Humans love a technical problem. And if it’s to do with sound then even better. But our modern malaise suggests that music has gotten out of control. We have too much music, and not enough time to enjoy or make even sense of it.
On a crisp autumn Sunday by the River Thames in a long room at the Southbank Centre, numerous men and several fanatical women had gathered to discuss this notion to the backdrop of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop being reconvened to make amends to this mess.
Whilst in 1958 the original crack unit of sound generators were BBC staffers such as Desmond Briscoe and Daphne Oram, in 2012 it is headed up by Matthew Hebert, a man famed for sampling politicised sound sources and most recently being typecast by making an album from a pig.
“Basically there’s too much music! We have to stop immediately,” heralds Herbert, “The BBC’s as much to blame as anyone else but we need to put context back into music.”
This most modern of mavericks has assembled a team of six other sonic adventurers to attempt to take music to a higher place. Whereas the old workshop was two rooms in Maida Vale, London, full of massive tape machines and analogue mixing desks, The New Radiophonic Workshop is a virtual space and has its crosshairs hovering on the nebulous task of adjusting how music is perceived, how society uses sounds for its inhabitants’ purposes whilst cheekily delivering (Trojan Horse style) the digital tools for our next chapter in music development.
This team consists of one of his musical protégés Micachu, plus Yann Seznec who invents his own instruments (like making music from falling mushroom spores), to theatre director Lyndsey Turner, classical composer Max de Wardener, broadcast technologist Tony Churnside and onto Patrick Bergel, a man whose mutation of naturalistic systems into music platforms Herbert labels “the next Radiohead”.
But re-contextualising music on the scale they intend is a huge task to tackle. As we chase our collective tails through blithe formats, fidelities, and file extensions, the Workshop are taking a rather large step back to try and re-situate music in broader terms: “We want to approach institutions like TFL to talk to them about tube stations and how they sound,” continues Herbert. “We are electronically talked at constantly: ‘Go here’, ‘Mind that’, ‘Stand back’. So I want to speak to Transport For London to ask them if this is the most effective and harmonious way of getting their information across.”
In continuation with this dialogue the Workshop want to tackle car manufacturers about how their cars sound and develop the wider concept of our institutions being deployed as musical instruments for the benefit of us, the cogs of society: “We want to challenge how these institutions interact with each other and how they could take on the life of an orchestra. For example the beeps of a train door could combine BETTER with the bleeps from the traffic lights. There’s just a complete lack of attention given to our audio environment. We need to think how we can create harmony instead of blasting out our own stuff and hoping it might stick.”
Words: Matthew Bennett
Artwork: Josh Gurrie
This is an excerpt from the December 2012 issue of Clash magazine. Find out more about the issue.