Monday, 7 January 2013

The Golden Age of the Radiophonic Workshop (Fibre Optic Flowers)

Nicole Lizée

There was an interesting piece on Radio 3 the other day by Saskatchewan-born composer Nicole Lizée, a premiere from last year’s Proms commissioned by the BBC and played by the Kronos Quartet. The Golden Age of the Radiophonic Workshop paid homage to the pioneers of electronic music in Britain, its subtitle, Fibre Optic Flowers, referencing Delia Derbyshire’s poetic visualisation of her own sonic creations. Lizee has mixed conventional orchestral instruments with modern technology before, incorportating turntables and children’s electronic toys (the latter somewhat reminiscent of Birmingham post-Plone circuit-bending Speak and Spell maulers the Modified Toy Orchestra). Her Hitchcock Etudes for Piano and Glitch played with clips from the master of suspense’s films, creating digital loops and warped extracts from Bernard Herrmann’s soundtracks and growing fractured splinters of Bartokian piano from their repetitive phrases. These work very well with the manipulated video extracts from the films (rather like People Like Us’ work in a similar vein), which focus in particular on Hitchcock’s suffering heroines – Janet Leigh in Psycho, Doris Day in The Man Who Knew Too Much and Tippi Hedren in The Birds. The section in which the piano echoes Norman Bates’ faltering speech patterns is a stuttering, glitchy take on Steve Reich’s music in the Different Trains mould, with its emulation of the rhythms and melodic qualities of vocal samples.

Kronos Quartet

There’s often something a little disappointing about the way the classical music world takes on, absorbs and diminishes sonic experimentation, translating it into the usual orchestral palette. Steve Reich and Terry Riley’s music has never seemed so exciting since they became feted and began to receive commissions from prestigious ensembles. The radio 3 introducer’s rather condescending remarks on the piece seem to sum up the general attitude, reducing it all to the level of a lighthearted, ‘jolly’ amusement – not really ‘proper’ music, you understand. The Kronos Quartet have always seemed willing to incorporate other elements into their soundworld, however, and this proves to be the case here. Oscillators, multi-track cassette decks and turntables are brought into play, and there seems to be a perpetual underlying level of sound ‘weather’, hinting at Delia Derbyshire’s atmosphere pieces such as Blue Veils and Golden Sands. The sound of a typewriter points to the Workshop’s use of concrete sounds, and also provides a link with unconventional works from the early twentieth century, such as Eric Satie’s Parade, which also introduced the hammering of alphabetical keys into the orchestral mix. Cut up elements of the sounds from the Doctor Who music are instantly recognisable, even in their isolated form – a bit of wobbulator bass here, some percussive, hammered piano string there, and the odd snatch of the whistling oscillator melody. Ghostly, reverbed echoes of a more genteel string quartet music hover like the sounds of an earlier BBC era, light music still lingering like ragged wisps of fog in the aether. The quartet, in its more unadulterated moments, sends out flickering, trailing currents of sustained tones which attempt to realise Delia’s vision of fibre optic flowers, glowing with subtly electronically enhanced luminescence. The violins produce bending, fluid glissandos at some points, which sound like the playing of Popol Vuh guitarist Conny Veit, and the whole ends with another nod to Krautrock/Kosmiche music, with a locked groove snatch of a line from Kraftwerk’s The Hall of Mirrors (‘even the greatest stars live their lives in the looking glass’). Perhaps a sly dig at the tendency to reflexively locate the birth of modern electronic pop music with another quartet beginning with Kr. Nicole Lizée certainly seems to be a potentially worthy successor to the great female electronic composers attached to the Radiophonic Workshop over the years. You can hear her piece over here until Thursday night – starting about 31 minutes in.

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