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!