I have always been fascinated by what sound can do. That is why I have always loved radio so much. A couple of years ago I wrote the following feature for Blueprint magazine - here extended to its original length, with the advantage of active links.
‘The ear is totally neglected. Everything is centred on the eye’.
So said Daniel Barenboim in his BBC Reith Lecture series. He was referring to our ever more visually laden world, contending that via cable television, the internet, mobile phones, weekend supplements, pop videos, commercials, movies, supermarkets and an expanding array of pictorial magazines, we are being assaulted by the image. And with this heightened state of visual ‘awareness’ our ears have gone into retreat, missing much of what goes on in the wider sonic world.
Personally, I disagreed with his statement. But when, recently, I made a presentation to a group of cross-disciplinary designers on the importance of sound design within the creative community, my view changed dramatically. Barenboim’s words returned to haunt me.
Less than half the designers present shared my view that sound design deserves its place at the high table of creativity. They could not relate, say, typography enhancing the experience of looking at the editorial page to sound design doing exactly the same for an environment or an exhibition space. To their ears it was just a variation of music and little else. Disheartened, I felt compelled to write this piece in support of a world that I find to be both truly inspiring and a design process.
My interest in the subject started in the early Fifties. I happened to hear a record played on a children’s request programme. It was called Sparky’s Magic Piano. A child struggles to play a piano. Suddenly he hears an eerie voice emanating from deep within the instrument. This strangely compelling harmonic voice – created by a Sonovox, a device placed on the throat to pick up voice vibration – immediately made an impression on me as an alternative world of sound.
A little later, I saw the film Forbidden Planet, and quickly became captivated by the added sounds that accompanied the stunning Technicolor images...
This was the first all-electronic score for a feature film and was the work of pioneers Louis and Bebe Barron...
Ironically, they had problems being accepted as creative talents. The powerful US Musicians’ Union would neither allow them membership nor to have their names put forward for an Oscar nomination for the score of Forbidden Planet. Consequently, they had great difficulty working in the film industry. Deservedly, in 1985, Bebe became the first Secretary of The Society of Electro-Acoustic Music.
Radio, a more sympathetic vehicle for the ear, started to broadcast the science fiction series Journey into Space in 1954. Huddled around the fire on a cold winters night I would be transported to the surface of Mars with hero ‘Jet’ Morgan due to the brilliant work of the sound engineers who created wonderful extra-terrestrial effects and atmospheres that helped evaporate the grim post war backdrop of my youth. A little later saw the creation of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop...
Two notable female members of the electronic fraternity are Delia Derbyshire, above and Daphne Oram below, at the BBC Radiophonic workshop in the mid 50s.
In those early days equipment was unsophisticated with cumbersome reel to reel tape decks,
but still sensational things were achieved and the Workshop’s output including Quatermass and the Pit...
Dr Who, Blake’s 7 and The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to The Galaxy and continued until the end of the 80’s when the department was axed under John Birt’s regime.
In the late 50s the emergence of Robert Moog’s modular synthesizer...
Robert Moog inventor of the first subtractive synthesizer, unveiled in 1964, and was a major turning point for those in the field of electronically scored music and sound design.
began to transform the sound landscape. Wendy Carlos and the Japanese composer Isao Tomita lead the way in exploiting the potential of the Moog Synthesizer. Carlos’s later work Switched on Bach...
was used to great effect in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. And it was Kubrick again who included the work Atmospheres by György Ligeti in the climatic and memorable Star Gate scene in 2001...
Stanley Kubrick’s futuristic ‘Star Gate’ scene from ‘2001 – A Space Odyssey’,1968 used sonic atmospheres to heighten the visual experience and became the ultimate trip for those under the influence of LSD in the 60s.
At the time and even now many people think the piece was created electronically, but it was entirely written for a conventional orchestra. Ligeti’s desire to abandon melody, harmony and rhythm in favour of a sound mass with sliding and merging sonic textures is something that the electronic world can now achieve with ease.
The influence of 2001's ambient music sound design is evident in many films that were to follow. Kubrick established the possibilities of what creative sound editing could offer in contributing to a scene's power by treating it as a sonic performance and consequently expanded the art form of filmmaking.
The late 60’s also saw an increasing use of electronic elements within the psychedelic bands with their lengthy instrumental solos and “trippy” electronic effects; distortion, reverb, and reversed, delayed and phased sounds. The album that brought psychedelic rock into pop culture was The Beatles 's Revolver . I didn’t rate The Beatles until I heard their 1966 single Rain, the last seconds of the track featured reverse tape voices - the first time that this had been done. I’ve been a fan of theirs ever since.
Paul Tanner’s, invention the Electro -Theremin...
Russian émigré, Leon Theremin with the invention that carries his name. The Theremin was patented in 1929 and later immortalised by Brian Wilson on the Beach Boys track, ‘Good Vibrations’. Theremin was later kidnapped by the KGB under mysterious circumstances and sent to a Russian labour camp.
was used on the celebrated Beach Boys track Good Vibrations and in between all of this popular culture there were the avant guard electronic artists; John Cage, Stockhausen and Steve Reich. In 1980 Laurie Anderson released her eccentric single Oh Superman making a clear link with that 50’s Sparky track - Anderson's voice was distorted through a vocoder, making it androgynous and eerie.
Today there is a great merging of musicians, producers and technical programmers and editors that make up the 21st century sound designer. It would be remiss of me not to mention Brian Eno in all of this. Whilst pursuing his early career with Roxy Music he was privately giving birth to what was later to become ‘Ambient’ music - for that I can even overlook the sequin leotards. The notion of Muzak had always fascinated him. The idea of an ambient backdrop for different settings spawned his ambient series. The first Music for Airports (1978) is still, nearly 30 years on, constantly used to create a calming effect to many documentaries. For me his Ambient 4 album, On Land (1984) is a magnificent textural soundscape evoking a desolate landscape demonstrating the sheer power and beauty of this discipline. If you have never heard it do, preferably in a darkened room with a great sound system. Eno was also responsible for an early sonic identity – the Windows 95 start up sound probably heard by more people that any other sound on the planet.
Another champion of creative sound is David Lynch's Eraserhead...
not only established him as an original maverick director but also demonstrated his understanding of sound as a narrative force within a film and this became increasingly evident in his later works. It was largely due to Lynch’s collaboration with the late Alan Splet who worked on four of his early films as sound designer.
Four notables who have blurred the boundaries are Cliff Martinez (Solaris, 2002), Mark Isham (Crash, 2004), David Holmes & Steve Hilton (Code 46, 2003) and Joakim Sundstrom (I Could Read The Sky, 1999). The last is a tour de force in the use of collaged sound elements to evoke a complex narrative that depicts a man’s life and memories, and is every bit as stunning as the Seamus McGarvey images that it accompanies.
Another musician-cum-sound designer who is a great advocate of embodying broader values in the world of sound design is Martyn Ware, founding member of late Seventies’ electro pioneers the Human League and Heaven 17. Before all that, he was a computer programmer and has always had a keen enthusiasm for experimenting with sound. Martyn remembers as the Human League were clambering for chart success they were also busy with a parallel life recording electronic albums under the name BEF (British Electric Foundation) that were completely ‘off the wall’. Many people surrounding the band thought they were mad. But Ware has a deep awareness and passion for sound both in an historic and philosophical sense. When he had an opportunity to purchase some highly expensive and sophisticated three dimensional sound equipment at a knock-down price from the ailing National Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield, he jumped at it. With his role as record producer becoming less in demand – he had produced Tina Turner, Marc Almond and Terence Trent D’Arby among others – he formed the Illustrious Company with Erasure’s Vince Clarke and they immersed themselves in the studio with their new kit. Contact was made with fine artists, among them Turner Prize nominated Tim Head and Cathy de Monchaux, to collaborate on sound and image installation pieces to push the possibilities of sound design in an artistic environment, or, as Martyn prefers to call it, ‘sonic architecture’. Ware speaks with great knowledge and enthusiasm on the subject and he has become a travelling evangelist, regularly staging events under the banner ‘The Future of Sound’. At these events, sound experimenters gave practical demonstrations of their theories. The evenings are extremely inspiring and anyone with even a passing interest should go to one.
Ware and Clarke have developed an impressive body of work with organisations as diverse as the Royal Ballet and Sony, to BBC TV and the Science Museum. Last year saw their most ambitious project to date, Sound Oasis in Mexico. Over 10 days, 100,000 people experienced the world’s largest 3D outdoor soundfield featuring 12 sound artists, each contributing a two-hour site and time-specific piece that looped every 24 hours. It is fitting, then, that Ware and Clarke were commissioned by the British Council to install a series of sound pieces in the British Pavilion at the 2007 Architectural Biennale in Venice. The introduction of synthesizers, samplers, multi-tracking and an array of additional computer technology has, in essence, created a new world of sound, with infinite possibilities. There are now exceptional creative talents taking us on a journey into that world and we are all the richer for it
POST SCRIPT: In November 2012 Brian Eno was made a Royal Designer for Industry. Hooray!
Here is an old stalwart from my bookshelf...
It is packed with the most stunning body of work from the hand of the highly influential American designer Lou Dorfsman...
during his 40 year tenure at CBS Television...
and the spread below shows a series of full page press ads in Variety magazine from 1957 demonstrating Dorfman's love of typographical play - something he enjoyed collaborating on with long time friend Herb Lubalin.
Clear influences can be seen in the Penguin Education series...
from 1970. Originated by Derek Birdsall and continued well into the 70s by the late Philip Thompson (who co-authored, along with Peter Davenport, the classic 'The Dictionary of Visual Language'.)
This is the American film title designer Kyle Cooper...
He gave a D&AD President's lecture last week. The day after I recorded an interview with him for my RDInsights series. I was struck by the similarity between him and his most noteworthy title sequence for David Fincher’s Se7en ; The same hesitant, nervy, spontaneous edginess. The interview took place in his room at the Zetta Hotel. He’d phoned me at the crack of dawn to suggest that we put the interview off as he hadn’t been able to sleep. I managed to persuade him otherwise and out of it came a revealing and extremely honest exchange. Judge for yourself here.
How many radios do you have? I have seven. All DAB reception.
Why so many? Simple, I love radio. I often listen in the middle of the night.
Here is the one by my bed…
When I’m having a wash and brush up, here’s the one in my bathroom…
When I’m working, this one is in my studio…
It is my favorite, a Tivoli. The sound is fantastic and it looks wonderful too. The rest are in other rooms.
As they say, the pictures on the radio are far better. With the dire combination of reality and competitive based shows on the TV at the moment (BBC4 an exception). Thank God for good old BBC Radio 3 & 4.
I always carry a camera with me. Well, you never know what might happen. While out and about today I notice this rare view of the BT Tower…
from the south, due to a group of buildings being demolished. It reminded me that, back in the 60s, when it first opened — and then called The Post Office Tower – it had a revolving restaurant at the top, appropriately called (you guested it) the Top of the Tower. I was taken for lunch there by a printer in 1968 (those were the days). This is what it looked like then…
Long closed due to the potential of terrorist attack. Note the other icon of the period, Centre Point.
After finishing my errands I jumped onto the trusty old 38 bus. I immediately noticed this man..
who reminded me of this man…
Alfred Hitchcock famously appears, momentarily, at the beginning of his films, often getting on or off buses, coaches or trains. Perhaps he’d been let out of that big studio in the sky for the day?
In the late 90's I wrote a series of feature articles for Design Week. The overarching title was' Heroes'because well, all the featured designers were heroes of mine at various stages of my professional life.This one is about Keith Cunningham. Over the coming months I will reprint the whole series here.
IT IS 1964. The Beatles have released A Hard Days Night, there are only two channels on TV, both in glorious black and white and the pirate station Radio Caroline has begun broadcasting, anchored off the coast of Essex.
Meanwhile, I have just made my weekly visit to the local library, where I quietly removed book jackets from their hardback covers to add to my growing collection. This was not an activity that I was particularly proud of, but I had convinced myself that I was liberating these jackets from their inevitable disintegration. I knew very little about graphic design at the time and this illicit activity made me feel closer to this world.
Why am I telling you all this? Because on that particular day I came across a book jacket that made an immediate impact on me, a cover for Marquis de Sade's Quartet...
The simple design structure was unlike anything I had seen before. On the flap was printed ‘Jacket designed by Keith Cunningham’. Over the ensuing years, I noticed more of Cunningham’s work, all with the same economical approach. Nearly 40 years on, I wondered whether this man was still working and set about tracking him down. It was remarkably easy — I simply phoned Peter Owen, the publisher of that original book jacket.
I met Cunningham at his flat, where he has lived for over 40 years with his wife Bobby Hillson — the woman who introduced the first masters degree fashion course to Central St Martins School of Art and Design. The flat is full of 1960s decor, with white walls, a paper lantern, a stainless steel and marble coffee table and Marcel Breuer chairs.
Cunningham was bemused that anyone would want to talk about work he had produced almost 40 years ago. I quickly became aware that he is a very guarded and cautious man, punctuating answers to questions with qualifiers such as, ‘I don't want that on record’ or ‘Please don't write that down’. During this slightly uncomfortable start, I noticed something else. There were lots of paintings stacked in groups, all facing the wall. Others on display had been carefully covered with sheets of paper. Intrigued, I asked him for an explanation. He said that he understood our interview would centre on his graphic work and didn't want to visually confuse matters.
Cunningham was born in Sydney in 1929. He left school at 15, with the ability to draw and very little else. He found a job as a general assistant in the ad department of Sydney's largest retailer, David Jones, where he prepared artwork and kept supplies stocked up. One of the frequent visitors to the department was the eminent Australian designer Gordon Andrews. Cunningham was in awe of this glamorous, impressive individual and the professional world he inhabited. He eventually plucked up the courage to speak to him and from that point on Andrews took a keen interest in him, providing books on design and suggesting that he attend evening classes at the East Sydney Technical College. Cunningham had dreams of escaping from an unhappy home life where his father, a violent and unpredictable man when fuelled by alcohol, created an unbearable atmosphere. He became Andrews' assistant, preparing work for the two days a week when Andrews came to the ad department. Cunningham absorbed everything he could from the experience and avidly devoured any book relating to design.
Eventually, he felt that a better design education was vital to his progress. He set his sights on New York, but Andrews suggested that London would be better for him. At the age of 17, and with a pitiful sum of money, he set sail for London, working his passage by waiting tables.
London in 1949 was a grim place with much bomb damage. Cunningham had only one contact address in London, the buyers’ office of the David Jones store in Regent Street. He misguidedly believed that they would be able to secure him a place at Central St Martins and headed straight for their offices. They simply drew him a map, pointed him in the right direction and said ‘good luck’.
Next day, equipped with a portfolio of work, he presented himself, unannounced, at Central St Martins’ reception. Taking pity on him they called Jessie Collins, one of the principals, who interviewed him in the corridor. He was impressed with Cunningham’s work, which he felt showed promise and professionalism.
He was offered a place there and then, but his great hope for a better design education started to fade: the projects he was set were uninspiring compared to the real world he had been exposed to with Andrews.
To supplement his meagre living he worked in the evenings, washing dishes at local restaurants. Either luck or fate was on his side — Gordon Andrews had arrived from Australia and was working as a consultant at the Design Research Unit, famously headed by Sir Misha Black. Andrews was in need of an assistant, so he looked Cunningham up and suggested he take time off to help on some new projects. Cunningham jumped at the chance, and what he thought would be a few weeks work turned into a year. During this time he worked on major exhibition designs, including the Festival of Britain exhibit at the Science Museum. Eventually he was called back to Central St Martins to complete his course, which he did reluctantly, finishing with a thesis on architecture.
He graduated in 1952 and, still yearning for a deeper creative education, he decided to take up a place at the Royal College of Art. At the suggestion of Abram Games, he went to see Rodrigo Moynihan, then the head of painting. Moynihan offered him a place on the fine art course. Here Cunningham worked alongside fellow students Jo Tilson, Frank Auerbach and David Methuen. At last he felt that his heart and mind were being fully engaged.
During this time his paintings came to the attention of Sir Roger de Grey, Carol Weight and John Minton. They all agreed that Cunningham’s work showed originality and innovation. In 1956, he left the RCA clutching an impressive first, along with a travelling and continuation scholarship. This latter bonus would enable him to devote himself totally to painting without the pressure of money worries.
He used his travel bursary to explore Spain but returned to London to complete his continuation scholarship. During this time he exhibited at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, the Beaux Arts Gallery and later with the prestigious London Group show for two consecutive years. This culminated in Cunningham being asked to submit work for full membership to the group — he declined. He then made the even more extraordinary decision to withdraw completely from any further public exhibition of his paintings. However, there are examples of his work in the Olinda Museum in Brazil, the North West Trust Collection in Northern Ireland and the private collection of Elsbeth Juda.
For me, this was a special period for Cunningham’s graphic work. The designs were mostly produced in two colours due to financial constraints...
Rather than hampering the design outcome, Cunningham created covers of great simplicity and effectiveness. Using found imagery or photograms that he would create, he produced a stream of graphic covers with utter economy. His clear and simple approach eventually succumbed to the pressures of change in the marketplace and his style changed. He continued with Peter Owen and took on work from The Economist, designing covers, an identity for the National Book League and the design and production of a series of Art and Design books for Thomas Nelson Publishers. He also continued with his weekly two-day slot at The London College of Printing.
During the 40-odd years he was there, students such as John Hegarty, Michael Peters and Fernando Gutiérrez passed through his hands. Few knew much about this Australian, who would crit their work, underline the importance of understanding the print process and enthuse about the creative coupling of design and photography. Or perhaps simply help point them in the right direction, just as Andrews had done for him all those years ago.
By our second meeting, I was becoming more intrigued by the hidden canvases. Dismissing my curiosity, he turned the subject back to his graphic work. I continued to chip away until he finally agreed to show me his paintings. A week later we strolled to a large, brooding industrial building, originally a laundry, but now converted into a centre for small businesses.
Cunningham has rented a studio here for 17 years and I was the 17th ‘invited’ visitor during that time. This was not a building converted to the trendy workspace standards of London's Shoreditch. It had simply been let out with its new inhabitants left to adapt the spaces to suit their particular needs. Cunningham’s space was small, with most of its windows covered to frustrate prying eyes. The room was full to bursting with paintings, neatly covered and stacked to protect them from dust. The windows were sealed shut and the lack of air, combined with an extremely hot evening, made me feel faint. I was allowed to leave the studio door open for some air, only to have it hastily closed by Cunningham when he heard footsteps, saying, ‘I don't want any of those people snooping in here’. But I did have the pleasure of seeing the lifetime work of a man clearly obsessed and driven to paint, something he does every day.
We returned to his flat and, over a chilled bottle of white wine, we talked further as he showed me more recent work. These were drawings and watercolours, all meticulously placed in cellophane bags and housed in individual folders. There were hundreds, if not thousands of these neatly stacked drawings and paintings, all signed, dated and often containing background notes on subject matter. He showed me a series of 20-odd skyscapes he’d painted from his balcony. These beautifully executed watercolours, each recording the subtle changes of light and movement, were captured like the images from a motordrive camera.
I left Cunningham on that balmy summer evening, leaving him to gather up the many drawings and watercolours that he had shown me. Driving home, I pondered on the notion that this man had carefully balanced his life, using his design and teaching work to fund his private passion for painting. He had created pieces of work so personal to him that he finds it difficult to share it with others — for fear that they may lose something? Their integrity perhaps?
Maybe one day there will be an opportunity for more people to see the work of this very private man, whose book jacket design inspired me nearly 40 years ago.
Mike Dempsey Design Week, 16 August, 2001
Sadly Keith died on the 4th December 2014.