Monday, 11 July 2011

Electronic Sounds and BBC Sound Effects

Some interesting records have come into Oxfam recently and found their way online. There are a couple of LPs of early electronic music. The first is Electronic Music Volume IV, a 1969 Turnabout record which features a selection of pieces by the winners of the first International Electronic Music Competition held in the leafy Ivy League surrounds of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire in 1968. These are works which emerged from the studios of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Centre, the Studio for Experimental Music of the University of Illinois, the Experimental Studio of the Polish Radio, Warsaw and the Experimental Studio of the Czechoslovak Radio, Bratislava. This was still (just about) a time when such music was so labour intensive and required such expensive equipment that it was largely confined to such establishments, which had the air of science laboratories in which music was half-composed, half alchemically synthesised. The titles of the pieces reflect this mixture of the magical and the empirical: the winner, composed (or constructed) by Olly W Wilson, is titled Cetus. Cetus is the constellation of the whale in the Northern Hemisphere, named after the leviathan of Greek mythology sent by Neptune to devour Andromeda, offered as a sacrifice to propitiate the Nereids. Don’t worry, she was rescued by Perseus, as you will know if you’ve seen Clash of the Titans (soundtrack also available here, although the cover is spoiled by the removal of the label which was attached whilst it was in the BBC library – presumably a fate which would befall all the valuable LPs which are stored in their vaults, as revealed by Jarvis Cocker and Johnny Trunk on the Radio 6 Sunday Service show a few weeks back). Ariel by William Hellermann refers to the spirit of the air (and singer of songs) in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, servant of the alchemist (and therefore proto-scientist) Prospero, who finally sets him free. A perfect allegory of the music’s alliance of science and art. Dixi by Eugeniusz Rudnik and Bozzetti by Bohdan Mazurek (any relation to jazz trumpet player Rob Mazurek, sometime collaborator with Chicago band Tortoise and convenor of the Exploding Star Orchestra, I wonder) both have the requisite x and ys which make a word sound scientific, and which you always find in the names of pharmaceuticals. In fact, dixi is a Latin phrase meaning I have said my piece, whilst bozzetti is Italian for sketches. Eclipse by Pril Smiley and Orthogenesis by Jozef Malovec refer to astronomical and biological processes, the one involving planets or moons casting their shadow onto another celestial or planetary body, the other referring to a purposeful evolutionary development along a particular path.

There is also a fascinating limited edition LP, Introduction to Electronic Music, issued by J & W Chester Limited in 1968, in which the Danish composer Bent Lorentzen guides us through the elements of the kinds of electronic music produced up until that point (obviously a pre-synthesiser era - unless you count the kind of behemoth housed in the Columbia-Princeton centre). Lorentzen himself was no stranger to the form, having been a pioneer of electronic music in his home country, so he knows whereof he speaks. He provides a commentary, pointing to examples from some of the classics of early electronic music: Gyorgy Ligeti's Artikulation (one of only two electronic pieces he produced), Edgar Varese's Poeme Electronique (originally unleashed on an unsuspecting public through the multiple speakers of the Philips pavilion at the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958), and Turkish composer Bulent Arel's Columbia-Princeton Studio piece Stereo Electronic Music No.1. Arel’s piece is a particularly evocative fast-cut concatenation of sounds, which verge on the threatening at times, and which seem to summon up vast alien technologies in a similar way to Bebe and Louis Barron’s ‘electronic tonalities’ in the Krell scenes of the 1956 science fiction classic Forbidden Planet. There are further extracts from Herbert Brun's Anephigrape, Luciano Berio's Momenti and Francois Dufrene and Jean Barronet's U47. All of these examples are illustrated in a fascinating selection of graphic scores, which are included in an inserted booklet, and which illustrate the challenges when it comes to notating such entirely new manufactured sounds.

In absolutely diametrical opposition to these sounds of the technological age, we have A.L.Lloyd’s A Selection from the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs from 1960. Albert Lancaster Lloyd had worked as a documentary maker for the BBC for the war, but he was blacklisted for some time due to his Communist beliefs. He was closely involved with the English Folk Dance and Song Society, which had been formed (or amalgamated) in 1932 and was strongly in thrall to the influence of Cecil Sharp. As Rob Young points out in his book Electric Eden, Lloyd was critical of the direction the EFDSS had taken, decrying its preference for ‘clodhopping bumpkin folderol’ (sounds good to me!). He went around the country in the 50s recording the real traditional singers for the Topic record label, and was particularly interested in songs which reflected workers’ lives and the history of radical dissent (which he detected in songs of magic and ritual, too). His collaboration with Ralph Vaughan Williams on the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, published in 1958, was an interesting one, then; The social radical meeting the rhapsodic Romantic. Lloyd’s selection on the LP reflects his own preferences. He sings these songs, taken from the book, accompanied by Alf Lloyd on concertina. Many became well-known classics of the folk revival, with A Sailor’s Life in particular being completely transformed by Fairport Convention on their 1969 LP Unhalfbricking, effectively heralding the birth of folk-rock. Salisbury Plain is not to be confused with the wonderful Caroleanne Pegg and Ashley Hutchings song of the same name on the debut Mr Fox LP. The tune of Lovely Joan had been incorporated by Vaughan Williams into his Fantasia on Greensleeves as far back as 1929, when it appeared in his opera Sir John In Love. Vaughan Williams included folk melodies and influences in his work throughout his long artistic life, and they occur in his two ‘pastoral’ symphonies. A full collection of his nine symphonies on LP, in excellent recordings conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, can also be found here.

Folk and world music influences of a different stripe can also be heard on Icarus by the Paul Winter Consort, which was actually snapped up immediately it went online. This 1973 LP features three of the members of the nascent Oregon, guitarist (and to a lesser extent pianist) Ralph Towner, clarinettist and sax player (he generally favours the light sound of the soprano) Paul McCandless, and percussionist and general global instrumental explorer (his sitar is a regular tonal element of Oregon’s LPs up until his untimely death in a car crash in 1984). Only bass player Glen Moore is absent. Oregon would release their debut LP, Music of Another Present Era, in the same year, showcasing the blend of jazz, world music, free improvisation and chamber pastoralism which would come to characterise their sound for years to come (and continues to do so to this day). The Icarus LP contains two of Ralph Towner’s most enduring early compositions, Icarus and The Silence of A Candle. Unfortunately, he makes the unwise decision to sing on the latter, weakly intoning a rather vague new age lyric. As far as I know, it’s the only outing for Towner the crooner in his long and distinguished recording career. The version on Music of Another Present Era is much better, with the piano accompaniment replaced by his guitar and Walcott’s sitar. The 12 string guitar and tabla duet (Towner and Walcott again) Juniper Bear is a particular highlight of Icarus, with Towner producing the sparking, glassine shards of glittering harmonics which often feature in his solos.

For fans of French chanson, there are a couple of LPs by Leo Ferre and Georges Moustaki. Ferre is generally considered to be one of the greatest proponents of the chanson tradition, on a par with Jacques Brel and Georges Brassens. His songs Jolie Mome, Paname and Paris Canaille were standards in the repertoire of Juliet Greco. This is a 1967 LP, and includes songs such as Salut les Beatniks, Quartier Latin and On n’est Pas des Saints, which hint at his anarchistic and communist political leanings as well as his fondness for French decadent poets such as Baudelaire and Rimbaud. This is the album where he warms up for the events of May ’68. Moustaki’s self-titled 1976 LP finds him collaborating with Argentinian tango composer Astor Piazzolla, who arranges several of the tracks and also plays bandoneon. The Egyptian-born (his parents had moved there from Corfu) singer and songwriter has written for the many of the great French female singers, from Edith Piaf, France Gall and Francoise Hardy to Barbara and Brigitte Fontaine, and is a master of the romantic ballad.

We’ve had a good haul of BBC sound effects records from the late 60s and early 70s. But regrettably, in all but one case the vinyl is pretty definitively knackered. Nevertheless, it gives a good opportunity to fit the different colour variations of Roy Curtis-Bramwell’s original 1969 cover design together (and you can find what Roy’s been up to in his response to the post over here at the Uncovering the Art of the Vinyl Sleeve blog). This first volume is the one which is in excellent condition, its selections from the BBC sound effects library chosen by Rosemary Davis, ‘actress, playwright and broadcaster’ apparently, who also offers advice on ‘recording on to tape and film’. Of the other volumes which have come in, 3, 4 and 6 were released in 1971 and 9 in 1973. The range of sounds is extensive, and given that many of these are field recordings, provide a fascinating sonic picture of the era. They were used by Trunk Records supremo Johnny Trunk in an audio collage broadcast on radio 3 last year over the Christmas period. Some of the tracks offer obsolete incidental sounds which now summon up a bygone time. There is ‘milk delivery – milk float starts and runs’, the electric hum and clank of bottles dimly heard in the early morning and memorialised on the Saint Etienne song Milk Bottle Symphony. In the Industry selection, it’s probably safe to say that the sound of ‘textile industry: 20 Saurer looms working’ has now been silenced, as has ‘cash register type 21 electric itemizing machine’ in the Shops section. There’s a Hovercraft SRN6, a real relic of the white heat of technology age in which the future was a place of promise and excitement. A ‘trimphone, receiver lifter and replaced’ can no doubt be found as a retro mobile ringtone. The simple two-tone police and fire service alarms have been replaced by harsh swirling sounds. The old sirens used to produce an excellent Doppler effect as they rushed by which seemed to emphasise their rushing redshift speed.

Many of these recordings are very specific as regards to locality. There is ‘pub chatter in Lincolnshire pub’ and ‘general atmosphere (Maidstone market)’. Under the heading of Church Bells, you can hear the sounds of Evercreech (destination of John Betjeman’s railway pilgrimage Return to Evercreech Junction) ‘ringing to end of Grandsire caters’. No, I have no idea what that means, but it sound wonderfully evocative of some rural English idyll. You can take a trip on ‘bus on London route’ (a routemaster, no-doubt, although the description is not quite specific enough to indicate whether you are up or downstairs). There is ‘Park – general atmosphere and lakeside atmosphere, St James’ Park’ and, more unusually, ‘traffic and people, Lagos’ (one for the World Service, maybe). On volume 9 from 1973, we get what amounts to a narrative sequence recorded in Covent Market, when it still was a market for fruit, veg and flowers. We go from 11pm – lorries parking, to 1am – unloading, trollies etc; 6am – floral hall coffee stall; and 8am – dedicated market: (interior) trollies, salesmen, buyers. Ideal if you’re putting on an amateur dramatic adaptation of Hitchcock’s Frenzy, or if you want an alternative soundtrack to Lindsay Anderson’s 1957 Free Cinema documentary on the market, Every Day Except Christmas. Further London ambiences are to be found in Berwick Street Market (still clinging on), Pool of London atmosphere (now utterly transformed), and Paternoster Square – footsteps, chatter, distant traffic (a sound design no doubt altered by adjacent ‘carbuncles’) and London Oxford Circus, always the capital’s traffic hub.

There are recordings of all sorts of transport, with specific models duly noted. A 1914 Model T Ford, a Ferguson tractor, a Trident 3 jet engine, a de Havilland Dove propellor driven plane, an English Electric Vulcan BHP diesel engine, a Wolseley 1660 car and steam trains on the BR Southern Region. Descriptions of sounds can get very particular. There is ‘maniacal laughter’ (as distinct from hysterical), ‘man running on country road’ (running from what half-glimpsed terror), and ‘teddy bear grunt’ (different from teddy boy grunt). I particularly like the description ‘Cricket Match – one stroke, mild applause’ (there is another for a rather more impressive shot). There are two separate recordings under the heading Pub for 1 pint pulled and a half pint pulled, an important distinction to make. ‘Ships in fog’ undoubtedly have their own particular quality of sound, as do ‘clipper ships’ (all creaking masts and sail bluster, I should imagine). Harbour wall atmospheres include ‘night, with force 5 wind’, which could be effectively combined with some of those clipper sailing ship sounds. More general atmospheres and sounds are also provided. ‘Gas mantle: lit and burning’ would be the perfect prelude to the telling of a ghostly tale. ‘Rooks, nest building and other birds’ would immediately evoke cold, dewy country mornings. Under the heading Naval battles we have ‘18th century – general conflict’, which seems unduly dismissive. ‘Tolling bell and wind’ suggests gothic graveyard atmosphere, or perhaps just the subjective experience of a joke going horribly wrong. There are a couple of brief hints of radiophonic effects, with ‘eerie wind’ and ‘monsters roaring’, but these records aren’t the place to look for that sort of thing. The first record ends in quintessentially British style, with the sound of Big Ben striking 12.

Another record which came in, also unfortunately in severely knackered form, was the 1966 HMV Listen, Move and Dance no.4. This is particularly interesting for its second side of ‘Electronic Sound Pictures’ composed by Radiophonic Workshop founder Desmond Briscoe. The running of the Workshop took up most of Briscoe’s time, his own musical efforts taking something of a back seat, so it’s interesting to hear his own contributions, which are firmly in the radiophonic mould. The suggestions for the direction particular music and movement activities might develop are quite charming. I particularly like A Magic Journey: ‘In perhaps a cup, saucer or on a carpet through the sky, experiencing many aerial phenomena before landing. Individuals can cope with this either sitting or moving about, showing the passing clouds, storms, stars etc. in movement’. Things get a bit abstract with Group Shapes, which take the form of a) round and bumpy; b) zig zags; c) arcs; d) lines. ‘In b, c, and d, the separate sounds occur in varied orders of pattern. In each of these sound shapes the sound whether zig-zag, arcs, or lines is given at three different pitches and will move in different directions. This will be a lesson in intensive listening, following a separate strand of sound that occurs and recurs. The sounds more or less dictate the movement. Groups should work out interesting starting positions’. Sounds like a John Cage/Merce Cunningham collaboration. Ah, the things we used to do in school. Of course, you can’t measure imagination with SATs.

Finally, we have the 1969 Decca 'Phase 4 Stereo' LP (rather hyperbolically referred to in the insert as 'a marvel of sound, a radically new and dramatically potent concept in the art of high fidelity reproduction') with the rather banal title of Music from the Great Movie Thrillers, in which Bernard Herrmann conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra in a selection of his own music for the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Psycho, Vertigo and The Trouble With Harry are all arranged into 'suites', Psycho subtitled A Narrative for Orchestra, The Trouble With Harry turned into A Portrait of Hitch and Vertigo divided into three sections: Prelude, The Nightmare and Scene d'Amour. Also included is his 'wild ride' theme from North by Northwest and the tortured romanticism of his Marnie music (his last collaboration with Hitchcock before their falling out during Torn Curtain). This is just fantastic music. Having Psycho arranged into a ‘narrative’ makes you hear just how intense and evocative of a troubled psyche the music, with its deliberately constrained sound palette, is. And of course, it is expressing the mental anguish both of Norman and of Marion. In this form, it resembles more closely the 1935 Sinfonietta from which much of its thematic material is taken. Until it gets to those screeching, descending string stabs, of course. The Portrait of Hitch is an affectionate musical sketch of the director with whom Herrmann got on so well for the better part of a decade. The sudden shifts in tone from in which the rhythm suddenly turns from a playful, humorous skip to the dark, wild ride (so characteristic of Herrmann’s music) perhaps presages their eventual falling out. Vertigo’s spiralling whole tone figure perfectly evokes the film’s obsessional themes and narrative circularity, and the ‘Scene d’amour’ is a wonderfully passionate piece. Its sound picture of waves crashing upon the shore bears comparison with the Bax of Tintagel. Herrmann was a huge fan of English music. He studied with Percy Grainger at New York University, and claimed that the greatest moment of his life was meeting Vaughan Williams. And then, of course, there’s North by Northwest, surely the most thrilling opening title music in the history of cinema. This is simply the pinnacle of film soundtrack music, and perfect listening for this, the Herrmann centenary year.


Keith Seatman said...

I bought Electronic Music Vol IV. Turned up today.
Lovely album. full of amazing bleeps and drones.

Jez Winship said...

Excellent. It sounded really interesting, coming from a bit of a pivotal point in electronic music (with the coming of synths just round the corner). Some lesser known names on there, too (well, I hadn't heard of any of them, in fact). I didn't get a chance to listen to it in the shop. Thought it might drive the customers away.

Keith Seatman said...

Think your right about driving the customers away.
Great cover art as well.