

With the CD release this year by the British Library of Samuel Beckett's seven works written for BBC radio comes a chance to reevaluate the commercial releases from the sound effects studio that made these recordings possible, the British Broadcasting Corporation's (BBC) Radiophonic Workshop. The Radiophonic Workshop (RW) was the BBC's in-house electronic music studio from 1958 to 1998. During those years, the workshop's largely anonymous composers wrote thousands of works for television and radio, exerting an enormous influence on the development of electronic music in both the popular and, to a lesser extent, academic realms. For millions of people, including musicians and composers such as The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Luciano Berio, Vladimir Ussachevsky, and more recently, Orbital and the Pet Shop Boys, the RW was British electronic music. The kind of primitive but effective electronic tape music and effects employed in several of Beckett's works, available now for the first time on CD, quickly shifted to a more mainstream tonal style, before finally settling on a purely synthesizer-based model of composition by the early 1970s. This essay will sample a collection of recordings and DVDs from throughout the RW's history.

In the beginning, the RW was in some ways the equivalent of the more famous Groupe de recherches musicales formed by Pierre Schaeffer for the production of musique concrete at the Parisian Radiodiffusion television francaise. The two studios initially shared similar methods of musical production, i.e., tape manipulation of recorded "found sounds" and minimal electronic sound generation. In this, both studios differed from the predominantly electronically generated works emerging from the Westdeutscher Rundfunk studio as populated by composers like Herbert Eimert and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Both the French and German studios, however, were accompanied by associated "schools" of composition; Schaeffer's complex system of objets sonores guided his studio's output, and the Germans saw their music as the continuation of the development of serial techniques. No such philosophical mandate controlled the direction of the RW's productions. Rather, owing to the overwhelmingly hostile reaction both French and German electronic music received from within the BBC's Music Department, individuals from within that same organization's Drama and Features Departments worked to create a commensurate electronic studio in Britain.

Working outside the heated contemporary musical debates of the time, these two departments were able to forge a studio free from the particular ideological musical forces at work on the Continent. Two BBC producers in particular were the driving force behind its creation, broadcasting several early experiments in electronic music as part of dramatic productions. Douglas Cleverdon and Donald McWhinnie found inspiration in Schaeffer's experimentation with manipulated sounds, seeing a vast new area of sound fit for exploration. The growing desire in the mid-1950s for a wider array of sound effects in dramatic productions reflected a larger desire by British producers and playwrights for a new kind of production: what McWhinnie called "pure radio," a blending of spoken dialogue, sound effects, and music into an entirely organic whole, and only possible in the medium of radio. (1) The emergence and popularity of a revolutionary new avant-garde continental theatre in the mid-fifties, the Theatre of the Absurd, gave these producers a new willingness to invest their productions with an anti-realist aesthetic that embraced sound techniques geared towards the odd, surreal, and distorted. This sound world, borrowed and expanded upon from comedy and science fiction, existed as a bridge between music and reality. By alienating its audience from a familiar reality, the works combined electronics and words in a way unique to Britain.

The first of the productions utilizing "radiophonic sound" (the name chosen by the BBC for these new electro-musical effects in an attempt to avoid comparison with both Germanic elektronische Musik and French musique concrete) to gain serious critical and popular attention was Beckett's All That Fall (1957), the first play on the British Library's CD collection and Beckett's first work specifically for the medium of radio. …

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