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The BBC Radiophonic Workshop will forever be defined by Delia Derbyshire’s electronic realisation of Ron Grainer’s theme tune for Doctor Who. so it should come as no surprise that a substantial amount of this first history of the corporation’s sonic laboratory deals with its contribution to the science fiction drama over 45 years. The workshop’s origins date back almost a decade before its creation in 1958, lying as much in the mischievously altered taped music and sound effects of anarchic radio comedy The Goon Show, as in the BBC’s reactions to musical developments elsewhere in Europe.

While the emergence of musique concrète and elektronische Musik in Paris and Cologne compelled the BBC, as the UK’s largest patron of new music, to look at its commissioning and programming policies, the growing weariness of listeners with realism in radio drama also forced a reconsideration of the function and form of the sounds that accompanied it. It was the success of Samuel Beckett’s first English-language radio play, All That Fall, in 1957, with its demand for an imaginative and impressionist soundscape, that prompted the setting up of the workshop the following year.

Hidden from view, never properly appreciated, and relegated to the status of a curious obligation, the workshop was perpetually vulnerable to internal BBC politicking and often relegated to creating theme tunes and jingles. Yet despite the BBC’s institutional ambivalence – a view not shared by Michael Tippett, who commissioned it in 1978 to create the striking artificial breathing sound for his fourth symphony, or the dance magazine Mixmag, which described the workshop two decades later as ‘the unsung hero of British electronica’ – it proved hugely influential in taking electronic sounds and music into the mainstream.

Louis Niebur, assistant professor of music at the university of Nevada, may linger a little too often and long on the internal workings of synthesisers, but he delves illuminatingly into a hitherto untold story to throw a deserved spotlight on the creative talents involved. a companion website offers useful access to a number of audio and video examples quoted in the book.

MICHAEL QUINN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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