A Most Uncommon Type – Keira Rathbone and the Sounds From the Vaults

It’s been rather quiet on these pages the last couple of weeks, though I can assure you in the off-line actual world things have been busier than ever. Much of our time has been taken up finishing off the next Howlround project – we’ve been beavering away at in secret for a couple of months now, it’s pretty much finished and sounding quite super;  just waiting for our mastering guru to work his magic. We’ve also got a couple of rather exciting live appearances coming up in August – our first in several months – with details to follow. But for the moment our most pressing item concerns a typewriter and some tunnels:

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Yes, celebrated typewriter artist Keira Rathbone‘s latest exhibition BRINK comes to The Vaults gallery at the end of this month and features a number of collaborations with artists of different persuasions alongside her own distinctive works – including a new sound piece produced by Lolita Laguna and myself. Our contribution was produced several weeks ago by visiting the cavernous halls beneath Waterloo station that make up the exhibition space, armed with some recordings of both Keira’s typing (she uses a contact microphone which makes it sound tremendous!) and the ambient sounds of some of the locations where she produces her work; such as the river bank of her native West London. These sounds were played  through a portable amplifier placed at one end of the vault known as the ‘long wet room’, with the results being recorded at the other. This new recording was then played back into the space and the process repeated – five times!

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Laptop and amp in repose.

It was an idea partly inspired by works such as Alvin Lucier‘s I Am Sitting In A Room and Jacob Kierkegaard‘s wonderful and terrifying 4 Rooms, where continuous recording and playback within a given space starts to expose that space’s natural resonant frequencies, often rendering the source material completely unrecognisable as it does so. This kind of transformative-process and the ease with which it’s often possible to break down common or everyday sounds into something wholly other is, as regular visitors to these pages will attest, an obsession of mine;  though even I was astonished at the metamorphosis that had occurred by our fifth attempt. And because of the continuously ‘active’ nature of the space, each subsequent layer added it’s own  flourishes; be it the sporadic water dripping from the ceiling or the bass-heavy rumble of train wheels overheard. At the time of writing Lolita is putting the finishing touches to this dense sonic stew and the resulting composition will be installed in the space as part of the exhibition, premièring at the private view on July 31st. The rough-cut sounds great, so I’m very much looking forward to hearing the finished work being ‘put back’ into the space. Seems only yesterday I was doing the same thing in Belgrade customs house!

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Results were actually much more deafening than you might expect…

To celebrate the launch of BRINK and as a promotional wheeze, Keira has set about immortalising the assets of her various collaborators by producing typewriter portraits of their eyes and ears. To that effect, here is a picture of her posing with my left ear, a salute not only to a body part described as ‘damn sexy’ by someone on the internet; but to an organ that has consistently earned it’s place as my very favourite and most-useful physical accoutrement:

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Anyway, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that Keira’s work is amazing (as is Lolita’s!!), so make sure you pay the exhibition a visit somewhere between 1st-23rd August.  The official Vaults website has further details and there’s also a Facebook event here for you social media types. She has even suggested we have a DJ battle as part of the private view, so there may be one further collaboration to come!

Finally, outside of the vaults I’ve been immortalising some assets of my own, chiefly by making another ‘guerilla’ promotional video for Howlround using my favourite tape loop, which sadly expired from sheer exhaustion not long afterwards. Thankfully it’s appearance in this video has given it a kind of immortality, so why not click play and help a small part of it to live forever? Moreover, particularly as the sounds in this video have gone on to form the cornerstone of our next release, why not watch it over and over and over again? In doing so you’ll increase our play-count and be granted rare insights not only into how the loop came to meet its end, but also just what I have been doing with my evenings over the past few weeks.  You might even gain a teasing-yet-fascinating glimpse into our new release’s gestation – everyone wins, most of all YOU!


The World Service Gets The Horn

I know I’ve been harping on about the Denman Exponential Horn installation at the Science Museum quite a bit here and on the social networking of late, but the fact is it’s just an amazing object that has to be both seen and heard in-situ to be believed. However, with this report produced for BBC World Service and broadcast last week, I’m hoping I’ve finally got the whole thing out of my system. You’ll hear Aleksander Kolkowski, the audio historian responsible for restoring Roderick Denman’s magnificent creation explaining both the past and present of the horn, accompanied by a selection of sound effects from the BBC archive, selected and mixed by my Foggy self. Those of you who heard my OST Horn Special a month or so ago will find many of these sounds familiar, including the fabulous historical recording of Tutankhamun’s Horn that opens the piece; but given the response I’ve had so far, I can’t imagine repeating this ‘glorious cacophony’ will cause too much upset. And just to clarify, that recording of Tutankhamun’s horn actually dates from 1939, as no original 13th Century BC recordings are thought to exist. I do hope this revelation will not impair your enjoyment too greatly.

The exhibition runs until 27th July and I urge you to pay a visit before the horn falls silent again!

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PS In hindsight I could probably have chosen a more dignified title for this blog post. Doesn’t really chime with the usual shroud of mystique in which I smother my work…


Want To Stay In The Loop? Follow Us!

This is how all Howlround tracks start and end: tangling themselves around my studio! And there’s been a sudden massive increase in said ‘tanglings’ recently…

Do you know something? It would just make my day if only you, dear reader, would follow Howlround on our new website and/or on Twitter with just the same unquestioning diligence! Plus they’ll be plenty of amusing visual gags to savour, such as my recent successful attempt to become more streetwise and urban by becoming a GRIME producer!

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Grime, get it? Grime. Very clever.

Gosh, this ‘viral marketing’ is a doddle….


Counting Off The Beat – Remixing and Kickstarting

A few random bits and pieces to bring to your attention this week. Firstly, do you remember that remix I produced for shouty London groove-merchants Chips For The Poor back in 2012? Well, I enjoyed doing it so much that it’s only taken me two years to produce another (with apologies to Gum Takes Tooth, who have been waiting almost a year for theirs – I swear I’m working on it!). This latest reworking is for the new  Brood Ma Remix album on the awesome Quantum Natives label, that shadowy collective of beat-makers, programmers and graphic designers that includes Ornine, Yearning Kru and Brood Ma himself amongst others. If the name sounds familiar, it could be because his second album P O P U L O U S was the subject of a very flattering review in last month’s Wire magazine. To my ears it sounds like OneOhTrix PointNever or Autechre trying to make an oldskool hardcore record (with hammers), and indeed Daniel Lopatin has confessed himself a fan. Wasting no time at all, remix album re P O P U L O U S is out this week, and I’m very pleased to have asked to add a contribution. Two remixes in as many years? Nothing can stop this runaway train!

“r e P O P U L O U S” is a view of the original work from 7 different perspectives, as seen through a virtual reality headset slowly fossilising under ash and magma. Two of the album’s tracks, ESTEEM and NRG JYNX, have been rehewn and augmented, different stresses placed on the nervous euphoria and heat-hammered visions of the originals: Ornine’s chittering percussive trance ritual, Al Tariq’s industrial dancehall schematics, Recsund’s melodic electro strata, Yearning Kru’s cthonic collapse, Lyd’s open-air psychedelic zone, Robin the Fog’s claustrophobic pleasure release, and Ana Caprix’s distant, mourning viewpoint. These excavated snapshots reveal a wider panorama of a world moments before the inevitable” 

You can check out re P O P U L O U S on the above soundcloud link or download the entire album here for FREE! There’s plenty more to be had, including the original P O P U L O U S long-player at the delightfully panoramic Quantum Natives website, while Brood Ma’s debut full-length F I S S I O N for Mantile Records is also well worth hunting down. I’m a bit of fan, can you tell?

Next up is Sarah Tanat Jones, a musician and illustrator that Chris and I met when Howlround took over the Alien Jams show on NTS Radio back in May (or rather we were invited by host Chloe Friedman and politely made ourselves at home, but ‘took over’ sounds more edgy and exciting). Sarah produces electronic synth-pop under the name Synaesthete, equally groovy illustration under her own name (the above ‘Record Shops of Soho’ is, entirely predictably, my favourite) and co-runs the Kit Records label. Her music is very much in the vein of  artists such as Glasser, and I’d even go so far as to say that her recent EP Earth and Air contained more glacial electro pop brilliance in its four tracks than on much of the former’s recent album. This is my personal favourite:

Now Sarah is asking for help to record her debut LP, Array, a CD and picture-book project combining her two talents. Releasing albums being the expensive business that it is, there’s a Kickstarter campaign that could do with your support here, with lots of nice benefits up for grabs. including original artwork. At the time of writing the totaliser is nudging just over the halfway mark with less than three weeks to go, so get cracking. You can also buy the Earth and Air EP here.

Lastly, and on a note that couldn’t be more different if it tried, I was sorry to hear this week of the death of Francis Matthews, the actor who, as part of a long  and distinguished career, played detective Paul Temple; but was probably better known – somewhat to his chagrin- as the voice of ‘that bloody puppet’ Captain Scarlet.  The archetypal dashing and debonair Englishman, I was lucky enough to interview him along with Alex Fitch for Resonance FM’s ‘I’m Ready For My Close-Up’ way back in 2009; and as there doesn’t seem to have been much else in the media by way of a tribute, Alex has dug up the original podcast. Hope you enjoy spending some time in his company as much as we did!


The Fog Gets The Horn

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Aleksander Kolkowski and the Denman exponential horn, with the Resonance FM studio in the background

Presented for your approval, here is last Sunday’s OST Show Denman Horn Special, recorded live at the Science Museum and broadcast, depending on your geographical location, either down a colossal 27-foot exponential horn or on Resonance 104.4FM. Regular host Jonny Trunk was off down the seaside, doubtless trying to bag himself a coconut, or treat the family to some retro donkey-riding action; so once again I was charged with the task of steering Resonance FM’s soundtrack / library music programme through the choppy arts radio waters.

I’ve presented the OST show on numerous occasions, but never before had a 27-foot horn to play with, so I was determined that this special edition of the programme should have a bespoke playlist specifically designed to best honour Roderick Denman’s enduring legacy; not forgetting the efforts of Aleks Kolkowski and his team in bringing it back to life. The resulting hour is perhaps a little more ambient and drifty in nature than the usual groovy titillation, but features some quite marvellous new releases from Public Information and Arc Light Editions; as well as some classic radiophonic obscurities. Best appreciated on headphones if you don’t have a great big horn of your very own. As it were.

Or you can download it if you’re in a hurry. Here’s that horny tracklisting in full:

? – Tutankhamen’s Horn (archive recording from 1939 – source BBC)

Delia Derbyshire – Theme From Tutankhamen’s Egypt (The Music Of Africa, BBC Records, 1971)

Ingram Marshall – Fog Tropes (Fog Tropes / Gradual Requiem, rec 1984, Arc Light Editions, 2014)

Evelyn Glennie –  The Seaside / In The Womb (Touch The Sound OST, Normal, 2004)

BBC Sound Effects – Fog and Ship’s Horn Montage (various, mixed by Robin The Fog)

Dick Mills – Seascape (The Soundhouse: Music From The BBC Radiophonic Workshop, 1983)

Howlroundнеизвежбан (Secret Songs Of Savamala, The Fog Signals, 2013)

Selections from Happy Machine: Standard Music Library 1970-2010, (Public Information, 2014):

- Brian Hodgson – The Craters Of Mars

- Brian Hodgson & Reginald D. Lewis – Song Of The Wilderness

- Elliot Ireland, Allessandro Rizzo & Tom Greenwood – Sonus Soul

Selections from Tod DockstaderRecorded Music For Film, Radio & Television: Electronic Vol.2 (Boosey and Hawkes, 1981 – reissue Mordant Music, 2013):

 – Silver Float

 – Stardrift In Two

 – Snowbell Waltz

David Vorhaus – Sea Of Tranquility (A/B) ((The Vorhaus Sound Experiments, KPM, 1980)

Bill Fontana – Landscape Sculpture With Fog Horns, Live Radio Version, 1982 (KQED-FM, 1982)

As a bonus treat and an attempt to recreate a little of the magic of standing in front of the horn during the programme, here’s a recording of the above BBC Sound Effects montage made using a simple hand-held hard-disk recorder and sitting in the front row, approximately seven feet from that cavernous black mouth. This was made by sneaking out of the studio and grabbing a front-row seat, thereby simultaneously becoming both  host and audience. Nothing can truly recapture the magic of hearing this recording while standing in front of a 27 foot horn, but until I can afford a big enough studio to build one of my own, it’s not a bad start:

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The horn in it’s orginial position, image stolen from the Science Museum’s blog.

Resonance continues to broadcast on-site until the end of the month, while the Exponential Horn exhibition ‘In Search Of Perfect Sound‘ continues until the end of July. I urge you to visit if you haven’t already, as nothing can truly replicate the experience of standing in front of the horn. No microphone will do it justice, it’s a full aural immersion, go and hear it while you can!


‘To Illustrate The Unknowable’ – Mark Ayres

As today marks the release of two classic Radiophonic Workshop LPs that have received the heavyweight vinyl treatment thanks to deluxe reissue label Music On Vinyl, it seems only right and proper that I should finish off publishing the transcripts of my interviews with the various luminaries of the reformed and touring quintet of original workshop members, recorded at the University of Chichester for my BBC World Service report back in April. Our final subject is Mark Ayres, who joined the workshop late in it’s career and worked as a composer for Doctor Who during the ‘controversial’  Sylvester McCoy era. But it’s the extensive and exacting archiving, documenting and remastering of the Workshop’s historical recordings for which he is best known, particularly important within a broadcasting corporation that hasn’t always taken the greatest care of preserving it’s own legacy. Mark is also the brains and the galvanising force behind the workshop’s latest incarnation, which is touring the festival circuit this summer. Down-playing his contribution as ‘the archivist and general hanger-on’, he nonetheless remains the person most responsible for preserving the Workshop’s past and ensuring it’s future – a composer, an expert and a fan rolled into one. I started by asking him what he thought the Workshop’s greatest legacy was?

MA: It’s very difficult for me to say what the legacy of the Radiophonic Workshop is, I think that’s more for other people to express and [have an] opinion on. I know from my experience it’s something that I grew up with its very much part of my consciousness. I can see its influence in the world around me musically, aesthetically, artistically, in television and film, and I know what it has done to influence me. I wouldn’t be sitting here if it wasn’t for the Radiophonic Workshop. I went into music and sound largely because of being influence by the Workshop when I was a kid in the sixties. I was at primary school and we had programmes like ‘Music and Movement’ which was a kid’s programme where [they] were encouraged to do mimes and acting and movement and dance and whatever and all the sound was Radiophonic. So we were exposed to it every day at school and then we went home and watched Blue Peter and there it was on there with ‘Bleep and Booster’. And weekends we would watch Doctor Who. So it’s very much part of our consciousness, really. It’s what we grew up with, it’s part of the DNA of many people of my generation and I think part of the DNA of British culture.

RTF: How does the Radiophonic Workshop assert itself in the modern age, where electronic music has now become such a part of everyday culture and can be easily made on someone’s smartphone, for instance?

I don’t think the Radiophonic Workshop really needs to assert itself these days, the workshop is and the history and the back-catalogue is there.  People can listen it, people can hear it, and people can be influenced by it. The fact that we are doing concerts now and people are coming along proves that people are interested in it and in seeing what the surviving members can still do. What I was very keen on was ….these guys are my friends and my mentors for many years I was very keen to give them a platform. To show that they’re still creative and that they’ve still got something to say. And I certainly think they have and certainly the audiences that are coming to see us now, the response is amazing.

How would you describe Radiophonics to the uninitiated?

Well, the Radiophonic Workshop came about when in the 1950s BBC Radio 3 in particular was starting to do a lot of very experimental drama and couldn’t find the appropriate sound and music in the library or in the sound effects archives to illustrate this. And a lot of producers became very aware, with what was happening on the continent in French and German radio in particular. Where they set up electronic music studios to explore [for example] in Paris, musique concrete – that‘s found sound. Here, I’ve got a drinks glass [picks it up, taps on it] I’m just flicking that with my finger, and that makes a sound. If I record that and vary the pitch of the tape I can make it ‘sing’. So that was what musique concrete was. Not just wine glasses, any found object, even the table or my glasses; anything can make a sound and you can make music out of that sound. In Cologne they were more interested in computers and in what sounds came out of electronic circuits. This was being watched at the BBC and they thought ‘we can use these techniques to illustrate our dramas’. So, they weren’t making ‘art music’ the way they were doing on the continent, they wanted it as a very practical contribution to making high-brow drama. But of course they didn’t put any money into it, so we had two people in particular Desmond Briscoe and Daphne Oram who started doing this work after hours when everyone else had gone home, they’d go down to the studios, nick all the gear, wheel it down the corridors put it all together, do the work and then try and put all the studios back together for the next morning. And eventually after that it was realised that they had to set up a department to do it.

So, what is Radiophonics? Well, Radiophonics is new sound, unknown sound. In its purest form it is using sound to illustrate the unknowable, I suppose. In the early days it was all plays about people having nervous breakdowns or someone sitting in his bath or something like ‘The Dreams’ which was one of four inventions o radio created by Barry Bermange. He did vox-pops, interviewing people about their dreams and later on about their views of God or the afterlife and he cut these comments together in a sort-of poetic fashion, rhythmic fashion, using a lot of repetition and making sure that the voices had a rhythm to them. He would make a script of what he’d recorded, cut these together and then give it to Delia Derbyshire who would then create background [music] to illustrate these.

And again [the question] was ‘how do you illustrate a dream state in a way that is purely subjective?’ You could cover it with Sibelius and Debussy if you want, it will probably work very well’ but it will immediately have its own associations.  We don’t want to do that, we want the audience to make their own associations. So you have to give them something fairly neutral. And that’s where the Radiophonic Workshop [comes in], and of course in doing so it creates its own beauty, its own ethos, its own place in the world. And particularly The Dreams [became] this out of body experience if you listen to it, close your eyes and just let it wash over you, it is very dream-like in its own way. It’s a dream-like programme about people’s dreams. So that was a very early sort-of ‘pure’ radiophonic programme. And of course later on it became obvious that, say, if you were making ‘Quatermass and the Pit’, electronic sound was a very nice way without having to use the same kinds of sounds as everybody has heard before  to illustrate the  ‘Id Monster’ coming alive […] or the Martian consciousness re-awakening in the pit.  So that was where it really excelled. Later on the Workshop became much more of a music factory, as television particularly just wanted more cheap theme tunes. As radio budgets decreased there was no longer the budget to allow the Workshop six weeks to experiment and see if they could come up with something. Which is what the BBC was about in the 1960s, [but] it certainly by the 80’s was not about that at all – it as about ‘we have a budget, you will make a programme, can we have it by Tuesday week’. So it became much more of a music factory.  That eventually led to its demise, because it couldn’t compete with freelancers from outside who by that time had very similar equipment and could do a very similar job. Again, what we’re trying to do now is to allow ourselves to be purely experimental. A lot of our music is still very visual, we’re still using a lot of video, it’s still applied music and it is still music which is trying to evoke a mood or tell a story. But we’re now allowed, as in the 1960s, we’ve got the time to produce what we want and to experiment in the way we want and to combine all the techniques that were developed over the last fifty years to do something hopefully new.

This is the new album you’re referring to?

Well, this is the new album and what we’re doing on stage now. It’s taking all these techniques and learning from them and combining them and building on them.  I can’t tell you that much about the new album because we’re still very much in the stage of throwing things up in the air and seeing what happens. We do have a working title which is Electricity and we’ve all been writing tracks which explore the theme of electricity. So Peter’s got a track which is called ‘Electricity’ which maybe the title track, I’ve got a track called ‘Galvani’, we’ve got one called ‘Wireless’ which Paddy Kingsland has written; another Peter Howell track ‘Til the lights go out’. So it’s all explorations on the theme of electricity and what it means to us in our lives. It’s almost like a ‘Horizon’ programme in the way we’ve approached it, in terms of finding a subject to illustrate; but we have the total free time to go and explore that theme individually and then all bring ideas back to the group and put it together. That’s what’s fascinating about this whole process. We’ve all been individual composes working in our own studios and now we do that as a  starting point, but then we take it to the band and we see what everybody else can contribute to it. And there’s an ideology,  a definite theme and content to what we’re doing.

The way electronic music is made now, you could literally press play and a computer could make a nice pretty tune for you, but I think sometimes modern electronic music loses that sense of having to say something, of having an idea to communicate.

Electronic music, certainly from the 1980s onwards – and this is part of what killed the workshop, it suffered from ‘pre-set-itis’. Because digital synthesisers came out which all came with fantastic pre-sets and pop music did those pre-sets to death! Also, when you were doing television music and you had literally 24 hours to put a theme tune together, it was very easy to use a pre-set. And it’s no good saying to the client ‘I want to do something really original, it’ll take me a week’, they’ll say ‘well, somebody else can do it by the morning’. [You could argue that that somebody else is] just going to use all the pre-sets, [but] nobody cares.  So there was a slightly let-go attitude for a while. I know people who will buy a new synth and completely wipe memories before they even listen to the pre-sets. I won’t go that far, but I do make, as much as possible, all my own sounds. Because to me that’s what the fun of electronic music is about.

The aspect of digging to find the new sounds inside the machine, I suppose?

If I want to write for a combo, I can write for a rock band or I can write for an orchestra. The whole fascinating thing about electronic music for me is creating the orchestra and then writing for it!  So everything should be new, it’s new combinations of sound, new combinations of techniques. Trying to surprise yourself, really. Exploring the happy accidents and allowing yourself the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them and have accidents which actually will lead you down a new pathway.  You have to take the mistakes seriously.

Could you tell us a little about taking  classics Radiophonic works and transferring them into the live arena? How did you go about it?

Doing this live is interesting because again by its nature, we’d slave away in the studio for many long hours putting piece of music together and by its very nature it is not performable live and yet here we are performing it live! So there is an element of ‘we prepared this earlier’, but also in every track we’re trying to find something which we can do live, that we can do differently that will surprise the audiences, which makes it interesting for us. We’re doing ‘Greenwich Chorus’, for instance, which is one of Peters’ famous pieces. There’s a couple of surprising elements in that which we’re doing live which makes it different, because it’s got to be different, it is presented live. And something like Dr Who, again, just to go on, it took Delia Derbyshire six weeks to do the original theme, it took Peter Howell six weeks to do his revised theme in 1980. We can’t expect the audience to sit there for three months while we do that, so we’ve got to find a short-cut. So we’ve found a way of de-constructing it, pulling to bits, building it back up again and then doing something entirely new with it, which we can present live. So that’s the fun for us [when] doing the concerts – finding ways of tearing this stuff apart and rebuilding it so that it retains its essence but is also a live experience as well.

Many thanks to Mark for being such informative and entertaining  company, and the equally-stimulating interviews with his ‘friends and mentors’ Dick Mills, Roger Limb and Paddy Kingsland are all still available for your perusal; as is the original report which can be found here. The 180g vinyl reissues of Peter Howell’s Through A Glass Darkly and Paddy Kingsland’s The Fourth Dimension are both out today and available from musiconvinyl.com. The reformed Radiophonic Workshop band are touring the festival circuit throughout the summer. And they rock. Trust me on this.


Power Lunches In The Psychoacoustic Country

Howlround Mirror A rather hurried post today, starting with an extract from Howlround‘s final gig (for the time being) at The Electric Dog Show, Power Lunches from earlier this month. It’s a ‘greatest loops’ set of sorts, so you may hear a few of our favourites alongside some brand new material, of which we now have rather a lot. We really do need to start knocking it all together into that album we’re supposed to be getting on with: You can read a very complimentary review of the entire event (including superb sets by Quimper and Gyratory System) by Michael Holland (who we also have to thanks for these lovely photos) on the Ears4Eyes blog, but I’ve taken the liberty of quoting the paragraph pertaining to ourselves here:

‘Howlround were amazing, perfectly eerie, a droning, revolving yawn of sound, a morass of crumbling noise, whale moans, the distress of slowly compressing hulls and skulls, they conjured a hard to place melancholy – perhaps from the knowledge that the tapes and machines are at the end of their lives, still vibrant but with numbered days.  Long strands of tape spun around stands, the duo stumbled around the flickering web like spiders, the audiences’ minds caught and bound, constricted further with each passing minute.  A ballet of thread-hanging twirls, or a pair of tape-architects measuring drone boundaries for fencing-in sound-ghosts…  

In other news, a most flattering post regarding Howlround’s debut album The Ghosts Of Bush (as well as a few other bits and pieces from the Foggy Archive) appeared this week on the excellent A Year In The Country website. Filed under ‘Trails and Influences / Other Pathways’, it’s the latest of the blog’s extensive investigations into ‘the underlying unsettledness to the English bucolic countryside dream’, and proves as immersive and well-researched as ever. This is amply proved by the fact that they dug out this home-made press release I’d forgotten ever making: Howlround-Robin-The-Fog-the-ghosts-of-bush-alt-press-release-Ghost-Box-Scanner-Simon-Reynolds-A-Year-In-The-Country And lastly, to pile glory upon glory, ace music curators and Boomkat offshoot 14 Tracks have included ‘неизвежбан‘ from Howlround’s second album Secret Songs Of Savamala in their recent selection ‘Psychoacoustic Geography‘. It’s the second time I’ve been featured on one of their regular download compilations, each one centred around a specific theme; and this latest selection also features work by Ingram Marshall, Moondog, David Toop, Janek Schaefer and Anne Guthrie amongst many more! Very proud to be in such company, particularly as the reissue of ‘Fog Tropes’ on Arc Light Editions is, entirely predictably, my favourite reissue of the year to date and one of my favourite releases full stop. And so, as Howlround prepares to head back underground to concentrate on finishing albums and shunning the spotlight (and as Chris prepares to head to Dubai – thus making the project a truly global concern), we appear to be experiencing one last flurry of welcome publicity. Hopefully this will keep our enormous fan-base happy long enough for us to get our act together and finish the three album’s worth of material we currently owe various people. Best foot forward, then.

Yours in haste,

RTF


‘The Music Of The Spheres’ – Dick Mills

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Continuing with the publication of extended interviews gathered for my recent BBC World Service report on the revival of the Radiophonic Workshop, we come to a figure who perhaps more than anyone else embodies the spirit and the ethos of this most enigmatic of organisations. But where on earth (or, more appropriately ‘off’ it) to even begin with Dick Mills? The only surviving member of the Workshop’s original line-up and it’s longest resident, he joined in its inaugural year of 1958 and remained for the next three and a half decades. Originally joining as a technical assistant, he may have few full-length compositions to his name, but his innumerable uncredited contributions and practical assistance to the works of others; plus the sheer number of sound effects he is responsible for are almost beyond estimation. Such technical and engineering expertise may well account for the matter-of-fact and rather self-effacing way he talks about his work, despite remaining a stalwart of the workshop for significantly longer than anyone else.

Chatting briefly with him before our interview, he revealed that the Workshop’s cancelling of a number of tour dates prior to the Chichester University symposium last month had been on the orders of his doctor; something he clearly  still felt bad about. And yet his band-mate’s reticence to go on without him is entirely understandable. The Workshop simply wouldn’t have been the same without him, then as well as now! Thankfully now in better health, our interview took place in the green room during a short interval before Mills was whisked off for another panel discussion; and while we were pressed for time this most genial and chatty individual still managed to lift the lid on his contribution to the most famous TV theme tune of all time and the genesis of a forty-year-old radiophonic classic entirely his own:

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DM: [Examining the copy of the 1975 LP The Radiophonic Workshop I’ve just asked him to sign] Which one is this? […] Ah, yes. We come up against all sorts of people, you know. We went on [insert title of well-known ‘Blue Peter-for-adults’-style TV programme] to talk about the workshop. And [The Producer] says ‘Oh, it’s lovely to meet you, I was ever so interested in that record!’ [Indicates the photograph on the sleeve] ‘Is that the Radiophonic Workshop? I said no, that’s our boss’s shed, because he’s got an outboard motor there from his boat, [and] there’s a model yacht up there and an anchor there, that’s not the [workshop]! She really thought it was, she had no idea what we actually did there!

If I may say so, I think your track ‘Adagio’ from this album is one of my all-time favourite pieces of music.

My wife can’t stand in the same room as it. I took it home ‘cause I was so pleased with it. And she came out white as a sheet! She said ‘I actually hate it!’ She said ‘I would take that cassette out and cheerfully jump on it!’ I said ‘Why?!’ I think I’ve worked out that my wife, poor unfortunate; she hasn’t got the ability to suspend her belief. She would probably tolerate science fiction but she knows it could never happen. I said ‘well you’re approaching it from the wrong [angle]. Why can’t you… this could happen!’ And she says ‘But I know it couldn’t!’ It’s though her imagination can’t comprehend an open space or a space that she can’t see the limitations to.

What was your brief when you were creating Adagio?

There wasn’t any. This record, I don’t think contains anything [produced by commission]. [They] said ‘Oh, have a dabble and if we get enough we’ll put it together and put it out on a disc.’

That must have been quite unusual for the workshop?

Yeah. Actually, I tell a lie. Because this ‘Adagio’ I actually did compose for [pauses to remember]… well, no,  I used it for a show that I was involved on called… What was it, Captain Zep or was it Duke Diamond? [NB It was Zep, although Mills worked on them both] Kids television about an academy for space cadets, a detective series. The students were shown a crime being committed and they had to deduce who did it. But because it took place in this big academy and the students are in an auditorium, before it started they wanted some ‘muzak’ to go over this auditorium [scene],  so I did that. And they just played it over and over again in the auditorium and I got extra PRS because the students and the characters in the play could hear it and it was wonderful! Then I did a… I’m not sure if I did a similar piece… no, it’s not on here… called ‘Come and Go’* because what I did I did a bit of like Adagio and made a long length of it, turned it round the other way and joined it up [gestures handling tape] so it went like that and went away again! I just spent an afternoon meandering with a synthesiser and put some twinkles on it.

For me, personally, it’s one of the Workshop’s most haunting works.

Yes! It’s funny, a lot of record reviewers when they [wrote about] the workshop, the came out and said ‘the most surprising thing on this record is Dick Mills, we didn’t know he did music! Well I wouldn’t class that as music, that’s the trouble! It’s not written as music, it’s just… extemporised, I suppose.

You wouldn’t call it music, though?

Well, I would, you know, tonal-wise.  Yes, rather than a sound effect. Or you could call it ”the music of the spheres” or whatever. You know, it’s just… [trails off, shrugs]

Your background was more in the creation of the sound effects, particularly for Doctor Who. And you also helped produce the iconic theme tune?

Oh, yeah! I did [the Doctor Who theme] with Delia and we stuck it all together. Actually, at last year’s fiftieth anniversary party at the Excel Centre, I did a presentation on how we put the signature tune together. I managed to get the components – three separate components – and I played them on the computer and I actually photographed the screen so that you could see the traces going along and then I put all the traces up and showed how they all went relative to each other. And then I described what happened when we [encountered] a bum note and couldn’t find it. We had to unwind all the tapes down the corridor and count the joins. That was the only way of [finding] it.

The Doctor Who theme is an enigma, if you like, to most people, because they can’t actually latch on to any known instrument that they think might have been used to make it because there wasn’t any musical instruments. It consists of three basic music lines, a bass track that goes all the way through then you‘ve got the melody that goes most of the way through, then the twiddle-y bits on the top and the whoosh noises that makes the graphics behind it. So Delia and I would have constructed those on thee separate tapes that had to be played together. No synthesisers, no multitrack, nothing. So the bass note was a twanged wire, which then had to be speeded up or slowed down to give you the right pitch, then then had to be cut together to the right length. Then everyone of those bass note phrases had a little grace note stuck ion the front which was an extra ‘whurrp’ from an oscillator. Then Delia did the melody ‘OOO-EE-OO’ with an oscillator she just waggled the knob until she got the phrasing correct; then she had to copy those how many times she wanted it and cut them all together. Then the white noise was whoosh-y noise, [we] played it backwards and looped it, speed-changed it, mixed it all together. Then we played the three tapes together… and there was a mistake! Now, nobody can watch three different reels of tape being played and spot where the mistake is, particularly as each of these tapes were full of splices. So what we had to do was to unroll these three rolls of tape, right down the corridor at Maida Vale, and walk along looking at the visual pattern of the splices. And when one of the splices was out of [the] visual pattern that’s got to be where the wrong note is.

As someone who makes music with tape, I do know how unpredictable it can be.

Yes! And you’ve only got to store it too long [for] the joints to dry out! But usually we didn’t have too much problem. Sometimes the backing on the tape was of a funny composition and sometimes the editing sticky[tape] was of a different make and it just wouldn’t stick on, but we didn’t have too much malfunctions, as they say. There was a trick that you’re supposed to wind a tape on inside out because if there [were] any loud passages in the tape it tended to print through magnetically to the next layer of tape on the spool. And if you wound it backwards or perhaps inside out, it would print after itself, so you wouldn’t get a pre-echo or a loud noise and so know what was coming! It was silly and nobody ever went through and tried to prove it!  

And with that, he was ushered away to join the imminent panel discussion occurring in the main hall. What an absolute treat it was to spend some time with him. And as an added treat of my own, I’ve found some footage of the aforementioned children’s science fiction quiz show ‘Captain Zep’ on  youtube and have included it below for your edification. Sadly, this slightly poor edit was the only clip of the programme I could find, but gratifyingly it does include the auditorium scene with an extract from ‘Adagio’ playing in the background, just as Dick described it. It’s interesting to note that, despite being quite a bit older, his music has aged far better in the ensuing decades than the ‘Captain Zep’ programme itself – It’s hard to believe that puffy yellow ‘space-clown’ uniforms, copious amounts of hair-gel and extended scenes pertaining to the distribution of badges to schoolchildren could ever be considered essential televisual ingredients, though respect is due to lead actor Paul Greenword for keeping straight-faced throughout:

For those of you hungry for more, Dick Mills’ credited and uncredited work is so vast in it’s scale that a complete overview is beyond my capabilities here, though any fans of classic Doctor Who will recognise much of his work – he was the principle ‘special sound’ creator for the series in it’s original run from 1972 onwards, the best part of two decades. My BBC Records Special I produced in 2012 for Jonny Trunk’s OST show is also worth checking out, though I say so myself, featuring as it does a number of his original compositions, including several from the ‘Hi Tech FX’ LP, which should be considered an essential purchase for fans of the Doctor, sound effects and electronic music alike! And anyone who can offer me some information regarding the track *’Come and Go’ that Dick mentions is encouraged to get in touch. I can’t find the slightest reference to it anywhere!

Finally, on a more whimsical note and as a bonus for you synth obsessives, here’s a rare chance to see the classic EMS Synthi that features on the ‘boss’s shed’ cover of The Radiophonic Workshop LP (and was one of the most important tools in  the creation of sound effects for Doctor Who) in a far, far less illustrious setting – half-hidden in the background of a minisculely-budgeted CBBC atrocity from the 1980s that must count as one of the most genuinely disturbing pieces of television you’ll ever have to sit through. I’m quite sure I won’t be alone in stating that if I happened to be in possession of such classic hardware, I could think of 1000 better things to do than dangle nasty wobbling puppets all over it – typical BBC squandering of resources! That said, this clip remains my staple riposte to anyone who dares to tell me things aren’t as good as they used to be. And there’s bonus points if you survive long enough to catch a flash of Edd The Duck at the very end, no stranger himself to appalling pond-dwelling pop.

The sublime to the ridiculous writ large. I think I might have a bath now…


The Lie-In King: An Open Letter (or ‘A Slap-Dash Affair’)

Dear Slap-Up Media,

Thanks you for your email. It’s really good to hear that my work is reaching such a wide variety of places and I thank you for taking an interest. I have to confess, however, at being just a little confused as to your reasons for getting in touch.

If indeed you have visited my website (and let us assume that your writing to me regarding its content suggests that you have), you will have noticed that it’s primarily concerned with the subjects of Radiophonic broadcasting and experimental music, with particular emphasis on the activities of the tape-loop quartet Howlround (who, as I’m sure you’re aware, unveiled some brand new material EXCLUSIVELY on NTS Radio’s Alien Jams show last week and are playing their last gig for the forseeable future on May 7th at The Electric Dog Show, Power Lunches, Dalston). However, with the exception of occasional reference to the anti-social hours one is forced to keep while ploughing these particular furrows (including the long nocturnal sessions working on their highly-regarded 2012 LP The Ghosts Of Bush), I think I’m correct in stating that my extensive online content has rarely if ever turned to the subject of purchasing beds. It has certainly never been my aim to send my readers  to sleep, and while I have had my music branded ‘eerily soothing’ in the past; I’m not really sure it’s the kind of soundtrack a customer of an online Bed Store would find conducive to a restful night’s slumber.

I’ve had a look at the website of the company in question and was pleased to note that their products do indeed appear sturdy and reliable. In fact, it looks like a pretty classy operation all-round, which leads me to assume that they make considerably more money flogging Ottomans and Mid-sleepers than I make shifting my small back-catalogue of short-run, experimental tape-loop music. Therefore I can’t help thinking that any organisation expecting me to endorse their already very successful business on my own personal web-page while palming me off with a measly twenty quid is frankly one open-coil spring short of a Star-Ultimate Maestro Mattress. Sorry, but I just don’t get out of bed for that sort of money if you’ll forgive my labouring a point.

In short, while I thank you for your offer, Slap-Up Media are going to have to consider slapping up quite a bit more before I start going to bed with any large corporations. At least buy me dinner and some flowers first. A ‘slap-up dinner’, naturally…

Very best wishes,

Robin The Fog

PS You’ll notice I’m typing these words at four o’clock in the morning, which should give you a pretty good idea of just how qualified I am to be giving anyone advice on the subject of going to bed.

PPS I notice from your profile that you are a ’25-year-old music lover’. What is it about 25-year-old music that appeals to you specifically, I wonder? Would you ever consider listening to music of less than a quarter of a century’s vintage? If so, I’d be happy to pop you on the guestlist for next Wednesday:

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Alien Jams and Electric Dogs

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For those of you who somehow found last Sunday afternoon’s weather conducive to doing anything other than staying in and listening to the radio (and found themselves lacking a smartphone or internet-ready umbrella), I’m very pleased to inform you that the latest edition of the Alien Jams show on NTS Radio featuring SPECIAL GUESTS HOWLROUND!!! (my caps) is now online for your streaming pleasure. We took the opportunity to road-test some brand new material from our as-yet-completely-unfinished next release, and indeed a sizeable chunk of airtime was given over to brand new works fresh off the spools, plus at least one new piece that will probably never be heard or referenced ever again. It’s something of a departure from our previous LPs, but we think it fits into the Howlround niche quite nicely. Dig in, won’t you?:

Extra special thanks to host Chloe Frieda and producer Padraigh for having us and make sure you pre-order the new LP from Ommm, coming soon on the Alien Jams label

There’s other news this month, both very good and slightly bad. The very good news is that we’re excited to be playing The Electric Dog show at Power Lunches in Dalston on May 7th. Brought to you by Soft Bodies Records, we’re playing alongside Quimper and Gyratory System and it looks set to be yet another killer line-up to be slotted into! Further details here and there’s also a Facebook Event Page as there so often is with these modern events. The slightly bad news is that this will be your last chance to catch Howlround live for the FORESEEABLE FUTURE! 

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But before your throw up your hands and commence wailing and gnashing, I must reassure you that this is by no means the end of the our tape loop adventures, though given that I’ve just been boasting about playing exclusive new material from a forthcoming release, you may already have picked up on that. Aside from avoiding very real damage being caused to our quartet of Revoxes every time they leave my studio (not to mention our spines!), we’ve decided that now is a good time to hunker down and concentrate on building a solid repertoire of tape music while they still just about work. That way, when each machine is assumed into Revox Heaven (and the day cannot be that far off), we’ll have lots and lots of material in reserve that we can release posthumously in a steady drip-feed, while raking in the cash. A bit like Tupac. Oh, and Chris is moving to Dubai. Did I mention that?

So, a bit of a change on the horizon. I must admit I shall greatly miss jamming with my indispensable partner-in-tape who has bought so much to the project over the past year; but work will continue thanks to the wonders of THE INTERNET and we’re both very excited about where things are going (quite literally, in Chris’s case). I hope that after a listen to the new material on the Alien Jams show you’ll be just a little excited too. Just a little…


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