Monday, May 23, 2005

We design synthesizers

A name wasn't given to the bouncy instrumental track that begins Holiday upon the album's original release (on Feel Good All Over), but the track was dubbed "BBC Radiophonic Workshop" on the album's re-issue in 1999 on Merge Records. I don't know if Merritt had the name in mind when he composed the tune, but it's an absolutely perfect title and a fitting (albeit brief) tribute.

The BBC Radiophonic Workshop was created in 1956 to provide electronic music for radio and TV programs, as an alternative to more familiar-sounding orchestral music. Until its demise a decade ago, due to budget cutbacks, it produced a mind-bogglingly huge amount of music, as it sometimes scored over 150 programs annually.

Easily the most popular tune from the Workshop is the Doctor Who theme song, composed by Ron Grainer and realized by Delia Derbyshire with Dick Mills in 1963. This page is fascinating reading, describing the painstaking recording techniques that were employed for the song. Using tone generators, oscillators, and a white noise generator, Derbyshire and Mills would create unusual sounds and record them to tape. Tape loops were made and played back at varying speeds until the desired pitches were obtained, and then recordings of these sounds were spliced together meticulously. Holy cow.

The 1975 compilation album The Radiophonic Workshop provides the second selection this week, a strange and disorienting fanfare from Malcolm Clarke, mixing dubious synthesized praises with clangs and clops of percussion. Those of you lucky enough to get BBC Four on the telly can watch the documentary Alchemists of Sound about the BBC Radiophonic Workshop this Saturday.

By request, the Doris Day tracks are up for one more week:


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