light vessel automatic

skip to navigation

February 2007

the radiophonic workshop

February 24, 2007

Last week I watched an absolutely inspiring documentary on the unlikely topic of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

Set up as an experimental unit back in the days when the BBC had enough spare money to set up experimental units, the Radiophonic Workshop were providing BBC programmes with avant-garde electronic soundtracks years before the invention of the synthesiser.

I’d always imagined the Workshop to be staffed with comic-book stereotypical electronics boffins in white lab coats, but in actual fact most of the staff were experimental composers, with backgrounds in musique concrète and jazz, and the patience to piece together elaborate compositions produced entirely by manipulating and cutting up tape-recordings.

For someone with an interest in electronic music, it was inexpressibly exciting. These people, with only tape machines and basic oscillators, were making music that still — 40 or 50 years on — sounds futuristic, and far less dated than a lot of music from 10 years ago sounds nowadays.

It was also an interesting study in the ways that constraint often enhances creativity: at one point two former radiophonists complain that the day the workshop got its first synthesiser was the day the quality of their output began to decline — that up until that point they’d had only tape to play with, so they’d had to think about exactly what they were doing, whereas from that point on making electronic music began to be about faffing with a machine trying to find a sound you like.

Anyway, if you have any interest in electronic music, it is well worth a watch, and — luckily enough — it seems the programme can be downloaded here. (Thanks to Andrew for finding the link).

posted in the U.K.4 comments

john martyn & john smith

February 7, 2007

Last Saturday, I finally got to see my musical hero John Martyn at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm.

In my experience, out of every ten people, about nine have never heard of John Martyn and one thinks he’s just about the best thing ever. I don’t think I’ve never met anyone who knows his music who doesn’t think he’s pretty great. If you haven’t already, please acquaint yourself with his music at the first opportunity. As long as you have working ears and a human soul, you will probably like it.

In fact, never mind that. Listen to him right now, playing on TV in about 1973:


The years haven’t treated him so well — he’s lost a leg, his voice is now probably huskier and certainly more slurred than Tom Waits — but his singing voice is still achingly beautiful, and even despite some rather ill-advised and unfortunate saxophone-playing, the concert was almost unthinkably good.

Although I would have been happy just seeing John Martyn, the support act — John Smith — was a total bonus. I’d actually been quite wanting to see him since I came across his website last year, but was unprepared for the extent of his greatness. He played the whole set unaccompanied — just him and an acoustic guitar on a stage that seemed several sizes too large — but he was great, and his final song, Winter, was just surpassingly brilliant, and essentially unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. Today I found a video (below) of him on YouTube, and I watched it over and over until I had to leave the house. I can’t help but feel that he is a potential John Martyn of the future. Anyway, I’m planning to see him play at a smaller venue this coming Sunday, and hopefully get a copy of his CD too, so we shall see…

posted in the comments