Thursday, September 15, 2011

Like a Robot Farting

It's Speak Out With Your Geek Out week, a Net-wide movement intended to bolster representation of and positivity towards all forms of geekiness. A kind of "Reclaim the Information Superhighway", if you will.

I've signed up to this, and it turns out that as part of that - what, you mean I'm expected to make some sort of hard commitment here?! - I have to blog about some aspect of my geek interests.

As luck would have it, there's been a new episode of Doctor Who on New Zealand TV this very night - but no, that'd be too obvious, and besides I'm going to blog about it eventually anyway. So instead, dear reader, I'd like to talk to you about Whovian music. This is the story of me and music, a story that begins and continues even today with the incidental music of Doctor Who. Strange noises, startling confessions and an extremely geeky quantity of facts await your perusal below.

Before we start, I should just thank all the unscrupulous Youtube users who've made it possible for me to link to some audio examples below. Although the albums the tracks appeared on have been commercially unavailable for many a long year now, and the publishers of said albums aren't known for their litigiousness, readers shouldn't be too surprised if the clips at the other end of any of these links are taken down without warning.

My love of electronic music can be traced back to two albums, encountered pretty much simultaneously back in my school days - Revolutions by Jean-Michel Jarre, and Doctor Who - The Music. The discovery of Jarre I owe to that rarest of things, a school friend, but DW - The Music was something I found by accident in the library and borrowed on the basis of my familiarity with the books and TV show. (In fact, it's probable that the TV show itself sowed the first seeds of electronica in my mind.) The impact of these albums on me can't be overstated. They came at a time when I knew nothing about music, when the only cassette tape I owned was The Very Best of Elton John, an album I'd bought solely because my peers owned music and seemed to expect me to, and Elton John was an artist I knew I'd heard on the radio. I was fifteen years old.

The history of incidental music on Doctor Who can be divided into five broad periods.

During the 1960s, the programme makers relied heavily on library music, with the occasional commission - Tristram Cary's score for The Daleks (1964), with its jarring metallic shrieks, is the standout among the commissioned scores. The choice of library music varied depending on the requirements of the story - historicals got straightforward stuff played on conventional instruments, action-heavy monster stories tended to get Martin Slavin and Norman Ramin's Space Adventure, and stories set off-world got experimental music. Really experimental music. These were the days when the first Moog synthesizers were just coming onto the market, and avant garde musicians were more accustomed to playing with musique concrete, tape loops and found sound. Library selections used on DW ranged from the electro-percussive work of Eric Siday to the glass tube stylings of Les Structures Sonores. Most of this material still exists today.

Barring a very few commissions from other artists, the 1970s belonged to Dudley Simpson, a prolific TV composer who typically worked with session groups of four or five musicians. At first Simpson worked closely with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop - who provided DW's theme tune and sound effects, and of whom we shall shortly hear a lot more - making heavy use of their resources to electronically treat his compositions. However, the arrangement didn't last and Simpson was soon producing much more conventional TV scores for the show - ordinary, some might say. Even so he's still probably the most popular incidental score composer among Who fans. He's the Murray Gold of his day, if you like. (I should disclose at this point that neither Simpson nor Gold, as wonderful as they both are, is "my" DW composer.) Sadly, very little of Simpson's DW music was kept after transmission.

From the tail end of 1980 to 1985, all the incidental music for DW was produced in-house by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. This was a revolutionary (not to mention cost-cutting) move by '80s Who producer John Nathan-Turner and a bold departure for the Workshop. Their work on the theme tunes for DW and a number of other BBC programmes proved they could produce music as well as sound effects, and in fact a couple of earlier stories - 1968's The Wheel in Space and 1972's The Sea Devils - had been scored entirely by the Workshop, but this was the first time they had been asked to score an entire TV series (just beating out the 1981 TV version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy). Scoring DW essentially became a full-time job for the Workshop for five years. Thanks to the meticulous archiving of the Workshop's contents after its closure in 1998, all of these scores exist.

By 1986 commercial synthesizers were widespread and relatively inexpensive, and so were freelance electronic composers. Consequently, when DW returned from an 18-month enforced holiday with a reduced budget, John Nathan-Turner found it more cost effective to start commissioning incidental scores from outside the BBC again. The freelance composers employed from 1986 until the original series' cancellation in 1989 tended to keep hold of their work, and only one score from this period - the score for Mindwarp (1986), composed by Richard Hartley, who was also responsible for arranging the music for the latest stage tour of The Rocky Horror Show - is lost.

And then we have the modern era of DW, with John Debney's fully orchestral score for the TV Movie (1996) setting the tone for Murray Gold's work on the series (2005 onwards). But this isn't their story.

This is the story of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, you see. DW - The Music was their album. It was originally released in 1983, the year of DW's 20th anniversary, to both showcase the Workshop's efforts and celebrate the show itself. A second album followed in 1985, although I didn't find out about that one until a lot later. The first album mostly consisted of highlights from 1980 to early 1983, plus a couple of earlier pieces. It was a mixture of sound cues and effects taken pretty much straight from the soundtracks (albeit tidied up and presented in shiny stereo), and suites of music arranged from the original scores of certain stories. The suites made the greatest impact on me; a five-minute composition has a much better chance of working as a coherent, sustained bit of music than a one-minute cue. The Workshop seem to have felt the same way, and DW - The Music II was all suites.

Side one of DW - The Music ended with Peter Howell's suite from The Leisure Hive (1980). It's a little bit Holst's Mars, a little bit Ravel's Bolero, a spot of synth noodling in the middle - it's a fine piece of electronica. This was and is my favourite track of the whole album, which given the personal significance of the album to me makes it an extremely influential piece of music as far as I'm concerned. Peter Howell contributed the greatest number of radiophonic scores to DW - eight and three quarters (and a bit), and it's a long story - as well as arranging the theme tune for the first half of the '80s, and for my money he's the most versatile and most listenable of the radiophonic composers.

At either end of the album were suites of music by Malcolm Clarke - The Sea Devils (1972) and Earthshock (1982). The Sea Devils score was the result of Clarke's experimentation with the Workshop's brand spanking new EMS Synthi 100 analogue synthesizer, and it's been variously described as the sound of Clarke fighting with the machine, a nervous breakdown in musical form, and a number of things less printable. Here's another one to add to the pile: it's a wall of noise, and it's collapsing on your head. Believe it or not, I actually used to drift off to sleep to this one. If the Leisure Hive suite marks the start of my relationship with melodic electronica, the Sea Devils score must mark the start of my fondness for the sort of music that my best man once described (admiringly, mind you - he likes that kind of thing too) as "the sound of a robot farting". The Earthshock music is far more regimented, which is fitting for a Cyberman story. Clarke did well to stuff this piece with metallic hammering sounds.

Also present was Delia Derbyshire's original arrangement of the famous theme tune, and I can't not mention Delia in a blog post about the Workshop. If producer Verity Lambert was the Iron Lady of DW, Dame Delia/Darth Derbyshire was the Queen of Air and Darkness, her realisation of Ron Grainer's composition the beating heart of the show captured in a sampled bass guitar string and a dozen oscillators. A entire generation of British electronic artists points to her as an influence. She, fellow Workshopper Brian Hodgson and another musician by the name of David Vorhaus went on to produce the landmark electronic album An Electric Storm, which comes across more as an all-out psychic assault than a slice of synthesizer psychedelia, and is one of the most unsettling things your humble blogger has ever listened to.

More DW music has been released over the years, officially and unofficially. Paddy Kingsland, strangely absent from both DW - The Music albums and the composer behind the Hitchhiker's TV series score, apparently touted tapes of his scores from Tom Baker's last story and Peter Davison's first story at DW conventions. Keff McCulloch, the arranger of the 1987-89 version of the theme tune and scorer of fully half of Sylvester McCoy's stories, released a selection of his work alongside a full collection of DW theme arrangements in association with the Workshop to mark the show's 25th anniversary. Mark Ayres, who ultimately compiled the Workshop's archive after its demise, released all three of his freelance DW soundtracks in full on CD.

And now we have the DVDs. Many of these include the option of listening to the incidental music in isolation, and the wonders of modern technology make it possible for yours truly to record that music onto the computer desktop and... arrange it into five-minute suites. This is one of the large projects I've set myself, because all that free time was just cluttering up my evenings and weekends - to compose suites in the manner of DW - The Music for as many of the DW scores or parts thereof as I can lay hold of. Strictly for personal use, you understand.

1 comment:

Andy said...

Serendipitously, as I started reading this an interview came on the radio where they were talking about the influence of the Radiophonic Workshop! Like you, I used to fall asleep to the strains of this album, though mine was the CD version.