SpokenWeb Listening Session

Jentery Sayers English Praxis Studio UVic 10 June 2020

I’m interested in the creation of audio for fiction in the 20th and 21st centuries: sound made for radio, novels, games, and narration, for instance. This sort of sound is distinct from the use of audio to document literary performances. It’s less about capturing or recording than composing and editing. It usually involves acousmatic listening, where the source(s) of a sound cannot be seen or determined.

For this SpokenWeb listening session, I thought we could attend to a key moment in audio’s history in fiction, namely two audio works by Delia Derbyshire (1937 – 2001), who was at the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop in Maida Vale Studios from 1962 until 1972-3. She arrived after Daphne Oram’s departure from the BBC in 1959 and is best known for producing the original Doctor Who theme, for which she went uncredited. Here’s her preferred version of the theme, from 1963. I believe it’s the first version. (OGG file care of Martin Guy.)

While contributing to the Radiophonic Workshop, Derbyshire composed everything from signature tunes and sound effects to incidental music and “inventions”. She experimented in the style of musique concrète with voices, doors, lampshades, chess, animal sounds, dreams, afterlives, imagined pasts, and possible futures. She made sound for BBC Television and Radio without a computer or samples.

Derbyshire’s archive, including digitized materials and her papers, are at the University of Manchester. For more about her work and the Radiophonic Workshop, see Kara Blake’s The Delian Mode (Philtre Films, 2009), Sculptress of Sound: The Lost Works of Delia Derbyshire (BBC Radio, March 2010), The Alchemists of Sound (BBC Documentary, 2003), Louis Niebur’s Special Sound: The Creation and Legacy of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (Oxford U P, 2010), and David Butler’s 2019 piece for the “History of the BBC.”

Below I focus on the entanglements of Derbyshire’s sounds with science fiction, a theme common throughout the 1960s in the Radiophonic Workshop. The two pieces I selected are “Science and Health” and “Ziwzih Ziwzih OO-OO-OO.”

“Science and Health”

“Science and Health,” from 1964, recorded on a 5” reel, 1/4” tape. 01:05 minutes. Audio and provenance care of Martin Guy.

Guy: “In 1964, Delia [Derbyshire] created a 57-second signature tune for a BBC radio series[,] ‘For Schools - Health and Science’, which she named ‘Science and Health’, ‘a succession of tumbling chords, descending with an elegance beyond almost anyone else’ (see Robin Carmody’s “Wee Have Also Sound-Houses”). “The programme was actually called ‘For Schools - Health and Science’, not ‘Science and Health’. The Radio Times listing initially only credits the programme as ‘compiled by Michael Smee.’ Later in the series, the Radio Times provided a fuller credit[:] ‘Reproduction 4: Bringing up children by Michael Smee[.] Series produced and edited by Elizabeth Kilham Roberts.’”

The tune was never broadcasted. Either Smee or Kilham Roberts ultimately rejected it for use in their sex education programme, reportedly deeming it too “lascivious.” Derbyshire decided to resplice parts of it for “Ziwzih Ziwzih OO-OO-OO.”

“Ziwzih Ziwzih OO-OO-OO”

“Ziwzih Ziwzih OO-OO-OO,” broadcast at 10:05pm on 1st January 1967 on BBC2. Recorded on a 7” reel, 1/4” tape, at 7.5ips. 10:53 minutes. Audio and provenance again care of Martin Guy.

This particular piece not only respliced “Science and Health” but also served as the theme for an episode in the BBC television series, Out of the Unknown. The episode was titled, “The Prophet,” and adapted Isaac Asimov’s short story, “Reason,” about QT-1 (“Cutie”), a robot prophet who rejects human commands to lead an automata rebellion in the name of their ship’s energy converter (their “Master”). I don’t believe an extant copy of “The Prophet” exists; however, there are some telesnaps.

Here’s Derbyshire talking about her work for Out of the Unknown in a 1997 Radio Scotland interview:

“Most of the programs that I did were either in the far distant future, the far distant past or in the mind. I think this was the climax of a science fiction play called ‘The Prophet’. It ended up with all these robots and they sang a song of praise to this bloke, presumably the prophet, and this was the song they sang. It is difficult to pronounce because it’s made from backwards chanting and I think if you play it forwards it would say something like ‘Praise to the master, his wisdom and his reason’ and I just chose the best bits and ‘Ziwzih Ziwzih’, ‘his wiz, his wiz’: it’s that backwards.”

Ways of Listening

We could borrow three terms from Michel Chion’s Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen (Columbia U P, 1994) to listen to and interpret these two pieces by Derbyshire. They are semantic, causal, and reduced listening. (See Chapter 2, “The Three Listening Modes.”) To them I’ve added a fourth term, the cultures of listening, to underscore the importance of sound studies and cultural crticism in the interpretive process. Alongside each listening mode, I’ve included some preliminary themes we could discuss. The themes admittedly stretch Chion’s intentions. I should also note that this research is still rough, and I’ve not had the opportunity to study Derbyshire’s archive at the University of Manchester.

Semantic Listening

Semantic listening attends to codes or languages to interpret a message (Chion 28). Derbyshire’s work is compelling here because, in many ways, it resists decoding, partly because “words” in “Ziwzih Ziwzih OO-OO-OO” are played backwards. Derbyshire’s papers suggest she may have intended lyrics for “Science and Health,” but all recordings are instrumental.

Words in Reverse: Derbyshire’s clearly having some fun with the robots’ “song of praise to this bloke,” manipulating the original recording to render it more or less indecipherable. She’s also experimenting with what may be called the sanctity of the voice, that signature of presence or index to the soul. Playing voices backwards would’ve probably made people uneasy at the time. Consider practices such as “backmasking,” for example. Many cut-ups from the 1950s and 60s also played with reversal to free sound from “the word.”

Derbyshire: “The voices are reversed but actually say ‘Praise to the Master/His Wisdom and His Reason/Praise to the Master/Forever and OO-OO-OO-OO/His Wis…/His Wis…/OO-OO-OO-OO/.”

Adaptation: “Ziwzih Ziwzih OO-OO-OO” can also be interpreted in the context of adapting Asimov’s “Reason.” Derbyshire said she asked actors to “chant.” In Asimov’s story, reason leads the robots to their own religion, where they follow their energy converter rather than humans. One possible meaning (among many) here could be that Derbyshire’s using “Ziwzih Ziwzih OO-OO-OO” to comment on the worship of technology or automation in the 1960s. The Radiophonics Workshop relied heavily on everyday objects for sound, and on tinkering and bending as compositional practices. Derbyshire was also known to be somewhat skeptical of synthesizers when they gained traction in the 70s, and many people refer to her work as “handmade” electronic music. Meanwhile, Asimov’s three law of robotics state that robots shouldn’t harm humans even as they protect their own existence. (There’s the theme of concern about human subjugation to robots, where robots correspond more with high tech advances than with the working class, as seen in Čapek’s R.U.R.)

Derbyshire: “I did the music for the whole programme. It was probably in the mid ’60s. […] I never watched the stuff. I had a script, that’s all. The actors, I got them to chant. The words they were singing were, ‘Praise to the master, his wisdom and his [reason]” […] I turned it backwards first, then chose the best bits that sounded good backwards and would fit into a rhythm, and then speed-changed the voices. Then I used just this one bar repeated which had [previously] been rejected from a science and health program for being too lascivious for the schoolchildren. It was like a science program… it was supposed to be about sex, but under another name. And then the producer had the nerve to turn down my music, saying it was too lascivious.”

Signature Tune: As a signature tune for “The Prophet,” “Ziwzih Ziwzih OO-OO-OO” was probably meant to be memorable and even to stand on its own (without depending on images on the television screen). Repetition and stability, if not simplicity, were key. Maybe the goal was not “deep message,” but rather “indelible impression”? A curious combination of catchy (or popular) and avant-garde?

Derbyshire: “I think it was at the same time as one of the Beatles’ songs, ‘Please please me’, and so that was like, I think, er, Drew said he thought it sounded medieval. Well that was because it was like a new religion and they’d go back to square one and the perfect fifth as the greeks did.”

Causal Listening

Causal listening attends (or attempts to attend) to the source or causes of a sound (Chion 25). Derbyshire’s technique and style of musique concrète are interesting here because the compositions are premised on manipulating sounds once they’re on tape. (You do not need musical instruments. You can rely on “found sound” and even become a one-person band!) A note created a separate piece of tape, and the pieces were joined together to create melodies or themes. Separate tapes were then manually syncrhonized across multiple tape machines, without a master track recorder. (This process has been called “virtual multitrack.” See Mark Ayres’s work for more.)

The Sound-House: The Radiophonic Workshop (as a setting for, if not a “cause” of, the BBC’s radiophonic sound during the 1960s) was a blend of laboratory, studio, and theatre. Sounds were tested, composed, and performed there, and technology was foregrounded and arguably exoticized by the mandate to make novel audio for tv and radio. Despite its associations with composition (especially after 1965), the Workshop was not a “rehearsal” space (associated with live performance and instrumentation), and it was rooted deeply in STEM culture. (Derbyshire, for instance, studied mathematics and music at Cambridge.) Popular accounts described it in the tradition of “mad science,” and many of the Workshop’s compositions were for science fiction programs. The space at Maida Vale was also predominantly (entirely?) white and mostly male during Derbyshire’s tenure. Prior to Derbyshire’s arrival, Daphne Oram associated it with Francis Bacon’s “sound-house,” a concept he cooked up in his unfinished utopian novel, The New Atlantis. I believe Bacon’s description of the sound-house may have been pinned or taped to a wall in the Workshop.

Francis Bacon from The New Atlantis (1627), apparently an inspiration for the Radiophonics Workshop and for Oram in particular: “We have also sound-houses, where we practise and demonstrate all sounds and their generation. We have harmony which you have not, of quartersounds and lesser slides of sounds. Divers instruments of music likewise to you unknown, some sweeter than any you have; with bells and rings that are dainty and sweet. We represent small sounds as great and deep, likewise great sounds, extenuate and sharp; we make divers tremblings and warblings of sounds, which in their original are entire. We represent and imitate all articulate sounds and letters, and the voices and notes of beasts and birds. We have certain helps, which set to the ear do further the hearing greatly; we have also divers strange and artificial echoes, reflecting the voice many times, and as it were tossing it; and some that give back the voice louder than it came, some shriller and some deeper; yea, some rendering the voice, differing in the letters or articulate sound from that they receive. We have all means to convey sounds in trunks and pipes, in strange lines and distances.”

Found Sound: more soon . . .

Derbyshire: “My most beautiful sound at the time was a tatty green BBC lampshade. It was the wrong colour, but it had a beautiful ringing sound to it. I hit the lampshade, recorded that, faded it up into the ringing part without the percussive start. [For “Blue Veils and Golden Sands”] I analysed the sound into all of its partials and frequencies, and took the 12 strongest, and reconstructed the sound on the workshop’s famous 12 oscillators to give a whooshing sound. So the camels rode off into the sunset with my voice in their hooves and a green lampshade on their backs.”

The Wobbulator: more soon . . .

Derbyshire: “It was just twangy things with electronic pick-ups, and I just used a single note and then did little glissandos on it and pitched it and treated it. But the ‘Ooh-ooh-ooh’ isn’t me… that’s wobbulator, pure wobbulator. That’s a piece of test equipment that does wave sweeps.”

Dick Mills (Radiophonic Workshop, 1958-1989): “We had a thing called a Wobbulator, which has probably gone down in history, which is a huge oscillator in a wooden box, with a big circular dial, a knob which went all the way round if you could do it with a wrist movement. It also had a built-in modulator, and it was used for… if we were going to turn this into a recording studio, you’d have this thing in the middle of the table warbling away over various sweeps of different frequency ranges to pick out any standing waves that the room might generate. I mean, this one, because it’s got trapezoid shapes and things. So, that gave you a good easy sweep and back in one movement, and of course, it was great for science fiction alarms, you just switched it on and set the wobble to whatever speed or depth you wanted it, and that was your alarms done, rather than chopping up bits of tape.”

Reduced Listening

more soon . . .

Abstract Sound: more soon . . .

Swoops and Clouds: more soon . . .

Cultures of Listening

more soon . . .

Gender, Labour, and STEM: more soon . . .

Sound “Assistants”: more soon . . .

Colonizing Ears: more soon . . .

Preservation and Ephemera: more soon . . .

Tara Rodgers: “A well-known challenge for historians of marginalized subjects is that cultural materials tend not to survive or be preserved in institutional archives. In the case of electronic music, histories have become slightly more inclusive of women composers in recent years, in part because of the new availability of archival materials from artists such as Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire.22 Unfortunately, the release of archival materials to the public often comes only after an artist’s death, and their work is recognized mainly posthumously. Moreover, women who have archives of their own have typically occupied positions of racial and economic privilege, holding university positions or institutional affiliations (such as at the BBC) at times when few women had those opportunities. So, even as historical accounts begin to include some women, this expansion happens in small steps and in uneven ways across race, class, and culture.”