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Sunday, 24 November 2013

Radiophonic goodness

The BBC Radiophonic Workshop has been getting more well-deserved attention for the anniversary; the Guardian has a nice long profile that you should read in its entirety. After a quick summary of the background of the group:  "But for the moment, the RWS's main focus is on gigging. Their first show as a "band" was a ramshackle but brilliant set in 2009 at the Roundhouse; since then they have been working out how to make themselves a going concern, picking up Prodigy side-man Kieron Pepper on drums along the way (who incidentally says, despite having played alongside the biggest names in current music, that "being involved with these gentlemen has redefined the meaning of cool for me!"). This year – with the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who piquing interest in the workshop once again – things have picked up pace with triumphant appearances at Festival Number 6 in Portmerion and at the London electronic arts festival (Leaf) with the Science Museum show to come. Paddy Kingsland, Dick Mills and Roger Limb rehearsing in London last month." [We mentioned their appearance at Leaf previously.]


[Here's a bit of footage from that Festival Number 6, when they're doing a Doctor Who remix...] 

 
"Watching them prepare in Paddy Kingsland's west London studio, it's fascinating to see how much they act and feel like a real band. Kingsland himself practises runs on his keyboard looking slightly impatient, while Mark Ayres – their youngest member, formerly the RWS's archivist in its final days at the Beeb, and the dynamo behind the formation of the new group – tries to get everyone into some kind of order. Peter Howell, once a psychedelic folk musician in bands including Agincourt, whose albums now fetch silly money with collectors, today a rather benevolently vicarish presence, offers sage advice from the corner, and the cheery Roger Limb offers the occasional laconic comment. Limb's voice, incidentally, is deeply disconcerting in its familiarity – until it is explained that as well as making music, he was one of the BBC's main announcers in the 60s and can be heard on thousands of popular archive clips."

"It's clear these are strong personalities, and all admit there can be friction. But moving among them all is Dick Mills, full of avuncular mischief, always ready with a defusing joke if tensions seem to be rising. Seventy-seven-year-old "Dr Dick", as he's known after his honorary doctorate from Bradford University, is the elder statesman of the RWS, having worked there from very shortly after its foundation in 1958. The only non-musician among the five – "a soundsmith rather than a tunesmith", in his words – Mills seems to have become the de facto spokesman for the group, spending more time acting as an MC on stage than fiddling with his reel-to-reel tape machines, and more than happy to give us a history lesson while the others rehearse."

"Mills, his jovial tones still rich with the accent of Rochester, Kent, where he grew up, compares their work favourably to more academic electronic experimentalists of the time. "We knew what they were doing on the continent," he smiles, "your Stockhausens and what have you. And we appreciated they worked along the same lines, but the difference was this: they set their own tasks. They'd say, 'I'm going to write a symphony based around the square root of bugger all, and I can take as long as I like about it' – which is entirely different to someone coming in saying, 'I need a short, silly symphony, and I need it for Wednesday'. It's a world away! And all they'd end up with would be a basic product with untold layers of unnecessary polish on it. We just got the job done."

"Likewise when Delia Derbyshire made the workshop hip for a while in the 60s, joining American composer David Vorhaus and fellow workshopper Brian Hodgson in the cult band White Noise, while the likes of Syd Barrett and Paul McCartney stopped in for photo-opportunities, most of the RWS staffers kept their heads down. "Well," says Mills, deadpan, "it was nice for Delia to get out there and be hip, and it was nice for McCartney to be a name-dropper and keep mentioning us, but most of us had family commitments and deadlines to meet!"

"All the time we were down in those studios," says Howell, "we made this stuff to be played through tiny telly speakers, never knowing who was listening. Now we have bassbins and real people who've paid to be here – this is what we've been waiting for all our lives!"

On a similar note, there's a BBC News article about Brian Hodson (he was also interviewed for Radio Norfolk, who put his interview in a neat compilation package of all things Who-related from their station this week, with comments from Terry Molloy and David Fisher among others). He talked about making the TARDIS piano-scraped-by-keys effect. "They came to listen to it and said they liked it, but there was something missing - why hadn't I put a rising note in it?
"I said 'time machines don't go up, they go everywhere'. They said 'well we think it needs it'. So I put the rising note in it with loads of feedback and the Tardis was born.
"Unfortunately, I'd spent so much time on the sound of it taking off, when we were asked for it to land I only had three days to sort that out. So I literally played it backwards, again with loads of feedback on it, and put a great big bang on the end of it."

He also chatted about coming up with the idea for ring modulation, and how he asked Lambert if the Workshop could have a Dalek after seeing how cool they were. Lambert said yes, they could have it once the show was over, but naturally that meant they never got it after all...

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