Sci-fi fans everywhere have been buzzing over Sunday’s announcement that popular Scottish actor Peter Capaldi will play the new incarnation of time-traveling explorer Dr. Who (was Capaldi’s credit as “W.H.O. Doctor” in World War Z a coincidence? Hmm ... ). For those who aren't down with the Time Lord, the show is old-fashioned sci-fi fun, with lots of scary monsters and super babes (there hasn't been a lady Doctor yet), and has been more or less a staple of British television for 50 years. I enjoy watching, but what really flips my wig are the music and sound effects, originally produced in-house at the BBC’s experimental sound lab, the Radiophonic Workshop. Beginning in 1958 with a few second-hand tape recorders, some modified test equipment, and a few home-built audio devices, the ingenious staff of this studio produced original sounds for all kinds of programs, from radio plays to weekly TV serials to educational films, until budget cuts closed the department in the early ‘90s (it is in the beginning stages of a rebirth, spearheaded by conceptual sound guy Matthew Herbert, whose recent work includes entire albums derived from the sounds of a pig’s life and an air-to-surface bombing). Among its many achievements, this uniquely co-ed team of “boffins” will always be remembered for its Dr. Who commissions, in which they gave a signature sound to time travel, a voice to hostile aliens, and cemented an iconic theme in the hearts and minds of Whovians the world over (including The KLF and Orbital).
This Who-pla presents an ideal opportunity to shine a spotlight on a local artist whose imagination was also sparked by the Radiophonic Workshop. Matt the PM (Production Manager), who often collaborates with local DJ Pimpdaddysupreme on a psychedelic smorgasbord of sound and vision, has been performing experiments with noise and found sound since his days at MTSU. He hosted the Workeshoppe Radio Phonik program on student station WMTS, which broadcast live improvisations and adventures in free noise, in the vein of Negativland’s Over the Edge program on KPFA Berkeley (a tradition carried on to some degree by the Acid Living Room folks). Matt periodically revives WRP as a live performance project. Following in the footsteps of Radiophonic Workshop pioneers like Delia Derbyshire and Dick Mills, he focuses on manipulating and repurposing existing sounds rather than making his own with synthesizers. Take a gander at what he does with a couple of drum loops and vocal samples in the above video, which he captured during a recent appearance at Noa Noa’s Experimental Series.
In addition to his explorations via WRP, Matt also hosts the “hot stereo rock” show RFN Weekend on Radio Free Nashville, the low-power community station that will soon be launching an IndieGoGo campaign to upgrade to a city-wide transmission, helping fill the community radio void left by WRVU’s 2011 switch to online-only and student-only programming. Some of RFN’s DJs, Matt included, will be broadcasting live from The 5 Spot during Saturday’s Tomato Art Fest (check this week’s forthcoming Scene for much more on the Fest).
Here's Matt and PDS at another Noa Noa Experimental Series event, which used six turntables and a series of echo units (decidedly NSFW, and may temporarily impair your grip on reality):
A fascinating and thorough article was published in Sound on Sound on the Radiophonic Workshop’s 50th anniversary in 2008. If you don’t mind venturing down a rabbit hole, engineer Ray White rotated into the studio in the early ‘70s and maintains an enormous text and photo archive.
The BBC also released this documentary including interviews with many of the principal staff in 2003:
As mentioned in the doc, Derbyshire and several of the “old school” Workshop artists left after synthesizers were introduced (more in her own words via a Radio Scotland interview from 1997, four years before her death). If you don’t have time to watch the whole thing, here’s a poignant take-away from David Cain, a composer who worked in the Workshop from 1967-1973:
One thing about any definition of a golden age ... it is the point where the desires of the creator are greater than the technology which is available. There comes a moment where the technology gets closer and closer to the sort of imagination-creativity of the writer. And in the end, if you’re not careful, it overtakes. Suddenly, serendipity, which before was from your own sweat and blood — but you created something and thought “Goodness, me, that’s great” — serendipity comes by saying “If I press one of these 397 buttons on this synthesizer, maybe I’ll get something out of it.” Now, at that moment, the machinery is driving the creativity, and the creativity is not driving the machinery. And maybe that’s where the golden age stops.
The Beeb has also produced several radio stories on the Workshop, including this 2010 piece on Derbyshire, arguably its most famous alumna:
And a 2008 piece on Daphne Oram, who brought to life some unique ideas about turning pictures into sound:
And just for grins: Derbyshire and colleague Brian Hodgson played in clubs as Unit Delta Plus, and were tapped to provide the soundtrack for the Million Volt Light and Sound Rave (Paul McCartney and George Harrison were involved as well. The recordings from that project haven’t been released, though Macca says he’s got them.) However, Derbyshire and Hodgson collaborated with other musicians to produce a recently re-released psychedelic pop album called An Electric Storm; the band was called White Noise, and the lead single from the record was “Love Without Sound”: