Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Broadcast and Sound Poetry

This is a lovely version of In Here The Universe Begins from Broadcast’s recent show on 7th December at the HiFi Bar in Melbourne, Australia. Singer Trish Keenan paces lightly back and forth, casting expanding and retracting shadows over the coruscating patterns projected onto the screen. The whole show sounds magical, warm and relaxed, with an experimental and improvisatory flow which sounds natural and unforced. You can hear it thanks to someone who has generously put their recording up online. James Cargill’s analogue synth lines are burnished and glowing, as if his equipment has absorbed some of the Antipodean sunshine and released it in radiant melodic scales. Valerie, Lunch Hour Pops and In Here The Universe Begins have become languorous electronic lullabies, soothing the way to golden slumbers. Valerie in particular sounds gorgeous set against a gently humming and droning bed of sound. Even the as-yet unreleased song, with its chorus refrain of ‘what you want is not what you get’, which has become a standard performance finale, is slowed down to a mesmeric chant rather than the pounding one-chord kosmische drone thrashed out on what looks like some sort of two-stringed Mongolian lute which is its usual form. The crowd is effusive in its appreciation, and Keenan returns to sing a round with her own echo on You and Me in Time, a short and hauntingly poetic song from the Tender Buttons LP.

Earlier, Keenan had prefaced Black Cat with a babel of voices which suggested speaking in tongues before Cargill’s circular riff locked in. The song ended in a long looping fade-out over which those voices found articulation in her intoned lines of verse. This is indicative of a long-standing interest in the written word (she has had pieces published in a literary paper called High Horse) and the manipulation of language. This is entirely in keeping with their love of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, which had a close involvement with the marriage of word and sound throughout its history.

The Workshop partly had its origins in a piece written for the radio by Samuel Beckett in 1957, All That Fall. Beckett had a particular interest in the sound environment for the play, and Desmond Briscoe was called in to provide the required atmospheres and effects. Later that year, he went on to work with Daphne Oram on Private Dreams and Public Nightmares, written by Frederick Bradnum and subtitled ‘A Radiophonic Poem’. This was the first use of the word ‘radiophonic’. Producer Donald McWhinnie explained that ‘by radiophonic effects, we mean something very near to what the French have labelled musique concrete – concrete music. Not music at all, really. It doesn’t necessarily come out of musical instruments and it can’t be written down. It’s simply sound, or patterns of sound, which are manufactured by technical processes’. A rather denigrating technician’s description which seems keen to downplay the considerable artistic potential unleashed by such new processes. The Private Dreams piece was written with accompanying sounds specifically outlined as an aural adjunct to the words. McWhinnie described it as being ‘an inextricable conception of word and special sound and an exploratory flight into a new territory of sound’, and warned engineers not to ‘attempt to alter anything that sounds strange – it’s deliberately meant to sound that way’.

Desmond and Daphne in the Workshop
The Radiophonic Workshop officially came into being shortly thereafter, with both Desmond Briscoe and Daphne Oram present as key founding members. It was situated in an old art nouveau building in Maida Vale which had previously seen service as a roller skating palace. The Workshop moved its equipment into room 13 and opened, appropriately enough, on the 1st April 1958. It continued to produce the combinations of word and sound, concrete poetry and atmospheric meditation from which it had originated. There was a collaboration with Brian Gysin in 1960, Minutes To Go, which featured his cut-ups (a technique which William Burroughs adopted in books such as Nova Express) and ‘permutated poems’ I Am That I Am, Rub Out the Word and Junk Isn’t Good Baby, which, with the help of the Workshop, subjected language to random realignments. Gysin declared his intention to ‘let the machines speak – even if they’re going wrong, they are still saying something’. Poet Lily Greenham created the piece Relativity with the Workshop in 1975, based around Einstein’s equation and the visible spectrum of colours. She talked about ‘how a sentence can be given shape and driven in a musical sense beyond its meaning’. Philip Oxman’s 1974 piece The Origins of Capital and the Descent of Power sounds like a rather grim slice of Marxist analysis centring on the story of a poor circus family who end up having to butcher their own performing animals. Malcolm Clarke (who wrested remarkable alien sounds from the ‘Delaware’ synthesiser for the Doctor Who story The Sea Devils) worked on this piece, and was described by a reviewer as having created ‘voices and sounds that loomed, struck, tottered out of darkness…one was less in a precise story than in a circle of images in words and electronic sound, very deliberately plotted, the relationship between sound and space designed to be as informative as the explicit dialogue’.

Barry Bermange's sketch for a Gothic altarpiece in sound
Perhaps the best known of the Radiophonic Workshop’s combinations of word and sound are Delia Derbyshire and Barry Bermange’s Inventions for Radio, and David Cain, Ronald Duncan and Derek Bowskill’s The Seasons. The Inventions for Radio were 4 programmes broadcast in 1964, mixing Delia Derbyshire’s atmospheric clouds of sound (which were effectively a precursor of ambient music) with recorded voices. For Amor Dei, Burmange sketched out a modest request that she create ‘the sound of a Gothic altar piece’, something which she duly built using the human voice as source material. Sadly, the only one of the Inventions which seems to be still extant is Dreams (although who knows what the Delia Derbyshire archive at Manchester University might turn up). Delia provides the rather ominous sonic medium within which people’s recalled dreams are embedded.

David Cain’s The Seasons was a BBC Drama Workshop LP from 1969, in which the poems of Ronald Duncan and Derek Bowskill, which evoke the moods of the months, progressing through the seasons of the year, are set to his electronic music. These moods could be ‘expressed’ by the schoolchildren who were the record’s intended audience. It’s been featured on a regular basis on Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service, his Radio 6 show, although he’s now completed a year’s cycle of seasons. Perhaps he could start up again next year with the astrological cycle of Mort Garson’s Zodiac Cosmic Sounds, although, given that it’s an afternoon show, this would make it rather difficult to comply with the LP cover’s instruction that it ‘must be played in the dark’.

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