Doctor Who Cuttings Archive

Let there be (electronic) music

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FASHIONS in incidental mimic for plays and documentaries continually changing. And we are now being exposed to a vogue in what some people would say is not music at all.

Electronic wizardry has reached the point where by pushing buttons and manipulating tape machines, men in white suits can imitate the sounds of every musical instrument in the orchestra. They can and often do go a stage further and conjure up sounds that no orchestra could ever produce. Electronic music soar higher, zoom lower, jangle your nerves or hit you in the pit of the stomach.

But don't get the idea that I am knocking this new-fangled music. Used judiciously, in the right context a does an excellent job of creating a mood or setting a scene. In fact I was involved in the BBCs early experiments with "radiophonics" in 1957-58.

An odd feature of this new music, it seems to me, is the way it reveals nationalistic characteristics at a time when conventional composers have drifted into an anonymous, non-national style of writing. Japanese electronic music is tenuous and tinkling like an oriental painting; French musique concrète is impressionist; the German version is worked out in purely mathematical terms.

German system in action

I was able to see the German system in action when I was commissioned some time ago to visit the Cologne studios. Banks of electronic oscillators were used tuned to specific notes and graduated volumes, to produce new blended tones according to the producers or composer's instructions. When these new tones were recorded on magnetic tape, the could be formed into endless loops and whirled round while the sound was passed through echo chambers, made into new tapes and finally spliced into measured lengths to give the soundtrack that was required. One German composer, whose electronic music and music for conventional instruments, is famous, is Karlheinz Stockhausen.

In complete contrast

They were working on one of his compositions when I was there. The notation he has devised for scoring electronic music looks like nothing more thsn a series of mathematical formulae (to give the frequencies and decibel levels of his individual sounds) and lines of wedges (to show how he wants the notes to rise or die away in volume on a time scale). Musique concrète, as practised in France is in complete contrast to this. There, the system is to cut and overlap collages of real sounds cribbed from all sorts of unlikely places. Human voices are introduced, sometimes played backwards or upside down or transposed a couple of ocataves. Bits of train noises or the spinning of a dustbin lid may provide the rhythmic element; or a recording of a piece of cloth being slowly torn in half may br replayed at such slow speed that it lasts a whole suspenseful minute, as in the drawing aside of the veil in an electronic score for the ballet Salome.

With our well-known genius for compromise, the British essays in electronic music have managed combine the characteristics of all known styles. Two important practitioners. whose names you will often see amongst the credits for imaginative or science-fiction types of television production, are Tristram Cary and Daphne Oram. They also work on commercials, though of course their names never appear. Tristram Cary has both a musical and an electronic training. So he is able to turn from writing conventional musical scores for such films as The Ladykillers and Sammy Goes South to electronic soundtracks like the one he composed for the prize-winning cartoon The Little Island and good old Dr. Who. Miss Oram works in a Kent oast-house which she has converted into a studio that resembles the control room of a space ship. She is much in demand for producing soundtracks for commercial films. etc.. and was responsible for setting up the BBC Radiophonic Workshop before becoming a free-lance.

Odd sound effects

This workshop is staffed by three BBC studio managers and three technicians. It supplies all sorts of odd sound effects, signature tunes and incidental music for BBC television and sound radio. You will find it described (in technical language) in the latest in the series of BBC Engineering Divisions Monographs—No. 51, "Radiophonics in the BBC" by F. C. Brooker, price 5s.

On my own most recent visits to the Radiophonic Workshop I have always been attracted to the keying unit. An octave of ordinary piano keys have been built into a wonderful electronic box-of-tricks to give easy playing of up to 12 different noises. This is an adaptation of a French invention known as the "Phonogene". When you press down one of the keys, instead of it playing a piano note, it triggers off any predetermined electronic sound you want.

In the usual arrangement, the keys are hooked up to a bank of electronic oscillators; but you could, for example, make the notes C, D, E produce bursts of machine-gun fire, Chinese gongs, and hissing steam. Playing tunes on this unit is like Journey Into Space, It's a Square World, and Dr. Who all rolled into one. The Monograph describes a recent addition to this unit giving a range of rise and decay times of up to 0.7 and 5 seconds respectively.

47 different items

The author lists the full inventory of the nine rooms that make up the radiophonic workshop. There are 47 different items from the 20-channel mixing console and eight-track tape recorder to half-octave filters, echo machines, white noise generators and a zither and guitar! He also reports on an analysis of 500 BBC productions which have used the workshop in the past five years. The percentage distribution was 52 per cent and radio. 35 per cent television, 8 per cent overseas and 5 per cent exhibitions, demonstrations, etc.

The list of programme titles confirms my own view that electronic easily applied to weird or unearthly programmes, but is seldom used for pleasant, pastoral themes. Typical titles are Quatermass and the Pit, Public Dreams and Private Nightmares, Things That Go Bump In the Night, Suspense, Asylum Diary.

In contrast to this depressing line-up however, is perhaps the BBC Radiophonic Workshop's best known composition — the jolly, rhythmic interval signal, sometimes referred to as "Cathode Ray", which has introduced election broadcasts and cricket commentaries.

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  • APA 6th ed.: Borwick, John (1964-03-12). Let there be (electronic) music. The Stage and Television Today p. 10.
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