Sunday, 8 July 2012

Oramics to Electronica at the Science Museum - The Second Phase

The Radiophonic godmother - Daphne Oram presides over her magical musical machine
During a trip to London last weekend, I took the opportunity of visiting the Science Museum to take a look at the expanded Oramics to Electronica exhibition. The last time I had seen this (and I wrote about it in a previous post), only Daphne Oram’s remarkable Oramics drawn sound synthesiser had been in place, with accompanying information points and film extracts. There was also the obligatory interactive element, a touch screen programme which allowed you to draw waveforms and adjust their sound envelopes and frequencies to create your own Oramic piece. The Oramics machine is still the central marvel around which the exhibition arranges itself, a grand structure which is offered as an ideal if slightly rickety form, an embodiment of a certain self-sufficiently inventive way of doing things. Its construction from bits and pieces which might otherwise have been destined for the scrapheap, such as the wooden bedside cabinet which houses the oscillators, is a testament to individual ingenuity and expedient pragmatism. The five further display cabinets are all smaller in size than the large glass box reliquary housing the Oramics machine and cluster behind it in ancestral entrainment. Radiophonic Workshop composer Dick Mills, one of those involved in defining the aims of the exhibition and helping putting it together under the aegis of the Public History Project, pointed to this sense of ancestry when he affectionately referred to Daphne Oram, who had left the Workshop by the time he joined, as his ‘Radiophonic Godmother’. A magical fairy in tweed and twill, with refined and perfectly modulated RP tones to give her an added air of authoritative seniority. The curious contents of these extra cabinets take their cue from Oram’s cobbled-together machine, with the focus firmly on non-academic or non-institutional mavericks, oddballs and garden-shed inventors.

Leland Oscillator with Crystal Palace capacitative fader behind
The Radiophonic Workshop was, of course, part of the BBC, a monolithic institution of long-standing. But the composers (or ‘producers’ as they were officially known to keep them from developing rebellious notions of creative autonomy) tended to evade direct or prescriptive management, which they saw simply as interference. Working at the periphery of the cumbersome BBC bureaucratic and institutional structure, and keeping unofficial, late night hours, they ghosted through the monitoring channels to achieve a significant degree of freedom. In the Radiophonic Workshop cabinet there is a small piece of flat metal attached to a capstan with the words ‘Do Not Fiddle With’ neatly printed along its length. This was a part of a spring-loaded tape loop stand knocked up by the Workshop’s chief engineer from 1963 up until 1976, Dave Young. It was a simple but immensely useful alternative to the expedient use of whatever milk bottles or pencils were lying about to spool varying lengths of tape loop around. The terse instruction was aimed at ‘outsiders’, visiting BBC producers who would frustrate the Workshop team by poking around with a proprietorial air and upsetting work in progress in the delicate disorder of the studio set up. Another of Dave Young’s devices on display here is the Crystal Palace capacitive fader, which allowed 16 separate sounds to be combined in chorus, thus saving a great deal of recording and fiddly synchronisation and assembly. It gained its name because it was housed in a Perspex box, as if Young wanted its simple elegance and functional ingenuity to be on display for all to see, an engineering feat of utilitarian sculptural beauty. Young used to rummage through the junk markets of Portobello Road (long since migrated to other parts of the city) before coming into work each day, and would often uncover objects which could be put to unconventional uses undreamed of by the stallholders who sold them to him. The Crystal Palace, for example, was driven by a motor torn out of an old grammaphone player. Workshop head Desmond Briscoe and Roy Curtis-Bramwell, designer of many a classic BBC LP sleeve, wrote of the years in which Young presided as engineer in chief in their 1983 history The BBC Radiophonic Workshop: The First 25 Years (which you can find in the Exeter library stack). They refer to the pre-synthesiser era of the 1960s as the Glowpot Days, a reference to the mixing desk constructed by Young, who used light-sensitive transistors and small lightbulbs. It was christened the Glowpot Desk, which made it sound like something to be found in Oliver Postgate’s animated children’s series The Clangers.

Hugh Davies' suitcase of sonic flotsam, Speak and Spell tweaked and electric kitchen sink lyre
The scavenging and putting to use of whatever could be found (which the Clangers, and Postgate, certainly would have approved of) is a key element of the story of early British electronic music being told in the exhibition. It is an ethos which finds its focus in the ‘Make Do and Mend’ cabinet. This shows how other musicians have carried on the tradition of lo-fi, inexpensive invention and the cannibalisation and idiosyncratic re-use of pre-existing materials. There is a portable case full of the tools and jumbled up electronic flotsam accumulated by the elecroacoustic improviser and composer Hugh Davies to put together what he called his Shozygs. These were lo-tech electronic sound producers, whose small, intimate scale and nature fitted in well with the reflective side of the British improvisation scene springing from the AMM group and its offshoots (including the Music Improvisation Quartet with which Davies played). The rather sweetly ‘alien’ name Shozygs derives from the bracketing alphabetical indices on the spine of a volume of an encyclopedia, the cover of which was used to house some of Davies’ devices. In an interview in David Toop’s book Haunted Weather, Davies talks about how he started putting contact mics on found objects, including ‘a quartet of combs mounted in holders, and an upturned tea tin with several small springs stretched across a wooden “bridge”’. You could scarcely have a more British instrument than one casually fashioned from a spare tea tin which happened to be lying around. Davies also used magnetic pick-ups from old telephones to amlify the sound of egg slicers, having observed the composer and improviser Annea Lockwood contact mic’ing this lyre of the kitchen draw (I have often found myself strumming the four ‘strings’ of my mother-in-law’s egg-slicer, which do indeed make a pleasing sound). There is an egg-slicer with contact mics on display here, perhaps one of Lockwood or Davies’ mini-instruments. There’s a very Cageian approach to music making at play here, finding fascination in the isolation and juxtaposition of everyday sounds. It’s also, in its very smallness and domesticity, a humble and humorous corrective to the bombastic, conspicuously virtuosic use to which electronic instruments were increasingly put to use in the 70s. Also on display in the Make Do and Mend cabinet is a Speak and Spell educational toy which has had its internal circuits bent. Transistor wires and capacitors stick up from the keyboard like beaded bristles. This adaptation of the cheap and disposable, as exemplified by the likes of the Modified Toy Orchestra and the ZX Spectrum Orchestra (mostly the same musicians, with different means at their disposal) acknowledges the ubiquity of preset electronic sounds in the modern world and moulds and warps them to its own creative ends. As with Davies’ use of electronics to amplify the ordinary, thus rendering it into something remarkable and worthy of scrutiny, an element of humour co-exists with an underlying philosophical ethos which deliberately (or perhaps partly as a result of economic necessity) turns its back on technological sophistication. Also on display is a Roland Bassline TB303, a small computer-driven synth and sequencer produced in 1982 which was adapted, distorted and tweaked beyond the intentions of its designers to create the corrosively viscous sound which drove Acid House and other dance styles which followed in its wake (see Peter Shapiro's Primer on the Roland 303 in May 2009 issue of The Wire to find out more).

The Mijwiz - playing and recording
Back in the Radiophonic Workshop cabinet, there are a number of objects which were used as sound sources in the days of tape-based musique concrete. Dick Mills, ever ready with his own brand of pithy, Wildean eprigammatic wit, summed up the magic of this era as involving the creation of ‘sounds that people didn’t like for programmes they didn’t understand’. An assertion made with a certain amount of pride, which in retrospect makes it seem like something of a golden age. They might not have initially understood, or even liked these strange sounds, but they left a lingering impression which for some never went away. Amongst the objects here there is a double-reeded Arabian pipe called a Mijwiz (according to Briscoe and Curtis-Bramwell’s book). Daphne Oram can be seen vigorously blowing into this strange instrument in an accompanying photograph, with the first Radiophonic Workshop engineer Richard ‘Dickie’ Bird (alas, not the legendary Yorkshire cricket umpire twilighting in an intriguingly different second career) looking on with wry amusement from behind. He is adjusting the controls of what looks like a bulky old ceramic cooker, but is in fact one of the unwieldy ‘Motosacoche’ tape recorders installed in the studio, a state of the art piece of equipment for the time. Workshop composer Brian Hodgson talks about these behemoths in the Briscoe and Curtis-Bramwell history. ‘The deckplate was one-and-a-half inches of steel’, he says, ‘and instead of the tape being pulled away from the heads, the heads were pulled away from the tape. When anything went wrong, we would press the button and the decks of these giant machines would gradually go up in the air; we would put in four safety pegs, and walk underneath with a spanner and adjust them. Just like servicing a car’. Perhaps most excitingly, however, is the green metallic lampshade which Delia Derbyshire used to create the source sounds for her beautiful, dreamlike piece Blue Veils and Golden Sands, one of the masterpieces of electronic music to come out of this ostensibly merely functional sonic factory (and I’ve written about this in a previous post). I confess to feeling a little awestruck by this artefact, the first time I’ve been (and probably the last time I will be) emotionally affected by a piece of desk furniture. Apparently I’m not alone. In the accompanying information, Dick Mills remembers being asked to walk on stage at a 2009 concert at the Roundhouse in London holding the lampshade before him. He sardonically observes ‘I walked on with this…well, you’d think it was the second coming’.

Holy relic - the legendary lampshade
The Radiophonic Workshop cabinet mainly concerns itself with the days of directly generated electronic or concrete sound and tape editing. There’s a Ferrograph dual speed tape recorder and a tape cutting and splicing block, the hands-on tools of the trade. Indeed, there was a definite artisanal aspect to the creation of music at this time, with a physical craftsmanship involved in putting things together which required great care and finicky precision. In the film introducing the exhibition on the Science Museum website, Peter Zinovieff, founder of The Electronic Music Studios (EMS) talks of the tactile nature of the process of building instruments and making music with them. Martin Swan, another participant in the Public History Project which came up with the ideas behind the exhibition, cleverly encapsulates its trajectory with an epigrammatic ‘it’s digits to digital in a way’. Physical tinkering, other than the pushing of a mouse with a couple of fingers, is no longer required when all is a matter of setting parameters and inputting sound information into computer music systems.

The EMS VCS3 Synthesiser
The Radiophonic Workshop cabinet also houses an EMS VCS3 modular synthesiser (the VCS standing for voltage-controlled synthesiser) designed by David Cockerell. This points the way towards the supplanting of tape-based composition in the Workshop by the development and adoption of synthesisers. EMS had been founded by the composer Tristram Cary and the composer, inventor and employee of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Peter Zinovieff. Both men had connections with the Radiophonic Workshop. Cary regularly produced scores for BBC programmes, and had worked on two Doctor Who stories in the 1960s: the original Daleks serial and the later Daleks’ Master Plan (in addition to the music he produced for the unused pilot of The Unearthly Child, included on the dvd release). Both of these soundtracks made extensive use of electronic sounds and brought him into contact with members of the Workshop. Zinovieff had been given a tour of the Radiophonic Workshop’s Maida Vale studios in 1964 in his capacity as a Canadian Broadcasting Company employee, and he later formed Unit Delta Plus, an independent electronic music studio, with Workshop renegades Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson. Hodgson and Derbyshire had both used prototype VCS synths from as early as 1967, lugging them backwards and forwards between the Radiophonic Workshop and Unit Delta Plus studios. Finally, Workshop head Desmond Briscoe arranged for a demo of the EMS VCS3 synthesiser, which took place in February 1970, and the following month one was purchased for the knock-down price of £300, and installed as the Workshop’s first official synthesiser. The VCS3 was a modular instrument, which housed its different components in a walnut cabinet with neat compactness. The wooden casing partially disguised its technological nature with a homely appearance of the hand-crafted, perhaps in acknowledgement that the days of 60s futurism were at an end. It also differed from other synths (and in particular from the Moog) in its use of a 16x16 matrix board of holes into which pegs were inserted in order to link the various modules within, such as the oscillators, ring modulators and envelope shapers. It gives the VCS3 something of the appearance of a game of battleships in progress. It did also make things a lot tidier than other synthesisers of the era, whose patchboards tended to trail tangles of intertwining wires like exposed conductive entrails.

EMS gets a cabinet to itself, following naturally on from the Radiophonic collection, to which it is symbiotically attached. Surprisingly, having crashed in the late 70s, in the dying days of analogue electronics, it is still in existence today, operating out of a barn near Truro in Cornwall. You can still get some of its classic instruments, a pick up a few spare patch pins at £3.50 a piece. Most of the instruments and components on display here were designed by David Cockerell, drawing on the pioneering ideas of Peter Zinovieff (and was there ever a more perfect surname for a proponent of electronic music in its experimental lab technician phase). There’s a ring modulator built for Tristram Cary in 1969. This was a device which served to split an instrumental sound into a twinned spectral corona of the source signal. Such a device was used by Karlheinz Stockhausen in several 60s and early 70s pieces involving the live use of electronics, including Mixtur (1964), where it creates a prismatic diffraction of the colours of the orchestra, Mikrophonie II (1965) for choir, Hammond organ, electronics and tape, and Mantra (1970), in which it splinters the piano chords into harshly glittering shards. There is a Synthi-K keyboard on display, an attempt to create a touchplate approximation of a traditional piano keyboard, the keys roughly outlined in silvery metallic filaments. Less than 30 of these experimental prototypes were manufactured, and they were soon superseded by the Synthi-KS keyboard, which refined and improved upon its design. These had a built-in sequencer (and there’s a separate 128 event model from 1970 on display here), which proved very popular with British rock groups of the early 70s, and was prominently used by Pink Floyd and Brian Eno in his Roxy finery.

Prototype Synth-E - a synth in a suitcase
A prototype Synth-E instrument from 1974 has its components crammed into a sturdy attaché case, making it ready to instantly pack up, transport or store away. These low cost synthesisers were partly designed with the idea of bringing electronic music into the schoolroom. They would offer children an overarching, all-inclusive approach to music-making which they could play with in an intuitive and exciting way. The EMS ad at the back of the case, which shows Peter Zinovieff’s children let loose in the EMS studio, suggests how much fun could be had conjuring strange sounds from these tactile, hands-on machines. Another ad, produced as a company Christmas card, has a Synthi in its case hung on the post at the foot of a child’s bed in lieu of a stocking or sack, with the byline Every Christmas Needs a Synthi. This was one of series of ads EMS ran in the 70s with variations of the Every … Needs a Synthi slogan. In the case of the studio picture with on display here, it was Every Dream Needs a Synthi, rather touchingly suggesting that EMS synths could give access to the deepest levels of the human imagination, reconnecting its users with a childlike state of innocent wonder. A picture of the best known of these ads, Every Band Needs a Synthi, with a brass band playing on a sandy shore, a child’s ball on floating on a pool in which they are reflected, is on the timeline wall beyond the cabinets. Others in the series can be found on the EMS site, including the Every Picnic Needs a Synthi one, shot on a beach on the Isle of Raasay between Skye and the Scottish mainland, and the surreal Every Nun Needs a Synthi shot of a Sister in full habit no doubt wrangling some earth-trembling, Messiaenic sounds out of her keyboard.

The Fairlight - the future, for a time
The Radiophonic Workshop entered the digital age when it invested in a Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument (CMI) in October 1981, one of which is on display in the ‘Sonic Frontiers’ cabinet. One of its features was a light pen which could draw and edit waveforms on a monitor screen, which in a way brought it round full circle to the principles of drawn sound upon which the Oramics machine was constructed. There is a certain amount of evangelism for this new purchase and its potential in Briscoe and Curtis-Bramwell’s 1983 history. The grandiose banks of the EMS ‘Delaware’ Synthi 100 and its smaller brethren are consigned to the realms of the obsolete in very dismissive terms. A ‘simplified description of the Radiophonic Workshop’s basic function and facilities’ written at the time is cited, stating that ‘the synthesiser only produced only produced electronic sounds and the use of concrete sources diminished as using them involved all the old time-consuming classical techniques. Consequently electronic music began to sound rather boring, even at the Radiophonic Workshop…The acquisition of the Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument has made a tremendous impact on the work of the department, speeding up conventional techniques and allowing development of new ideas previously out of the question because of the pressures of time. The computer-based digital synthesiser is perhaps the most exciting development in electronic music since the invention of the tape-recorder’. Desmond Briscoe reinforces this dismissive view of the Workshop’s 70s synthesiser music elsewhere in the book, asserting that ‘in the past, electronic sound has tended to be dehumanised and boring, because it was created from very basic waveforms. Natural sounds have much more information in them. They are warmer and more interesting than synthesised sounds; using the Fairlight’s ability to provide the composer with a means of playing real sounds is a return to the early days without all the disadvantages of tape manipulation’. All of which tends to greatly undervalue the inherent qualities of analogue electronic sound, which has its own particular set of rich sonorities. These sounds have proved enduringly popular in a way that the bright digital sounds of the 80s have singularly failed to do. For all its merits, the work of later Workshop composers such as Roger Limb, Peter Howells, Elizabeth Parker and Jonathan Gibbs simply hasn’t caught the public imagination in the way that their forebears did. Which is not to say that, for example, Elizabeth Parker’s music for The Living Planet or Peter Howell’s for the Doctor Who story Kinda isn’t fine in its own way. It’s perhaps not surprising that the ‘official’ history of the Radiophonic Workshop trumpets the Fairlight as the herald of a new dawn, and by implication the emergence from the long night of the primitive pre-digital age. It was hugely expensive, costing around £30,000, a significant outlay for the Workshop. By this time, it was under the supervision of Brian Hodgson, who had risen up from the ranks of the creative staff, and he was able to persuade the powers that be that it was a good investment. It would simplify and speed up the composer’s work, given its much-touted ability to incorporate all aspects of music making and sound recording in one integrated system. At such a price, it was affordable only to well-funded institutions and established artists such as Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel, both of whom enthusiastically took to exploring its potential.

The WASP - sounds from the Dream Plant
The Fairlight is displayed in a cabinet adjacent to one which charts the democratisation of electronic music making in the late 70s and 80s and beyond, enabled by digitisation, FM synthesis and the development of affordable home computers. The Fairlight represents the elite end of the process, when such means of sound production could only be dreamed of by the majority. Rather more compact and affordable was the neat little black and yellow WASP synthesiser produced in 1978 by a company with the Philip K Dickian name the Electric Dream Plant. This was an early example of a digital/analogue hybrid, with sound generated by digital oscillators and played via a touch sensitive keyboard (you can some of those sounds demonstrated here). It was relatively cheap and pointed the way towards a decade filled with readymade, pre-programmed Casio and Yamaha keyboards. Such instruments might be viewed as little more than toys by professional musicians, but if so, then they were educational toys which offered an attractive and instantly rewarding way into music at little expense. The Stylophone was indisputably a toy, endorsed by Rolf Harris and a step up from his customary wobble board. It’s shown here as a piece of cheap equipment not unlike some of those which Hugh Davies made. It was mass-marketed in the 1970s and brought electronic music (albeit of a limited and swiftly irritating kind) into many households for whom names like Stockhausen and Varese might as well have been varieties of foreign cheese or wine. A grey MIDI cable is an unspectacular exhibit, but serves as an indicator of the way in which digital technology enabled the integration of all aspects of music making, connecting instruments together and bridging the digital/analogue divide. The very ease and simple utility of the resultant set ups allowed for the rise of the bedroom producer, a further move towards the democratisation of music making and recording (if not distribution). Its linking of all into a central interface, and creation of perfectly sequenced synchrony perhaps also stands for an ironing out of idiosyncracy, a creation of a sheen of surface perfection which often lacked a readily definable human element – in short, the music often had no soul. Technological sophistication had become an end in itself, and the music often got lost in the process. The greyness of the cable is apt, and was possibly even chosen for its symbolic resonance.

Generative futures past or yet to come
The inventive musician could always make something out of the new technologies, however, and find new uses for them. Back in the Sonic Frontiers cabinet there is a copy of the SSEYO KOAN software which Brian Eno championed in the mid-90s. It sits alongside a boxed copy of his own Generative Music piece (presumably on a floppy disc) which he created with it. The idea of generative music, of a system in which the ‘composer’ set certain parameters (scales, timbres, harmonies, pitch ranges and tempos etc.) as musical seeds forming the basis of an otherwise randomly calculated sequence of sounds, goes back to John Cage’s ideas about introducing chance into the compositional process. Such systems, by partially removing intention, reveal a certain order and structure inherent in the nature of things. KOAN formed the basis for the music in several of Eno’s installation pieces in the 90s and early 2000s, such as his Music for the Civic Recovery Centre, included in the Sonic Boom exhibition of sound art curated by David Toop at the Hayward Gallery on London’s South Bank in 2000. In one of the ‘Swollen Appendices’ to his philosophical diary A Year (published in 1996), Eno observes of the state of music that ‘from now on there are three alternatives: live music, recorded music and generative music’. He goes on to suggest that one day ‘it’s possible that our grandchildren will look at us in wonder and say “you mean you used to listen to exactly the same thing over and over again?”’ It’s not caught on yet, but it’s an intriguing and potentially revolutionary view of a possible future in which music making and listening becomes more participatory, less of a passive consumer option. Perhaps its time will come. It sits next to a copy of Wired magazine with Bjork on the cover, pictured at the time her recent Biophilia projects were released on all manner of technological platforms. Both indicate the way that electronic music has always tinkered and played around not just with the material means of making sound, but with the very notion of what music can be, and the ways in which it can be produced and presented, and made available to a wider variety of potential musicians. The exhibition inevitably focuses primarily on the past, but in the end, it still sets its gaze on the future with wide-eyed anticipation of further wonders to come.


Steve said...

Thanks, Jez - A fascinating and detailed piece about an area of the Science Museum which I wasn't even aware of.

Sorry to be repetitive but I'm not sure whether you have received the Spacex invitation to our bloggers/tweeters preview of the Michael Samuels show on 25 July? Perhaps you can drop me a line at stevebrown99attiscalidotcodotuk or at facebook? It would be great if you could attend - Thanks, Steve

Steve said...

FYI - I have emailed you with the preview times but just in case it's 3-5. Hope to see you there - Steve