‘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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‘A Very Long Shadow’ – Roger Limb

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Continuing with my interviews from the alumni of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, we move on to genius composer Roger Limb. Part of what I suppose we could call the department’s ‘second wave’, he joined the workshop at the dawn of it’s synthesiser era in 1973 and worked as one of its principal producers and composers for over two decades, creating a huge body of signature tunes for television and radio drama that will almost certainly be familiar to anyone growing up in the UK over the past thirty years. Perhaps best known for his substantial contributions to Doctor Who during the eighties, he also recorded and produced many of the songs for the cult BBC Schools programme Look And Read, including the famous ‘Magic E’ song that became the subject of much rather tiresome postmodern chuckling in subsequent years:

A respected pop and jazz musician outside of the workshop, Limb has now rejoined his friends and former colleagues as part of a revamped Radiophonic Workshop band and will be touring the festival circuit with them over the summer. This interview took place during a rather brief interval in a long day of discussions and performances at Chichester University. Despite being pushed for time, however, Roger’s additional years as a voiceover artist and continuity announcer for the BBC meant that he had no trouble putting his points across quickly and succinctly!

RL:  I think the Radiophonic Workshop has a sort of legacy, [because] even though it closed down 15 years ago, there’s a whole generation of people for whom the phrase ‘Radiophonic Workshop’ has some sort of mystical quality. When they were kids, perhaps they saw the name on the screen. Or they heard the back announcement on radio [and thought] “… Radiophonic Workshop – what does it mean, who are these radiophonic workmen, what  do they  do , where do these strange uncanny sounds and strange music come from, what is going on there?” So I think a lot of people remember that rather mysterious atmosphere, and [had] questions about it that were never properly answered, questions that are still hanging in the air today.

Can you tell us something about the equipment and techniques used by the workshop?

When the Radiophonic Workshop first began producing music there was a lot of very strange and rudimentary techniques [involved].  The whole idea of tape manipulation – you get a piece of sound on a tape and you can do strange things to it: play it slower, play it backwards, damage the tape slightly, put unearthly echo on it… And [so] a lot of the early radiophonic music that came from the workshop was tape that had been manipulated.  Later on there was quite a big change in the early 1970s when synthesisers became more and more used and the old tape cutting techniques went out of fashion. So for the last thirty years the signature sound of the workshop has been the synthesiser. But that doesn’t mean to say it’s [become] limited because the whole world of synthesisers, the whole world of sequencing and sampling has meant an enormous change and development in the techniques available for people who were doing electronic, radiophonic music.

With that in mind, I’m wondering what your thoughts are on modern electronic music, about how your influence has permeated down to the current generation?

I think there’s no doubt at all that the radiophonic workshop cast a very long shadow.  Techniques have changed drastically in the last ten, twenty years and now it’s possible for people at home with home studios, even on their cell-phones, to create and play radiophonic music through wonderful speaker arrays and things such as that.  There’s a huge market and a huge output of Radiophonic electronic music now. I don’t know how on earth [to keep track of it], it’s like the old question of loads and loads of people talking but nobody listening!  I listen to as much of it as I can and from time to time I hear something that’s quite arresting, something that obviously a person ha put a lot of thought and ingenuity into.  And that’s really quite interesting, but the problem is there is so much to listen to that it’s quite often just a happy chance if you happen to hear something [significant]. But I keep listening!

As a member of twenty years standing, you must have seen quite a lot of change at the workshop?

When I arrived there were about five or six studios in which each individual member of the workshop would set up their own little studio according to the way they wanted things, whether it was tape machines, synthesisers, or mixing desks.  As time went on the techniques became more and more advanced and we had a little more money to spend on for example multi-track tape machines. And then another big change happened in the 1980s and that was the arrival of sequencing programmes on computers. Quite rudimentary to start with but developing in such a way that it was a joy to use, particularly for incidental music for drama when you could measure the action that was given to you on the tape or the film and express it exactly onto a sequence on a computer and [then] write the music around it. It was a wonderful tool to use.

 Talking to you and to Paddy Kingsland earlier, the impression that I get is that there is a lot of excitement in the current line-up about modern developments in music technology, rather than simply using the tried and tested methods you would have used in the workshop at the time.

I think there is, but [out of all of us] I’m probably the most of an old curmudgeon, because quite apart form doing these gigs with the RW -we’re performing live quite regularly- I go out and do a lot of  live jazz gigs, playing piano or double bass, playing conventional music and trying to do it in an unconventional or original sort of way. So when I hear about these [modern] techniques they talk about, recording and finding good samples from the recordings they do with the people who want to come and work with us, I was a little bit wary at first , I thought ‘hmm, this doesn’t sound like much fun to me’. But I’ve had a couple of goes at it and I must say that it’s growing on me and I’m getting more and more involved in using the techniques that have been prescribed.  And I think a lot of positive stuff is coming out of it.

And finally, can you tell us anything about the new album?

There is an album due out and it’s going to be out in a matter of months, perhaps. We’re putting some final touches to it next month, in May. It will be called ‘Electricity’, rather appropriately.  And there will be a lot of new stuff on it, but perhaps we will revisit one or two old tracks as well. 

Many thanks to Roger Limb, and you can catch the reformed Radiophonic Workshop on tour over the coming months with further details to follow. In the meantime my Radiophonic Workshop reunion package for BBC World Service and Paddy Kingsland interview are both still available on this website for your perusal. Dick Mills will be up next, but for now let’s give the last word to Roger Limb, and another collaboration with the great Derrick Griffiths that will not only be instantly familiar to many generations of former children (indeed I can recall my entire primary school class singing it), but is quite likely to stick in your head all day. Stick. Stick-ing. Build yourself a word!