An absolutely classic Near Mint show on Resonance 104.4FMthis week, featuring a trip through the record box of voracious digger Tom Central. Resident DJ of long-running club night Soundcrash, one half of the Shapes Of Rhythm duo and the man behind the rather super Keep Up! label, his collection is literally groaning with killer library, Bollywood and psychedelic jams from years spent scouring record shops across the globe for the rarest and strangest vinyl – that is now threatening to take over his house. We’re very happy he let us have a rummage – but also extremely jealous. Have a listen and you will be too!
Very pleased to announce that two of my favourite organisations Resonance FM and In The Dark Radio are coming together once again to present a special evening at The Social in Little Portland Street this coming Monday.
The Resonance team will be presenting a hand-picked selection of curiosities from it’s vast (and conspicuously well-maintained!!) archive and The Resonance Radio Orchestra will be performing a new work written by the station’s commander-in-chief Ed Baxter. And I’ll be providing a DJ set of Radiophonic pop, BBC Sound Effects and outer space songs in-between. It’s promises to be quite an affair. Tickets available here. Come on down – what else is going to be as good on a Monday night in November, quite frankly?
‘Robin is the creator of one of ITD’s all-time favourite shorts “Train-Tracker” and long-time engineer for Jonny Trunk’s OST Show on Resonance FM and one half of the reel-to-reel tape loop duo Howlround’, advises the event’s web-page. More recently, I also gave a talk on Radiophonics a year or two ago at their marvellous Invisible Picture Palace, a listening centre that was installed temporarily in a greenhouse in the grounds of the old Power Station at Wapping, a marvellous gallery and art-space that has since been forced to join the ranks of similar London cultural spaces in making way for yet more luxury apartments. Oh, London, can you no longer even toss the arts community a greenhouse?
Anyway, I’m very much looking forward to hanging out with my In The Dark and Resonance friends once again. And while I’m not one to rake over past glories (not yet, anyway), I thought I’d dig that piece out one last time. I figured, what the hell, there’s probably intelligent life on a distant planet that I haven’t played it to yet!
Pleased as punch to be part of this stellar line-up celebrating the launch of Buried Treasure’s gorgeous new 19-track concept compilation of modern day Radiophonia. The album (available here) is available now on CD for a mere SIX POUNDS and tickets to the launch party (available here) for include a complimentary download. I’m told both are selling fast, so don’t sleep on this one! Please enjoy this rather super trailer with further atmospheric details:
Well, what an adventure I had this week! Huge thanks to the Strøm Festival and to everyone who came down to the sold-out show at Cisternerne on Monday night to witness performances by myself and Logos. It was an honour to play in such an unique space with an incredible natural acoustic, so I made sure I stepped up to the occasion with a set of brand new material and the longest loops I’ve ever made, running for several meters across the space and balanced precariously above the permanently wet and grimy floor. They certainly appeared to impress the crowd:
I realise it is customary at this point for me to include an audio extract from the performance via my Soundcloud Page, but on this occasion I regret to say that I’m unable to do so – the performance was deliberately tailored to play to the Cisternerne’s seventeen second reverb and so a simple ‘output recording’ would be missing half of the experience. I believe that there was some filming and recording taking place, so perhaps that will surface at some point, but for the moment those of you who couldn’t get a ticket will just have to take my word that it was an amazing experience. Plus I’m hoping that I will be allowed to give this historic structure the full ‘album treatment’ some time next year, a proposition that Strøm top-brass appear to be intrigued by, so all is not lost. Until such times, please enjoy these photos by Rasmus Kongsgaard together with some snappy sound-bites derived from running the article they came from through some slightly ropey online translation software:
Although cisterns are worth a visit in itself, it is electronic music of the most radical and uncompromising kind that is in the centre at tonight Power-event.
There is no anywhere other than exactly here that these works may be noticed in this way. There’s nowhere else you can stand underground and fall in spell over a flickering candle while vaulting around you is echoing with issue noise from another world.
Distorted locomotive whistle, deep roar that could evoke an imam fair and elongated, umelodiøse soundscapes instantly puts the listener in a state of alluring scary. For although it is extremely difficult to get hold of the sonic bursts that puts both eardrums and stalactites in swings, and most of all sounds like the soundtrack to a dystopian sci-fi nightmare, it’s impossible not to be drawn into .
The following afternoon I was performing my secondary role at the festival of leading a workshop on field recording and composition using some of the basic principles of musique concréte, as part of Strøm’s summer school programme open to students across Europe and beyond. This took place on a converted dredging ship by the docks, which made for a terrifically fertile environment for our class of 36 enthusiastic students to explore. Before long groups of people were scattered all around this waterside complex, looking for things to rub, hit and scrape. It was incredibly gratifying to observe these discoveries and to have such an attentive class, many of whom seemed to have a natural ear for spotting sounds ripe for manipulation – the small group I was leading found a very tasty drainpipe and nearly gave themselves permanent hearing damage in the process!
The plan had been for each small group to submit their best material to be dubbed onto quarter-inch tape and then for all the recordings to be appraised together as a class and worked into some sort of composition; while outlining some of the techniques that magnetic tape puts at one’s disposal. Unfortunately my quartet of reel-to-reels were feeling rather uncooperative that afternoon – perhaps still sore at spending the preceding evening in what was to all intents and purposes a dungeon – and so refused to put anything at anyone’s disposal what-so-ever. Thankfully I was still able to demonstrate some basic tape loop construction, though the bulk of the composition was demonstrated on my trusty-though-less-interesting laptop – did the job, just wasn’t as much of an immersive experience.
However, feeling that this itch hadn’t quite been scratched, I pulled out their recordings again when I arrived back at my studio last night and knocked the above short piece together. Hopefully it will retrospectively offer the students a clearer idea of the things we were discussing and provide some much-needed closure for me!
Before I forget, extra special thanks must go to Jim Slade (and family!), Pernille Krogmog and Allan Hansen for making it all happen, to co-performer and fellow-junglist Logos and of course to Laura Yawira Scheffer for being a shining beacon – quite literally as it was very hard to de-rig in the pitch darkness of the Cisternerne and her smartphone had a torch. Now I really must have a serious word with those naughty machines Daphne and Delia. I’m certainly not taking them on tour with William Basinski if they’re going to misbehave like this!
Oh, did I mention Howlround were going on tour with William Basinski? I did? Well, expect me to continue harping on about it for a while yet…
Very pleased to announce the launch today of Radiophrenia, an art radio station broadcasting live on 87.9FM for one week only (13th-19th April) to Glasgow and the surrounding areas, also streaming worldwide via Radiophrenia.scot. Curated by Mark Vernon and Barry Burns and with a programme of several hundred exclusive and original radiophonic works, including contributions from Octopus Collective alumni John Hall and Felix Kubin, Jez Butler, The Resonance Radio Orchestra and many, many more. My own submissions include another collaboration with the brilliant Leila Peacock and a brand new tape-composition using a recording of a New Broadcasting House microphone with a squeaking cradle. You’ll have to tune in to hear them in full of course, but magnanimous fellow that I am, I’ve included a sneak preview:
The schedule can be perused here and you can also follow the latest updates on Twitter. I’m predicting that I shall be listening to this a lot over the coming days, partly owing the relentlessly high-calibre of people involved, but also to attain some respite from heroically supervising the packing of thousands of records into boxes. But that’s for another time…
Another recent collaboration that I can finally reveal is Michael Garrad‘s entry to the Kings College Creative Responses to Modernism competition, a dramatized extract from Samuel Beckett’s 1961 novel How It Is. Barry Ward provides the voice and I provide the soundtrack. The results are as relentless and visceral as anything I’ve been involved with to date, and it’s about as intense and bleakly thrilling (or thrillingly bleak) as anything the great man ever wrote.
This recording is interested modernism’s concept of making it new and conversely how outmoded techniques can evoke the futuristic and etherial. A squeaking drawer is the source for the electronic sound, recorded and manipulated on ancient quarter-inch tape machines, extracting hidden sound. The reading is monotone, breathless and the digital recording eliminates dynamic with harsh sibilance, distortion and extreme compression.
I can’t claim to be much of a Beckett scholar, though from my own perspective he made a huge contribution to radiophonic drama with works such as pioneering radio play All The Fall in 1957. It’s said that he was hugely influenced by the creative possibilities of then-nascent reel-to-reel technology, a fascination that manifests itself most obviously in works such as the quietly horrific Krapp’s Last Tape. And on a more personal note, I have a print of the Beckett quote ‘Fail again, fail better’ blu-tacked to the wall of my studio next to the mixing desk. It’s been a constant source of solace, as anyone who invests their career and general happiness in the functioning of a number of broken down and erratic tape machines will be able to readily imagine. Hand-painted by Sarah Tanat Jones as a reward to donors to her recent Kickstarter campaign, it’s a quote I first read on the back of a Peanuts calendar, of all things, a surprisingly deep nugget of wisdom compared to the previous day’s entry – ‘take snacks on long road trips to avoid having to buy them’.
In the selection from How It Is, the narrator, static in an abstract land of mud, has a lucid moment, reminiscing of ‘life above’ with his wife, whose death torments him. The piece crosses futures and pasts, warmth and harshness, and in its form exists out of body, place and time.
It’s another rather hurried post from me, unfortunately, as I must return to my frantic box-related activities. But hopefully these two and the promise of many Glaswegian radiophonic delights for the week ahead will keep you sated until THIS happens:
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 its 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 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:
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, a complete overview of Dick Mills’ credited and uncredited work would be far 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’ original run from 1972 onwards, the best part of two decades. The BBC Records Special I produced in 2012 for Jonny Trunk’s OST show is a good place to start, 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 need a bath now…