Wee have also sound-houses (article)

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Wee have also sound-houses ... is a series of articles by Robin Carmody published at http://www.elidor.freeserve.co.uk/radiophonic.htm, from which the following extracts are copied.


Wee have also sound-houses ...

The Workshop's resident genius, Delia Derbyshire, had only just arrived. One of her earliest contributions - "Time On Our Hands" - is a superb subversion of a phrase which would normally evoke (especially in the context of 1962) new-found affluence, spare time and leisure, now rendered alienated, distant and isolated. "Arabic Science and Industry" is equally startling, but her finest early gambit was "Know Your Car", a devastatingly effective appropriation of the 1930s hit "Get Out And Get Under". The sound effects in the background are still dazzling, still a superb display of the art of studio recording.

[In] the 1964-71 era of signature pieces [...] it is Derbyshire's genius that continues to stand out. Her "Talk Out" is incredible, based almost entirely on studio-recorded voices around 26 seconds of electronic delicacy, "Science and Health" is a succession of tumbling chords, descending with an elegance beyond almost anyone else, and "A New View of Politics" is devastatingly effective (and perfect for the optimism of early BBC2, for whom the piece was written).

Doctor Who [is] the programme which ultimately came to trap the Workshop in the mass public imagination, as their name became so widely associated with it, at the expense of any widespread consciousness of their other work.

The superiority of Delia Derbyshire's work to anything else from the Workshop always stands out - three of her 1969 signature pieces, "Environmental Studies", "Chronicle" and "Great Zoos of the World" display all her astonishing tricks with sound, the last-named including the most accurate set of animal noises ever created electronically. Her "Ziwzeh Ziwzeh Oooh Oooh Oooh", based around a resplicing of "Science and Health", is her most terrifying moment, tumbling into a nightmare, the sound of childhood at its most chilling.

Derbyshire had always felt held back by the demands of the Workshop, how everything had to be designed for some specific promotional use, and mixing as she did with people as diverse as Peter Zinovieff, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Yoko Ono, Pink Floyd and Brian Jones, she found herself increasingly disillusioned with her surroundings. Her departure in 1971 (she would later be, among other things, a pipeline radio operator for British Gas in the mid-70s) coincided unfortunately with the mass availability of analog synthesisers, which removed the need for the sounds to be created in the studio, with tape loops running the length of corridors.

Robin Carmody, 11th July / 16th October 2000

"BBC Radiophonic Music" by Delia Derbyshire, John Baker and David Cain (1971)

As ever it's Delia Derbyshire's genius that stands out. "Mattachin" is a fine reworking / extension of the structure of her "Talk Out", but the real masterpiece is "Pot Au Feu". This is three minutes and nineteen seconds of paranoia, virtually a rave track circa 1991 in its structure; a stattering, pounding teleprinter-paced bassline worthy of Timbaland as the tension builds, then a moment of chaos and crisis, an alarm-bell of a hook recalling the "panic / excitement" lines so prevalent in early 90s hardcore.

Delia's "Blue Veils and Golden Sands" is, as one might expect, phenomenally atmospheric; such is its surround-sound quality that it totally transcends the narrow constraints of simply coming from my speakers, instead filling the room, my consciousness, the air itself. And yet virtually nothing happens, but with Delia's music nothing needs to happen; the fullness and totality of it all render any desire for novelty or thrill or quick fix an utterly absurd and unnecessary concept.

Delia Derbyshire's "The Delian Mode" pretty much defies description and is all the better for it; you don't want to have to resort to mere words to describe such a perfect sound, utterly deserving the self-definitive title Delia so knowingly gave it.

Delia's "Towards Tomorrow" (presumably written for a 1968 BBC TV series of this title) is, like her earlier "Time On Our Hands", a perfect subversion of a classic brave-new-world dynamism phrase. The "tomorrow" I imagine here is the antithesis of that which the BBC in the 60s made much play of promoting to its audience; instead, it could easily be some kind of dystopia, a state of decay or de-evolution. With "Door To Door", meanwhile, Delia shows that she could also do the upbeat promotional thing well; the rings and knocks are worked perfectly into the perfect 60s advertising campaign soundtrack.

Delia's "Air", an ice-cold, nocturnal rewrite of "Air on a G-String", the stuff of a seven-year-old child's most unforgettable nightmares and thus even more obviously and clearly proto-Pram than "Ziwzeh Ziwzeh Oooh Oooh Oooh", completes the album.

Robin Carmody, 26th March 2001