‘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.

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