A Sound British Adventure, Radio 4, Tuesday
I'm just going to tinker with my sonic screwdriver …
Sunday 19 August 2012
As with so much in life, the British and the French had startlingly different approaches to the early days of electronic music. Over in Paris 60 years ago, the national broadcaster embraced the musique concrète of Pierre Schaeffer and his peers with premises, money and an immensely grand department name. Here in the UK, as A Sound British Adventure made clear, the only places to hear comparable bleeps and glurps were the sheds of demobbed chaps who had grown fond of the weird noises from their radio sets during the war.
Chaps such as Desmond Leslie, a former Spitfire pilot and early UFO expert. (He also punched Bernard Levin on live television, but that's another story.) And Tristram Carey, a former Navy man, whose years of monkeying about with military surplus kit finally paid off when he became, in 1955, the first man commissioned by the BBC to produce a piece of original electronic music, to accompany a radio play (about the atomic bombing of Japan).
And, as we heard, what an eerie soundtrack it still is. Yet as narrator Stewart Lee reminded us in this diverting dip into the archives, the BBC – and its orchestras – were wary of these pioneers. Daphne Oram and Desmond Briscoe established the BBC Radiophonic Workshop rather in spite of their employers. Doctor Who and its famous theme tune notwithstanding, some of the most memorable snatches of electronic music were used by advertisers on ITV to sell washing machines (wonder music for a wonder device!).
But an avant-garde is nothing without a bitch-fest, and some of the spiciest put-downs came from a prime mover of the movement. Peter Zinovieff was the British inventor who devised the VCS3 synthesizer that Pink Floyd used to swirly effect on Dark Side of the Moon. Oram, he told us impishly in a 40-year-old recording, he found "rather dull". He was "much more interested in Stockhausen coming round than Paul McCartney – [who] came for lunch a couple of times". It's safe to say, I think, that Zinovieff hasn't got Crazy Frog for his mobile ring tone.
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