In advance of their gig at the Science Museum in London, I had the chance to sit down with Paddy Kingsland of The Radiophonic Workshop. Once a department at the BBC, The Radiophonic Workshop are “representatives” of a history of sound designers and composers who pushed the limits of composition through the post-war period to present. Paddy, one such pioneer, took time out of rehearsing with the current lineup of Peter Howell, Roger Limb, Dr Dick Mills and Mark Ayres to discuss the history of The Workshop, their upcoming concert, and their new record, Burials in Several Earths which was released last month on their own imprint, Room 13.
‘A number of accidents’, Kingsland replies to a question about how the recent record came about, ‘which is really the history of The Radiophonic Workshop: fortunate accidents.’ The theme leads us into the preceding fifty odd years of The Workshop’s development. That is, a few low-budget commissions for the BBC Third Programme by Daphne Oram and Desmond Briscoe in the 1950s, before growing into a fully-fledged, if still low-budget, sound department that ran through the ‘70s to the ‘90s. The concerts only came later, the first being a London Roundhouse performance in 2009. Throughout the years the ‘lineup’ morphed across various instantiations of producers and composers, and yet ‘we’d never done any playing together,’ Kingsland remarks, ‘so we started off as the band that never was.’ Indeed, ‘somebody said we are our own tribute band’, he quips.
Burials in Several Earths was recorded in a day, which is at once daunting to imagine, given the final outcome, as it entirely understandable. There’s a levity and organicism to the record which seems often to result from only a certain combination of speed and chaos. Entirely improvised, Kingsland informs me, the record is the result of a single multitrack recording session guided by the confident hand of Steve ‘Dub’ Jones. Ayres, who had once been in charge of cataloguing the Workshop archive when it is was decommissioned in 1998, was then given the task of editing the material down into arrangements. The result is a soaring but coherent melange of synth weirdness and flickering beauty. And its principles of improvisation will persist, I’m assured, through the live show. ‘Basically what we do is sketch out how it is and what the elements are’, Kingsland explains, such that the macro structure is kept whilst the internal workings are free to shift and adapt. Though the record foregrounds a much greater sense of it being a performance of discrete pieces of music, ultimately the nuances of texture, colour and sonic depth are still centre stage. ‘We’re messing around with timbres’, Kingsland concludes, and these recur motivically throughout.
This sensitivity to nuance, and indeed to silence — which is ‘a new thing for us’, Kingsland comments — of course arises out of the practical fact that the Workshop had always been about accompanying the action rather than ‘being the rockstar’ itself. With a collective recording output larger than even the likes of Prince or Zappa, sound design and incidental music were the bottom line functions of the department when they were still active through the ‘50s until they finished. Kingsland, who has The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Doctor Who to his name, observed of the increase in demand during the 1950s that ‘the electronic stuff had the benefit of being very controllable to a scene.’ Moreover, the music itself matched the esoteric nature of a lot of the more cutting edge programming that was coming out around that time. Not only did technological developments allow for orchestral scores to be shrunk to a tape machine and eventually a synthesizer, but the simple novelty of the new instruments and recording techniques appealed to the BBC’s more experimental strain. ‘The BBC was not one for doing stuff that you could get some other way’, Kingsland attests. However, it wasn’t all dour and serious modernist antagonism either. The Workshop also soundtracked regular dramas, children’s programmes and comedies. Nevertheless, there was always a sense, Kingsland remembers, of questioning whether ‘this something we ought to be doing?’ Experimentation was the bottom line, and this was encouraged by producers such as Briscoe, who Kingsland recalls reassuring the composers that ‘you need to fail sometimes, otherwise you’re never going to do anything good.’ The title of Burials in Several Earths suggests this. ‘Somebody once said you never complete a project you just abandon it.’ Each track is at once a fixed record of the improvisation, as it is one abandoned version, subject to fluctuations in the live setting.
This is only one aspect of why The Workshop was so successful, however. On a purely aesthetic level, Kingsland notes the capacity for such alien sounds as those produced by the then new instrument of the synth to effectively notate what was also then a new subject to daytime dramas: mental illness. ‘Things were in the mind and it was to reflect that. And [previously]there weren’t really things available for that.’ Too, the history of The Workshop coincides with the Cold War and the Space Race, providing a soundtrack to the aspirations, anxieties and tensions imbued into the popular consciousness by these sociopolitical metanarratives. Not only did programmes like Doctor Who and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy deal with these questions of apocalypse and the clash of civilizations directly on the level of their content, the eerie, electronic sound designs carried these ideas on the level of form, in the underlying, latent content of even the most village green domestic dramas:
“Fascination with what the possibilities were with other worlds. And it was very much part of the workshop’s growing up. And also the idea that you could talk about mental illness and things that people weren’t comfortable with in dramas, it was all meant to be let’s escape and have a jolly good laugh.”
And of course, The Workshop worked on commission. Whilst this meant that the producers and directors had the first and final say, there wasn’t time too much time to worry about what one was doing; the brief was the brief, and the deadlines didn’t always allow for the most overwrought scores. ‘It’s a slap in the face in one way but a real lesson in another: doing something effective is very often very simple,’ notes Kingsland on remembering how a director praised a simple piece he’d thrown together for a corridor scene. He speaks about ‘working in native mode’, allowing the music to come naturally rather than trying to force anything. ‘I completely make it up as I go along and work on autopilot, and I think for me that works really well’, he says. Of course, this also means allowing for the action on screen or the dialogue of a radio play to be given its due space and support, rather than layering a symphony on top of everything. ‘If it’s not adding in some way to what’s there, it shouldn’t be there.’
Of his particular variety of sound design, Kingsland recalls trying to humanise the Hitchhiker’s Guide score. ‘I felt at that stage of the game the sound should be more like real life sounds than drones and things from synthesisers,’ he recounts. Which makes sense: for a story about the end of humankind, more familiar, traditional soundscapes become the absent presence of the memory of the lost world. And it wasn’t all just synths, Kingsland points out: ‘you can sometimes have something that’s extremely old fashioned in there, and it gets a laugh.’ The whole process was a balancing act between the alien and the familiar. ‘You’ve got to have somebody who’s going to be shocked by it to make it work’, he observes, ‘and if people are no longer shocked by anything like that, it doesn’t work. It’s all a little bit about hurting people, isn’t it?’ This carries in some way Ezra Pound’s modernist dictum to ‘make it new’ and the Dada shock principle. ‘There were some quite far-sighted people around in the ‘50s’, Kingsland acknowledges, and with the right mix of ideas and funding, people were equipped to harness cutting edge technologies and push the boundaries of artistic expression. Nonetheless, Kingsland recognises that ‘you don’t want to gratuitously upset people. That’s a bit of an old fashioned BBC idea.’
Avoiding this kind of dusty, didactic egotism is perhaps the reason for the longstanding success of the project across all its permutations. It often means finding the balance between who does what and when, and the current record seems to testify to their having found one. ‘When you look at previous collaborations, there were a hell of a lot arguments’, Kingsland notes, ‘Lennon and McCartney worked separately and then met up in the studio. […] Real collaborations are quite rare.’ Burial in Several Earths will be their first released record in thirty-five years, so perhaps a key aspect is time. ‘As you work more with somebody, you both become less selfish and start to treat it as more important than you, and that’s a lovely breakthrough when you do that.’ Whilst of course the luxuries afforded by the pre-neoliberal, British welfare state are not to be shunned, Kingsland ends by commenting on one irony in the difference in how art is now produced, distributed and funded, observing that ‘one of the huge benefits bestowed on us by the modern age is the fact that all the royalties are stolen now as opposed to about half of them. There really isn’t anything to worry about as far as the money’s concerned, so you might as well be nice to each other!’
You can buy tickets here to see The Radiophonic Workshop performing their new record alongside old material followed by a Q+A at the Science Museum IMAX Theatre, London on the 16th of June at 19:15 until 22:20.