A Sonic Memorial to a Stable Door.Posted: September 13, 2012
Well, yesterday certainly proved interesting. I came within sniffing distance of meeting Justin Bieber (allegedly), was very excited to discover my first ever 14″ record (though I’ve absolutely no idea what I’m going to play it on) and had a discussion about how to make bones sound more Scottish (long story).
But I think perhaps the strangest occurrence was this little bombshell at 7.45 in the morning:
Yes, it was the news that the Radiophonic Workshop is being relaunched, with celebrated composer, producer and found-sound artist Matthew Herbert at the helm. To commemorate this occasion he’s been commissioned by Radio 4 to create a ‘sonic memorial’ to the recently abandoned World Service building, Bush House. To commemorate this occasion he’s been commissioned by Radio 4 to create a ‘sonic memorial’ to the recently… No, I’m not repeating myself and you haven’t read that bit twice. I just wanted you, the reader, to experience the distinct tang of deja-vu that’s been hanging in the air above Fog Mansions over the last twenty-four hours. Does the phrase ‘a sonic portrait to Bush House’ remind you of anything?
In the parlance of early-80s Hip-Hop, Matthew Herbert has ‘bitten my style’. There are now two sonic eulogies to the old World Serivce HQ, mine and his. I must confess to having had mixed feelings about this at first. It wasn’t totally out of the blue, I had a tip-off from a Today insider a week ago regarding the commissioning of Mr. Herbert, a step I like to think they were subtlety influenced into taking by all the ‘Ghosts Of Bush’ material I was emailing them, which at the time received a number of interested replies and the promise of further action. Or perhaps it was the airplay I received on Radio 4’s Broadcasting House or indeed Stuart Maconie and Gideon Coe on 6 Music? Either way, further action has indeed been taken. Unfortunately my presence was not deemed necessary.
What does his tribute sound like? Well, apparently Matthew spent a recent hour in the now-abandoned Bush House and had a chance to ‘play with the equipment we’ve used to make programmes’ (perhaps the very same equipment I was playing with six months earlier). Naturally, the results are a stirring and evocative listen, just like pretty much everything else he’s made over his distinguished musical career. I’m also grateful to presenter Nicola Stanbridge who, upon realising a sonic portrait of the building already existed, made sure that Matthew got to hear ‘Ghosts Of Bush’ for himself and recorded his thoughts about it over an extract from ‘The Resonating Stairwell’. It’s clear that an oversight had been made and the fact that steps that were taken to make things right certainly helped to cheer me a little. Mind you, quite a few others were really unexpectedly cross about it all. Here’s one of the more strongly-worded comments I came across this afternoon on a well-known networking site:
I was so sad and outraged to hear about this new commission. [This] is a rip off of Robin The Fog’s wonderful, unique and original idea. I don’t understand why BBC has to spend money on recreating something that has already been done by someone who didn’t do it for money or to further his career. So instead of appreciating his efforts, they pay someone else to copy his work. Well done Beeb. You’ve done us all proud.
I’m not saying I concur with this statement. But the fact that someone inside Bush House was working on a special project to commemorate that much-loved building (whilst working there during it’s closing months) and then putting it at the disposal of the BBC (sending promotional material to producers and editors all over the coroporation, including several prominent members of the Today team), while being featured on the website, the BBC magazine Ariel, and a number of broadcasts (all of this at the actual time of the building’s closing); only for them to wait a couple of months and then draft in someone from outside to create a near-identical project seems, well, rather sloppy.
As for the new incarnation of the Radiophonic Workshop (which will be largely online, according to the promotional bumph that I’ve been linked to twenty times already by various well-wishers), Matthew has some interesting ideas about the direction it will take. You can read his thoughts in more detail here, but there’s one paragraph in particular that caught my eye:
The closure of Bush House also draws a line under what one aspect of the BBC used to be about: warrens of small rooms and big lumps of equipment hidden from the public. The new HQ on Portland Place is the opposite of Bush House, open and visible with technology taking up a much smaller footprint. In its original incarnation the Radiophonic Workshop was certainly highly representative of this first description. In its new location, as part of the virtual resource of The Space, the current iteration of the Radiophonic Workshop is seeking to acknowledge and document this shift in broadcasting from an impervious, imperious presence to a more democratic, fluid and open system.
Hmm. Will having the traditional workshop image of secret dark rooms and tinkering boffins superseded by a new and completely democratic approach where everything is visible to everyone else at all times produce better or more interesting results? Does it even matter if in the past the ‘lumps of equipment’ were ‘hidden from the public’? It never seemed to before. And there are those who have described the ‘new and open’ Broadcasting House as ‘The Panopticon furnished by Habitat’.
Plus we seem to be forgetting that the Radiophonic Workshop was very much a production line, who’s remit was producing purely functional sound that was intended to fit a set of exact specifications. Part of it’s magic for me was just what they managed to achieve while working within such a strict set of parameters. And with most of us now carrying more technology in our pockets than the workshop would have had access to, certainly in it’s earliest (and to my mind most interesting) years; how will the new workshop distinguish itself in a world where anyone can conjour their own soundworlds just by tapping a few keys on their smartphone? Interesting times ahead, no doubt about it.
Lastly, and most importantly, I do NOT want you for one minute to think that any of this is a snipe at Matthew Herbert, who I am reliably informed is a thoroughly decent chap and whose work I have been a huge fan of for years – this piece is no exception. I haven’t heard from him or anyone else at the BBC as of yet, they’re more than welcome to get in touch. I promise I’m not going to challenge him to a sonic duel or anything. Mind you, I bet it would make good radio. Perhaps the Today programme would like to commission it? Or just take the idea and give it to someone else? Either works.
Vinyl out next week, after long and rather unacceptable delays. Sorry for the wait.
Oh, and one last thing, tonight (Thurs 13th) I’ll be playing and talking about some of my favourite Radiophonic works at The Invisible Picture Palace in Wapping as part of their regular series of ‘Listening Events’. I’ll be appearing in my capacity as ‘The BBC’s Resident Hauntologist’, a title bestowed upon me yesterday by one Daniel Hamilton that I shall do my utmost to live up to!
A spin-off project of the magnificent In The Dark and based in a greenhouse in the grounds of the old Pumping Station, I’ll be kicking off around 19.30 by playing one of the eeriest sounds I personally have ever heard. You’re most welcome to join me although it is a greenhouse, so space will be limited. Further details here. And I promise I won’t be going on about any of the above, provided no-one mentions it. I’ll keep mum if you will. Agreed?