Various Artists - BBC Radiophonic Music [Mute, 2008]


The BBC Radiophonic Workshop existed between 1958 and 1998, originally springing to life to create soundscapes for some of Samuel Beckett's radio plays. Running the gamut between soundscapes, catchy jingles, call tunes, and eventually sci-fi programming led to many innovative sound designs, utilizing avant-garde musique concrete and tape manipulation techniques to create the auditory worlds the programmers desired. The unconventional and experimental techniques attracted a number of eccentric and brilliant engineers during their existence, most notably the wonderful Delia Derbyshire, John Baker (who was actually a jazz pianist), and David Cain.

This collection, originally released in 1968, intended as library music, then re-released in 1970 on the BBC's own label, finally coming to light yet again in 2008 on Mute Records, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of this hallowed institution. Apparently, 'not representative of the Workshop's whole musical output' (as per the press release), its intent was to entertain rather than enlighten, spotlighting the many different functions of the workshop, from radio jingles to eerie sci-fi soundscapes. The 33 tracks represented are always looking forward to a brighter future, coming up with new and innovative techniques, thanks to extensive technical acumen, a curious and playful disposition, and magnificent powers of obsession. A signle, minute and a half long track could be made up of thousands of tape-edits. This microscopic attention to the minutae of sound would predict sample-delic culture to come, as well as some of the soundscapes would anticipate much of today's 'dark ambient' music.

Overall, the collection is a fine introduction to this fascinating sound-cult, providing a unique overview. The juxtapositions can be a bit jarring at times, the womb-like atmospheres of 'The Delian Mode' or 'Blue Veils and Shifting Sands' (Delia Derbyshire) giving way to the playful jug sounds of 'Happy Birthday' or 'Reading Your Letters'. It can be a relief, however, in that som of the SF pieces can be genuinely claustrophobic and unsettling, good to chase it with a bit of saccharine optimism. It is note-worthy how even incidental program music, like 'Radio Sheffield' or 'Radio Nottingham', bear the signatures of their composers. Overall, the thing that stands out the most from this collection is the tunefulness, the melodicism, and the unceasing experimentation, that shows the fascinating cast of characters as intensely creative individuals, dabbling behind the scenes. A delight for retro-futurists, sci-fi junkies, and library hounds, this is a fine gateway to this vast, enthralling and mysterious world.

J. Simpson

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