Spaceship UK Essay

Spaceship UK

The British Space Programme as Musical Exploration – The Untold Story

Breathing Space

During the latter part of 1958, work being carried out on the foundations of a new office block in Knightsbridge leads to the discovery of an alien spacecraft buried deep inside the London clay where it has lain hidden for over five million years. Although little now remains of its propulsion system or controls, the hull itself shows no signs of corrosion – in fact, it seems to be alive in some way. An attempt to drill through the bulkhead produces unearthly sounds never heard before by the human ear. Nigel Kneale’s script for the BBC’s television serial Quatermass and the Pit refers to a ‘wailing screech’ to which is added ‘a deep thudding vibration’ that grows in intensity, filling the entire excavation site. Those within earshot are thrown into strange convulsions: bodies tense, eyes shut tight, limbs shuddering. Only when the drilling stops do the strange sounds subside.

Originally screened from the end of December 1958 through the first few weeks of 1959, Quatermass and the Pit is very much an echo of its times. The third adventure to feature British rocket scientist Bernard Quatermass, it manages to speak to a growing audience of viewers already becoming uncomfortably familiar with the accelerating pace of modern change. In October 1957, the Soviet Union surprised the entire world by announcing that they had successfully launched Sputnik I, the first manmade satellite, into orbit around the Earth. Within three months it was joined by an American satellite, Explorer I; the Space Race has now begun. Tracking their remote bleeping from its location in the Cheshire countryside is the Jodrell Bank Experimental Station with its giant Lovell Telescope, which has been studying cosmic rays since the summer of 1957. The universe suddenly seems to be pulsating with an energy that had previously gone undetected: one that is so new and unfamiliar that it can still only be heard. Not surprising then that the alien spacecraft in Quatermass and the Pit should first exert its influence through the medium of unearthly sounds, or that the newly-formed BBC Radiophonic Workshop should be given the task of making them. Established, according to the official press release, to produce ‘a new sound – suggestive of emotion, sensation, mood rather than the literal moaning of wind or the opening of a door’, the unit has only been in operation since May 1958. Quatermass and the Pit is consequently one of the first major television series to make a prominent feature of these ‘suggestive’ sounds. To produce them, Radiophonic Workshop cofounder Desmond Briscoe, assisted by Dick Mills, utilizes one of the most significant developments in sound technology to emerge since the end of the Second World War: the commercial tape recorder.

Magnetic tape has already played an important part in early experiments to create ‘musique concrète’ through the manipulation of raw sound: most recently the composer Edgard Varèse has used a whole battery of them to compose his groundbreaking Poème électronique, currently wowing visitors to the Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. A new type of music has begun to be registered upon magnetic tape: one that cannot be contained in the traditional concert hall but requires instead equally new spaces and new media to be appreciated fully. Also present at Expo ’58 is the Radiophonic Workshop’s other founder, Daphne Oram, sent by the BBC to take part in an international symposium on experimental music, where she encounters the works and ideas of Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, Luc Ferrari and Pierre Schaeffer. What will be later described by Desmond Briscoe as the ‘great electronic churnings and throbbings’ that reverberate through Quatermass and the Pit are the direct result of the experimental techniques made possible by magnetic tape.

“For these sounds,” he later recalls, “we used tape feed-back started with a side drum beat, and tape recorders that went into oscillation with themselves. We also connected and disconnected amplifiers to make great splats of sound. Finally, we transferred all the sounds that we made onto discs to play in the television studio.”

The process Briscoe describes here is one in which the production of sound becomes wired into itself. Electric and acoustic pulses are simultaneously recorded and then played back over themselves; the resultant repetitions mutate and decay, giving the impression of eerie distortions rebounding over a measureless and artificial distance. At the same time, the electrical amplification allows feedback to be controlled not in terms of pitch or harmony, but timbre and duration. Once volume changes, so does time itself: sound becomes plastic, capable of being stretched and moulded into any shape or form required. Just as the modern office blocks going up in the UK’s major cities and the Jodrell Bank radio-telescope constitute an emerging architecture of the future, this elementary form of electronic music has become the sound of space itself: echoing and vibrating, breathing and alive.

While sustained reverberation results in the blurring of notes into one sound that marks the outer limit of a cavernous space, the process of repetition suggests something vaster still. The more precisely something is repeated, the more closely it approximates the ultimate loneliness of an infinite echo. Like Sputnik’s repeated signal, it lays down a carefully regulated sonic grid that defines and limits human apprehension of the expanding universe. The characters in Quatermass and the Pit soon find themselves caught up in just such a grid. The ‘suggestive’ screeches and vibrations produced by the alien spacecraft with its crew of long-dead Martians sealed inside the bulkhead cut through those encountered during everyday life. Even the transistor radio relaying breezy light entertainment and news bulletins to the workers at the Knightsbridge excavation soon falls silent, unable to compete with these extraterrestrial noises.

Although the Radiophonic Workshop has succeeded in connecting the nation’s living rooms with outer space through the medium of electronic sound, this achievement is not enough for Daphne Oram. Frustrated by the BBC’s determination to see the new unit only as a means of manufacturing jingles and sound effects for its regular broadcasts rather than an experimental laboratory to be used by the musical avant-garde, she resigns and relocates to a deserted coast house in Kent. Here she starts work developing ‘Oramics’: a system of photoelectric cells capable of converting images drawn onto 35 mm film into pure electronic tones.  The future, it appears, belongs to the lone pioneer as much as the large organization.

Head Space

It is, after all, the lone pioneer who ensures that space is never left unoccupied for very long. “Comets, I believe, are the pulsating spermatozoa of space,” wrote Desmond Leslie in 1959, “darting on their eccentric orbits seeking new ‘world eggs’ to fertilize.” Privately released on an acetate disc, Leslie’s Music of the Future contains material previously recorded for BBC radio dramas, a sci-fi movie and a London stage play. Manipulating recordings of humming tops, motor horns and plucked piano strings, Leslie creates evocative works bearing titles such as ‘Comet in Aquarius’ and ‘Asteroid Belt’, defining his work as “the arrangement of sound patterns into an intelligent, evocative and potent new musical form.” Leslie is also the well-known co-author of the bestseller Flying Saucers Have Landed. This landmark in UFO literature is perhaps best known for containing George Adamski’s account of his encounter with a visiting Venusian near the Mount Palomar Observatory in California. This, however, is nothing compared with Leslie’s own enthused probing of the flying saucer myth. Like the author of Quatermass and the Pit, he suggests that the secrets of space travel may be found in our distant prehistory. Elegantly working Theosophy in with Hinduism, perpetual motion machines with ectoplasm, and the Great Pyramid with ancient Celtic folklore, Leslie has helped to create the complete New Age package before the New Age has even dawned fully: from drive-in movies to album covers, pop culture iconography might be considerably the poorer without it. A licensing agreement with the Joseph Weinberger music library ensures that much of Leslie’s ‘Music of the Voids of Outer Space’ is heard by the public as soundtracks to radio mystery serials, science-fiction movies and television series.
Also charting the hitherto unheard depths of the cosmos innovative young record producer Joe Meek, busily at work in 1959, recording ‘I Hear A New World: An Outer Space Music Fantasy’ in his homemade studio on London’s Holloway Road. Only part of this ambitious project is initially released to the public, on an Extended Play disc in 1960, but its contents hint at a troubled loneliness. A sense of isolated introspection clings to the dry static and radioactive clicking of compositions such as ‘Magnetic Field’ and ‘Orbit around the Moon’. To help fill this universal emptiness, Meek employs a steel guitar, on loan from the Cavaliers: the first combo to feature the instrument on a UK pop record. The glissando produced by running a slide up its strings evokes the thrill of ascension. Its bent notes, clear tones and extended lines, capable of going from the particular to the infinite in a matter of seconds, will become some of the quintessential sounds of the Space Race.

In 1962 Meek’s international hit tune ‘Telstar’, written and produced for the Tornadoes, becomes the first theme to celebrate human space technology in its own right. Titled after an American telecommunications satellite, its vaulting theme is played back on a Univox Clavioline, an early electronic keyboard, while the sense of vast distances covered is once again conveyed by the increasingly familiar sound of tape echo feeding back on itself.  ‘Telstar’ refers to a very different universe: one that emits manmade sounds. ‘Life on Venus’, released the following year, takes this a stage further. “News flash!” an urgent voice announces over looped electronic tones. “Signals have been received from the planet Venus. These resemble sounds similar to those created by a musical instrument such as an organ, so perhaps there is life on Venus.” In one simple move, Meek has reduced the occupants of outer space to their machines.

In 1963, another machine materializes for the first time on the UK’s television screens. Able to shift through different dimensions of time and space, the TARDIS makes an unearthly noise when in operation: the looped recording of a piano string being rubbed by a house key, courtesy of the BBC Radiophone Workshop, whose staff now includes the likes of Brian Hodgson and Delia Derbyshire, who is also responsible for realizing Ron Grainer’s evocative Dr Who title theme with assistance from Dick Mills. As it steadily unfolds, the history of electronic music increasingly becomes a series of intersections with other forms of media, thereby rendering all notions of its inherent purity academic in just about every sense of the word.  Dr Who is yet another example of how popular culture becomes a carrier signal for what is becoming an alien musical invasion. The material produced by the Workshop for the show during its first six years bears all the marks of having been carefully dubbed, processed and assembled on tape using only household junk and primitive oscillators as sound sources. Cut together by hand, tracks like ‘Sensorite Speech’ and ‘Dalek Spaceship Lands’ make up with precision of effect what they lack in dynamic range: some might even be mistaken for outtakes from Varèse’s Poème électronique, a work also intersected with architecture and audiovisual design in its creation.

Throughout the 1960s, electronic music continues to evolve slowly into a medium for new and unworldly experiences: ones for which the hit parade and television science-fiction serials have only partially prepared them. By 1967 Hodgson and Derbyshire are taking part in ‘The Million Volt Light and Sound Rave’, a multimedia electronic arts event held at the London Roundhouse on 28 January and 4 February 1967. One lone pioneer not in attendance is Joe Meek. On February 3, beset by business worries, increasingly paranoid and subject to fits of depression, the legendary record producer fatally shoots his landlady in the chest with a shotgun he has hidden under his bed before turning the weapon upon himself. That same month Hammer Film starts principal photography at MGM Studios Borehamwood for its updated movie adaptation of Quatermass and the Pit. The man responsible for creating the otherworldly sounds of the Martian spacecraft this time is composer Tristram Cary, who is also working on a commission to produce an electronic soundtrack for different sections of the British pavilion at the 1967 World’s Fair in Montreal.

Inner space

Social change takes on a new meaning when seen from the edge of space. When Nigel Kneale conceived of his characters for the original Quatermass and the Pit back in 1958 it was, he later claims, “to typify human variants, afflicted to different degrees by the alien tampering and driven by the implanted instincts into displays of superstitious fear and racial rigidity when the capsule in the pit warmed up.” By the time the alien spacecraft comes to life, it has already become clear that the Martians are our distant ancestors, whose memory has been kept alive through occult practices, scattered reports of poltergeists and instances of demonic possession. This painful revelation, however, has come too late for us. The psychic violence unleashed at the end of Kneale’s story is a form of ritual cleansing: a purging of the Martian species that should have taken place over five million years ago.  Such scenes were written against the ugly background of racially-motivated clashes in Nottingham, Notting Hill and Bayswater. Ten years previously the Empire Windrush had arrived at Tilbury, bringing 490 Jamaicans to live and work in Britain; by 1958 a growing labour crisis had been resolved by the arrival of some 180,000 more. Martian intolerance to their presence took the form of iron bars and petrol bombs: black men were assaulted as they left their places of work.

Kneale’s script plays back the theme of invasion, change and mutation as a series of bleak ironies, the biggest of all being that no matter where we find ourselves in space, someone else has always been there before us. This much is as true in 1967 as it was back in 1958. Tristram Cary recreates the deep throbbing vibrations of the Martian hull and the resultant screeching panic of the churning London streets in the new Electronic Studio he has helped establish at the Royal College of Music. These sounds seem deeper, richer and more alien than might have seemed possible even five years before; but they also come shadowed by some of the more recent changes to take place within the Spaceship UK programme.

In 1967 Syd Barrett runs a Zippo lighter along the strings of his guitar on ‘See Emily Play’, recorded during the studio sessions for the Pink Floyd’s first LP, Piper at the Gates of Dawn. The slide into space started by Joe Meek’s addition of a steel guitar to the extraterrestrial sounds on ‘I Hear A New World’ has now been given its fullest expression as Barrett’s psychedelic glissando is prolonged and expanded through tape echo effects. ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ and ‘Astronomy Domine’, two more Barrett compositions from the same album, represent what happens to pop culture’s space-age thrust once it is set free of the 7” single’s restrictive running time. Accustomed to playing extended sets at underground venues like London’s UFO club, Pink Floyd represent a younger generation of musicians who see the exploration of sound as an end in itself. It becomes an event that makes the loneliness of life in space seem more endurable. The creeping awareness that someone has got there before us is flipped over into the realization that we ourselves are the aliens. The outer cosmos has become internalized. The oscillating feedback introducing each verse of the Rolling Stones’ 1967 single ‘Two Thousand Light Years From Home’ carried echoes of Joe Meek’s isolated descent into paranoia and madness. Adding a glacial sheen to this frozen hymn to distance and loneliness is the Mellotron MkII. A keyboard instrument originally designed to emulate the lushness of an entire orchestra by playing back pre-recorded tape loops, its reedy tones sound like nothing on Earth. Together with the Clavioline, now heard in 1967 providing fills and runs on the Beatles’ ‘Baby, You’re A Rich Man’ having formerly carried the melody on Meek’s ‘Telstar’, the Mellotron has too distinctive a tone to sustain repeated use. Something that combines the versatility of the electronic music studio with the compactness of a musical instrument is required.
Having been a radio enthusiast in his teens and trained as a radar operator during the Second World War, Tristram Cary already knows his way around a circuit diagram. In 1969 he joins Dr Peter Zinovieff and David Cockerell in founding the Electronic Music Studios (EMS), the company responsible for developing the VCS3: one of the first commercially available portable synthesizers. A distinctive array of oscillators, patch panel and joystick, tidily arranged with a free-standing wooden box, the EMS VCS3 is the shape of things to come: its introduction at the end of the 1960s marking a radical shift in the exploration of sound in space. One of the first recordings to test the EMS VCS3’s potential is Electric Storm by White Noise: a collaborative project featuring ‘Production Coordinator’ David Vorhaus, also in charge of ‘Special Stereo effects’, with Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson on ‘Electronic Sound Realization’. Although put out by Island Records, a label initially set up to release Jamaican reggae and progressive rock albums, Electric Storm exists in an alien iciness of its own making. Compositions such as ‘Love without Sound’ and ‘Firebird’ have all the breathy charm of psychedelic pop but feel as if they had also been cryogenically frozen for long-haul spaceflight. The same intensity can be found in Derbyshire’s contributions to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop album, released around the same time. Her manipulation of sound on tape, notable in the darkly brooding expanses of ‘The Delian Mode’ and ‘Blue Veils and Golden Sands’, both created for the BBC, fit the times so closely that they almost pass unnoticed. Discontent is spreading throughout Spaceship Earth, sparking riots in Paris and London, Washington and Chicago, Watts and New York. Satellite telecommunication systems mean that the whole world can now participate in what is happening as it happens; meanwhile pictures of our world sent back from the Moon during the summer of 1969 show a Global Village that is at once peaceful, remote and still.

Social Space

With the departure of Apollo XVII from the lunar surface in December 1972, the Space Race appears to be over before it has even started, survived only by the Cold War pressures that helped produce it. In the UK, however, it may seem to have gone on longer. The night before Apollo XI touches down in the Sea of Tranquility, Pink Floyd performs ‘Moonhead’ live on BBC television: by 1972 they are experimenting in the studio with the EMS VCS3 and Synthi A, recording their bestselling album The Dark Side of the Moon. Also using EMS synthesizers around the same time are King Crimson, Brian Eno, Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, who purchases the massive EMS Synthi 100, nicknames it ‘The Delaware’ and puts it into production, supplying soundtracks for the sci-fi series Dr Who, Blake’s Seven and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It seems increasingly appropriate that the term ‘sci-fi’, first coined by enthusiast Forrest J Ackerman, has its origin in the 1950s mania for stereophonic ‘hi-fi’ systems.

As synthesizers become cheaper and more compact, electronic music moves slowly out of the studio and into clubs, concert venues and dancehalls. A lot still separates the soundtrack from what it was intended to accompany, however. The unearthly sounds created throughout the 1950s and 1960s have sketched out a future that many listeners are starting to despair of ever catching up with. What often fills the gap between the two is the actual business of making the music itself. Thanks to the growing supply of new electronic instruments, publishing companies like Music de Wolfe, KPM, Chappell and Studio G are now able to supply the commercial TV and radio industries with vast libraries of pre-recorded material. Following Desmond Leslie’s example, David Vorhaus, Brian Hodgson and Delia Derbyshire have collaborated on an album of electronic space effects for the Standard Music Library, all of which will feature on the ITV children’s science-fiction serial The Tomorrow People, starting in 1973.

Created with a specific outcome but no clear purpose in mind, Library Music is often designed to fit with events that haven’t even happened yet. Quite often it traces the outer edges of a musical effect, the point at which a particular style, instrument or technique has had its broadest influence and is now being stretched to the point where it’s barely recognisable. Its creators do not trade in moods or emotions; they merely hint at them and leave the listener to do the rest. The audio equivalent of astronaut food, this is music that has been freeze-dried and vacuum-packed for future consumption.

Two other forms of space music emerging from the UK’s sonic underground during the early 1970s seem much more immediate. Recorded live at the end of 1972 and released the following year, Hawkwind’s Space Ritual double album concerns the dreams and fantasies of seven space explorers in suspended animation far from Earth. Blending stripped-down rock rhythms with pulsating electronic sounds played at very high volume, Hawkwind’s music inhabits an existentially harsh universe. ‘Space is a remorseless, senseless, impersonal fact,’ reveals the manual designed to accompany the performance. ‘Space is the absence of time and matter.’ Poems by band member Bob Calvert and science-fantasy novelist Michael Moorcock incorporated into the Ritual emphasize the horrors unleashed upon human consciousness confronted with the phenomenological vastness of space.

Another perspective on the same experience is offered in the nation’s dancehalls by the operators of sound systems specializing in Dub Reggae: studio versions of existing songs that have had much of the melody and lyrics removed from the mix, leaving only the drum and bass tracks. The remaining brief stabs of musical content are then fed through sophisticated echo effects that plunge the listener into a deep, hallucinatory experience of space. Seemingly random selections of sounds and words, extended electronically in time, take on a new significance: one that listeners can almost feel. To enhance the effect further still, Dub track producers often cut out the middle range of the mix, leaving only the low-end bass and the high treble sounds, which they then tweak even further until only a skeletal outline of some endless audible distance is left. Early explorers of the sound, such as Lee Perry, King Tubby and Errol Thompson, become recognisable by the feel they bring to their dub creations from behind the controls of the studio mixing desk.

As the space exploration programme, along with the industrial power base that has helped drive it, continues its rapid deceleration, the earthbound economy of mass production starts to go into reverse as well. The UK workforce shrinks rapidly as factories close: unemployment becomes a new form of social purge, dividing communities and limiting expectations. The heavy rhythms of dub and the sonic aggression of space rock recombine in the late 1970s to form an angry ‘industrial’ form of electronic music in which tape loops, customized synthesizers and early drum machines parody the mindless repetitions of the assembly line at a time when many are already falling silent. Operating out of Sheffield, Cabaret Voltaire creates the soundtrack for a disappearing populace: early pictures of the group show Richard H Kirk, Chris Watson and Stephen Mallinder posing amidst what looks like a rundown version of the Radiophonic Workshop. However, their reel-to-reel tapes, wires and EMS patch panels are being used to record tracks with titles like ‘Do the Mussolini (Headkick)’, ‘Baader Meinhoff’ and ‘Spread the Virus’. So far, so ugly: the charting of social space has always promised alien encounters of the most disturbing kind. A sliver of dialogue taken from an old sixties sci-fi show and looped at the start of their 1982 track ‘Yashar’ manages to say it all. “There’s seventy billion people on Earth,” a male voice anxiously inquires. “Where are they hiding?” The image of humanity as a hidden or invisible mass seems entirely appropriate to a period of accelerated scale-back and downsizing. The following year Brian Eno, in collaboration with his brother Roger and Daniel Lanois, releases Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks to accompany stock NASA footage in a film documentary on the lunar missions. Adding to the celestial shimmer and dazzle of the electronic sounds are the unmistakably western tones of a steel guitar; last heard on Joe Meek’s ‘I Hear A New World’, it still evokes memories of isolation and lost frontiers. It has taken just ten years since the final depopulation of the Moon back in 1972 to recognize that a similar process is also taking place in many of the cities here on our home planet.

Storage Space

With little else to do with their time as the century approaches its end, the unseen inhabitants of Earth start dancing instead. Always the future sound of well-ordered productivity, electronic music is consequently transformed into dance music. The opposing activities of work and play converge in clubs and dancehalls throughout the UK, where a slow and steady process of discovery takes place over the remaining two decades of the millennium. Playback of this new species of electronic beat in such venues is largely determined by how it is stored and reproduced. Remixed as a club track, Cabaret Voltaire’s ‘Yashar’ becomes a skeletal set of rhythms extended in time over the entire side of 12” vinyl disc mastered to play at 45rpm, the standard rotational speed of a pop single. Already exploited during the 1970s by Dub producers and sound-system operators to broaden the range and dynamics of their mixes, the 12” single offers deeper and longer grooves, allowing beats to have a precisely programmed effect upon the dance-floor. Cutting and looping tracks together, the DJ creates elisions in time and space capable of enveloping dancers across the Western hemisphere. Cuts by UK bands such as Cabaret Voltaire, Depeche Mode and New Order are dropped into DJ sets at underground clubs across the US Eastern Seaboard, helping to shape the futuristic sounds of House and Techno in the hollowed-out industrial cores of Chicago and Detroit respectively.

In a reciprocal effect, the after-party takes place in Manchester, where the tight hallucinogenic repetitions of Acid House are rewired using cheap samplers, even cheaper drum machines and the Roland 303 Bass Line: a device previously discarded as not having enough bottom-end but ideal, it turns out, for producing the kind of sonic blurring required by space travellers eager to dance all night. This is hard music for hard times. Formerly a member of Manchester industrial band Biting Tongues, Graham Massey becomes partners in 808 State with Gerald Simpson and Martin Price just so they can pool their equipment. Technical resources for this new project are so limited that cables are cut in half in order to patch more machines together while bare wires are jammed into power sockets with matchsticks to cut down on costs. However, chart hits like 808 State’s ‘Pacific State’ and A Guy Called Gerald’s ‘Voodoo Ray’ quickly reinvent electronic music as something the invisible public of the late twentieth century can inhabit: an artificial environment to be experienced as much as listened to.

The sampler becomes a means of digitally reactivating sounds and voices that have been kept in cultural cold storage for decades: drum-breaks, bass-lines and snatches of melody lifted from old records are cut together with dialogue and sound effects supplied by old sci-fi and horror movies. Nurtured within the dark, humid atmosphere of the dance club, weird new musical hybrids come into being: Ambient House, Jungle Techno and Dark House flourish alongside Drum and Bass, Tech Step and Ambient Dub. Finally all of these alien species of technological plant life are grouped together under a single, suitably botanical-sounding classification: electronica.

Since the introduction of this term, the history of electronic music has expanded to fill the space provided by it. Perceived as somehow anonymous and removed from established conventions, never has a body of work been attributed to ‘various artists’ with greater accuracy than that which is regularly regarded as ‘electronica’. Library Music archives, especially those dating from late 1950s to the early 1970s, are continually probed for fresh recordings to be sampled, studied or stored on compilation CDs. The product of an industrial process rather than the creative endeavour of individual talents, it is the perfect musical readymade by virtue of which history is constantly being rewritten as context rather than intention. Taking the whole process a stage further, Jim Jupp and Julian House of Ghost Box Records access the music of the past by the simple expedient of creating it for themselves. Recent albums by the likes of Belbury Poly, the Focus Group, Roj and the Advisory Circle all seem to have emanated from some obscure catalogue of recordings that exists in a parallel universe. By giving narrative shape to such spectral emanations, its releases always feel more like transcriptions of past events: mere fragments of voices and the outlines of faces tracing a few phantom gestures and shared memories.

Similarly, Graham Massey’s latest project, the Sisters of Transistors, can trace their origins back to the Lillian Meyers Organ Quartet who overwhelmed visitors to the 1939 New York World’s Fair through their skilful keyboard technique. In a grim echo of the mass hysteria generated by the Martian spaceship after its discovery in Knightsbridge, the history of this remarkable all-female ensemble, as detailed in the sleeve notes to their debut album, is filled with incidents of audience members succumbing to feelings of intense anxiety followed by an overwhelming sense of euphoria. Playing at church halls, airfields and scooter runs, the Sisters of Transistors blend themes from hymns and horror movies to alarming effect, using a wide range of vintage electric organs and synthesizers. Also picking up the ancient Martian pulsations first heard in Quatermass and the Pit over fifty years ago is Ghost Box’s reissue of Mount Vernon Arts Lab’s The Séance at Hobs Lane. Brainchild of Glasgow-based composer Drew Mulholland, its title references the precise London location where the Martian hull is first unearthed, long known as the site of numerous disturbing apparitions. Using the VCS3, ARP2600 and Minimoog, Mulholland conjures up sinister whirring vibrations that seem to come from somewhere deep beneath the ground.

Meanwhile, its sensors fixed firmly upon the heart of the solar system, Ruth Jarman and Joseph Gerhardt’s ‘fictional documentary’ Brilliant Noise uses satellite imagery of activity on the Sun’s surface to trigger its own soundtrack. Operating out of Brighton as Semiconductor, the duo have created an arresting stream of sound films, music videos, live cinema events and multimedia installations that explore the mysterious terrain between the visual and the auditory, the instantaneous and the preprogrammed. Beyond selecting and editing the untreated footage that makes up this enigmatic and challenging short film, they have added nothing except synthesized sounds associated with radio astronomy and solar radiation, using the wildly flickering image to control their intensity. Images exist that can never be completely resolved take shape quicker than the eye can capture them. The line between abstraction and representation is rapidly erased.

The future has collapsed in on the present,’ declares the promotional literature for Memories of the Future, a collaborative album released by Kode9 and The Spaceape in 2006, ‘and spaceship earth is en route to nowhere.’ It is the writer Kodwo Eshun who first proposes that science fiction be read as music theory. Published in 1998, the same year in which the BBC shuts down the Radiophonic Workshop forever, his book Brighter than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction reconfigures outer space as cybernetic space. Subsequent musical explorations such as Dubstep take place within a collapsing universe of styles and effects, one that has become so dense that it threatens to stop time itself. Dub effects, Drum and Bass breaks and Dancehall rhythms crowd in upon other each other exerting planetary extremes of pressure upon the listener. In tune with this compacted new cosmology, Kode9 is the adopted alias for Steve Goodman, who has a PhD from Warwick University and is the author of the recent MIT volume Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear. This universe still has a history that is yet to be written: with Tristram Cary’s early electronic work available for the first time on compact disc, pioneer Daphne Oram’s archives being lovingly catalogued at Goldsmiths College in London, and Delia Derbyshire’s recordings having been taken in by the University of Manchester, its origins are only just being unearthed.

 

Ken Hollings
London, March/April 2010
kenhollings.com

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