Somnambule - Writing About Music

Doctor Who At The BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Volume 1: The Early Years 1963 -1969
Volume 2: New Beginnings 1970 -1980

The music for the Doctor Who television series introduced electronic music to a domestic UK audience more than a decade before the new sounds began to seep into pop music. There were, however, a number of precedents in contemporary composition in the form of Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry’s musique concrete and Karlheinz Stockhausen’s electronische musik of the 1950s. The first major example of electronic music in the popular realm may be Louis and Bebe Barron’s extraordinary soundtrack for 1954’s Forbidden Planet (starring Robbie The Robot and a young Leslie Nielsen). While in 1962, a year before the first episode of Doctor Who, The Tornadoes scored a no.1 hit in the UK and US with Telstar, Joe Meek’s futuristic ode to a telecommunications satellite.

Most of the aforementioned music began life as fairly standard sound effect fare such as rattled pebbles, mutilated instruments and occasionally sine-wave generators. The innovation lay in what was done with those sounds, namely painstaking tape editing and the application of a wide variety of post-production techniques such as the application of reverb, pitch manipulation and reverse playback. The BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop was set up in the 1950s to provide soundtracks for radio drama. It was located in two unimpressive rooms in the Corporation’s Maida Vale studios (built in 1909 as a roller skating rink) and predominantly used equipment scavenged from other departments. Such facts make the sounds presented on Volume 1 of Doctor Who At The BBC Radiophonic Workshop all the more extraordinary.

The most recognisable pieces are inevitably the various versions of the title theme composed by Ron Grainer and recorded/produced by the late Delia Derbyshire. There’s an exhaustive study of the piece here. These continue to stand as remarkably prescient works in their conflation of alien soundworld and insistent rhythm (think Kraftwerk, techno, electronica and so on). Coldcut acknowledged this clearly in concluding their 1997 megamix Journeys By DJ with the theme.

The vast majority of the tracks here are the work of Brian Hodgson. According to Ray White’s fascinating history of the Workshop (available here) he created the basic sound of the Tardis by running doorkeys along the strings of a derelict piano. The disc comprises 76 short tracks, many of which are less than half a minute long, most lasting a lot less than two minutes. The descriptive track titles are highly resonant. For example, ‘Dalek City Corridor’, ‘Sensorite Speech Background’, ‘Tardis Lands’ and so on probably conjure pictures more vividly in the mind’s eye than the original videotape. There’s something qualitatively distinct about the abstraction of music, particularly when isolated from its visual counterpart. Even the sound of, say, scrunched-up sticky tape is potentially more fascinating than the make-believe of eggbox alien planets, at least in today’s visually (over) saturated age. Listening to this lengthy procession of brief pieces is like dreaming of browsing a series of gorgeous, alien sculptures. Each possesses a miniature structure, a distinct identity and a sense of imaginative potential. They repay repeated listens. The same can’t be said for the contents of Volume 2 whose sounds are predominantly the creation of the Workshop’s analogue synthesizers, the EMS VCS3 and the Synthi 100, nicknamed the Delaware Dinosaur. The majority of the pieces are more clearly sound effects and the relative familiarity of their textures and colours makes them less fascinating than Volume 1.
Colin Buttimer
July 2005
Published by Milkfactory