Recent listeners to ‘The World Today’ on BBC World Service might just have heard some curious noises escaping their radio sometime around breakfast. Radio producer and fellow World Service denizen Emma Crowe has produced a wonderful sonic portrait of a night spent at Bush House, exploring the depths of the building and talking to some of the people who have called the place home over the years. Including this one guy she found mucking about in the basement:
This is merely an extract from a much longer piece, which I have cut out purely for selfish promotional reasons; and I urge you to listen to the full eight minutes, which can be found here.
But what become of all that subterranean, nocturnal sonic tinkering, I hear a small-but-vocal minority cry? Well, after six months, numerous tape-related blow-outs, several worried phone calls from the control room, a lot of scrubbing powdery oxide residue from various appendages (hands, mostly), an awful lot of 5am tea from the canteen plus a few jumpings out of my skin thanks to unexpected visitors (who knew that the bins needed emptying at that hour?), here’s the finished product, my tribute to the building – Ghosts Of Bush:
Entirely produced on site at Bush House, using field recordings made within the hallowed hallways, two elderly reel-to-reel machines and not that much else, I’m happy to say that it’s now ready for your perusal, and is also the second official release on my newly-launched micro-record label ‘The Fog Signals’. Some might call it a vanity label, but I’ve long-since stopped inviting those people round my house.
To accompany the album I’ve also produced this video using the sounds of Bush House and the beautiful photography of Hannah Brown, celebrated lomographer, designer, blogger, DJ and all-round good egg. Her own website is http://wowandflutterblog.blogspot.co.uk. Why not pay her a visit? Actually, let’s watch the video first:
On a serious note, all proceeds from the sales of ‘Ghosts Of Bush’ will be donated to the charity BBC Media Action (formerly The World Service Trust), supporting their work empowering communities and transforming lives around the world through broadcasting, which I think we can all agree is a most worthy and appropriate cause. Incidentally, if anyone would be willing to assist with promotion of this album through sharing contacts or spreading the word, please do get in touch. I’ve included the Press Release here, just in case you’re one of those people that loves to read press releases, as I don’t doubt for the slightest second that you are:
Ghosts Of Bush’ was created entirely using the natural acoustic sounds of Bush House, the iconic home for the past seven decades of the BBC World Service which will shortly be closing its doors for the last time. All of the sounds were captured in the small hours of the morning in empty offices, corridors, stairwells and other hidden corners by a Studio Manager working overnight. These recordings were then dubbed onto quarter-inch tape in the basement studio deep in the bowels of the South-East wing using two of the surviving reel-to-reel machines.
Adjusting the playback speed of the spools and ‘bouncing’ the recordings between the two tape machines lead to the discovery of a number of interesting phrases and sound textures which were then looped, layered and fashioned into rough compositions. Over time the tape would start to degrade and alter the nature of the sounds, while occasional echo was created by recording and playing various loops simultaneously, feeding the sound back into itself. The entire album was produced using these simple methods, and no other effects or studio trickery have been used. Thanks to the sonorous quality of Bush House’s Portland stone walls and high ceilings, the natural resonance of the space was all that was needed.
When talking of historic buildings it’s become something of a cliché to say ‘If these walls could speak…’ I like to think that on ‘Ghosts Of Bush’ we come close to hearing them sing!
I hope that this album not only captures the size and the grandeur of this now largely empty building, but also a sense of its history too. As well as being produced in a rapidly disintegrating studio using equipment that was decommissioned years ago, buried deep within the mix are call-signs or ‘idents’ from a number of the BBC’s Language services, many of which have also closed down in recent years. By working in this way I wanted to create a sense of poignancy in the gradual winding-down of Bush House’s facilities, the emptying of its spaces and the departure of its people, as well as commenting on the passing of time and the impermanence of all things.
This very personal project was created partly to mark the dying days of a bygone era, as a last hurrah for obsolete equipment and a studio that will soon fall silent forever. It’s the sound of many sleepless nights spent isolated in a labyrinthine basement surrounding by a crepuscular soundtrack of creaks and crackles. It’s an attempted homage to the work of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop who crafted the most incredible of sound-worlds from the most basic of sources. But mostly it’s my way of saying goodbye to a building that I and so many people have loved. A former hive of industry that now stands almost deserted. I really hope that on this album the listener gets a sense of all these things.
Robin The Fog, June 2012
The best feedback so far? A comment from one listener that I had earned my ‘Radiophonic Workshop Badge’! High praise indeed! So, there we have it. Six months work and finally it’s out there. Perhaps now I can at last get round to tidying my room?
Well, one step at a time…
Geeky post-script: As you can see, I’ve broken the album down into six tracks to make it more palatable, although really it’s supposed to be consumed as two separate sides of continuous music. For that very reason there will be a limited cassette run in that not-too-distant future, so keep your ears peeled if, like me, you hate the slight jump that occurs when skipping between tracks that are supposed to flow into each other. Indeed, if you have already downloaded a copy of the album yourself and are finding that very thing irksome, then get in touch and I’ll send you an additional copy of the album as two separate files. Or a cassette. Whichever you prefer.
After all that excitement last week involving my rapidly growing Norwegian fanbase, it’s time to hurry up and finally put this whole Bush House album to bed. It’s probably just as well that the project is drawing to a close as poor old Studio S6 is on it’s last legs. I’m the only one that goes down there now, and something else tends to fall off every time I pay a visit (I’m referring to the studio, of course). Anyway, here’s a tantalising glimpse from today’s ‘Ghosts Of Bush’ mastering session. Though I’m sad to see the studio go, it does cheer me slightly to think that these will most likely be the last sounds this old desk ever makes:
I know, I know. It’s only 35 seconds. But seriously, have you ever tried sitting still for that long? Plus my camera has a tendency to get upset if I make it do anything for longer than that. Anyway, here it is, the master tape! I think we could well be finished!
I’m sending this off to the manufacturers first thing Monday morning. I just hope they have a machine that will play it…
I know that a week or so ago I perhaps stretched the boundaries of plausibility and even the patience of my legions of admirers by suggesting that I might have been on the front page of The Wire, when in fact it was somewhat further inside the issue; but I maintain that this was hardly bending the truth, merely flicking it back a few pages, and that there really was no call for certain individuals to start throwing the F-WORD* about so liberally. Anyway, now the smoke has had several days to clear, I’m hoping it won’t affect the public reception of my latest absolute non-whopper. Last month I not only did (really, genuinely) appear in The Wire, I also briefly and even more genuinely appeared on the Norwegian equivalent of Radio 4! You could NOT make that up!
How is this possible? Well, it began as these things so often do with my hiding in a basement all afternoon. A few weeks ago I was down in my usual place in the bowels of Bush House tinkering with some loops (not, license-fee payers take note, at the expense of something I was actually supposed to be doing); when I was surprised to receive a visit from one Trygve Sørvaag, a freelance journalist and managing director of the London-based Scandinavian Press Agency. He was working on a piece about the World Service leaving Bush House for Norwegian programme ‘Ekko’, a two-hour daily show focusing on science, history and society; and to that end was being given a tour of the building’s hidden corners. Well, although you can probably hear in the following extract that I clearly wasn’t expecting visitors and hadn’t yet got round to memorising (or indeed writing) the press release, spooling up a few sounds for his approval was the work of a moment. Here’s how it went out:
I’m very proud indeed to have been featured in the programme, but entirely selfishly have included here just my own small part in a feature that was actually over twenty minutes long and proved a fascinating listen even if, like me, your language skills aren’t up to the job. Speaking of which, Trygve has kindly provided a translation for his voiceover, which I include below partly for clarification and partly to prove that at no point does he refer to me as ‘this idiot hiding downstairs who claimed he was in The Wire’:
This is the sound of another BBC employee saying goodbye to Bush House […] Studio Manager RW has recorded the natural sounds in the old building. A creaking door handle on 5th floor and the peculiar resonance in the marmot stone at 4am when the building is quiet. […] The recordings are then played back on old tape machines and repeated in various speeds. This is how a “sound man” [meaning sound engineer] says goodbye to Bush House.
Trygve tells me that this piece was commissioned by NRK (The Norwegian Broadcasting Cooperation) and that this edition of ‘Ekko’ was broadcast on their channel ‘P2‘ (roughly the equivalent of our own dear Radio 4 – perhaps we could even call it Radio Fjord – actually, no that’s rubbish) on 25th May 2012. If you’d like to hear the whole thing it was made available on iTunes as a free podcast, which should hopefully still be available by clicking here. But for now my huge thanks go out to Trygve for including me in his programme and I urge you to go and visit his website. Partly because the man has a list of credentials as long as your arm with over fifteen years working as a journalist, broadcaster and photographer for Norwegian Radio, Sky News TV and more; and partly because he’s looking for someone to help him re-design it!
Meanwhile, work on my Bush House project is now entering the final phase, which is just as well, as Bush House is entering a final phase of it’s own. In less than a month I’ll be leaving for the last time. Fortunately my beloved basement studio hasn’t fallen silent just yet, although I did come quite close to blowing the speakers late last Friday evening while working on this latest piece. It’s made using an ident from the opening of the BBC Cantonese Service’s weekly programme and all the sounds were created by running the Greenwich Time Signal through my faithful old tapeloop, which has probably just about travelled to the moon and back by now, but, like the studio, is still hanging in there:
I’m hoping to spend this week putting the finishing touches to the album, which is shaping up to be a limited edition gold(!) cassette plus the usual downloads. I’m also working with photographer and Lomography ace Hannah Brown who has taken some amazing photos for the project, including this one below which might well end up being the cover. We’re getting awfully close now. Let’s hope I can finish before the lights go out and won’t be forced to do any more creative subversion of the facts in order to do so.
Sorry about that stupid Fjord pun…