Sounds From Home: The Space Journey

‘Wow! This is incredible… Like the soundtrack to ‘Alien’ or something!

It’s safe to say that the presenters of BBC London’s regular ‘Making A Difference’ feature were intrigued when an extract from the inaugural edition of ‘Sounds From Home’ was chosen to open their weekend bulletin back in May. It was the first in a planned series of short video tutorials suggesting creative or practical projects to undertake during lockdown, using material from London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) as sources of inspiration.

On this occasion we were galvanised into action by the discovery of some experimental graphic scores found in a 1976 educational boxset from the Inner London Education Authority (more commonly known as ‘ILEA’), which managed educational provision in inner London between 1965 and 1990. Inside the box we found five reel to reel tapes, a teacher’s manual and various posters of graphic scores, each an exercise in composition that swapped the conventional crotchets and semi-quavers for shapes, colours and symbols. It was effectively all you needed to start making your own experimental music, so we thought ‘why not?’

‘The Space Journey’ by Hamish Preston

By combining the original progressive spirit of the graphic score with a few basic instructions for newcomers, we aimed to help people create their own journey into the far reaches of outer space – all without needing to go outside. It was our hope to bring the ideals of this ILEA boxset into the twenty first century and to inspire a whole new generation of youthful sonic explorers to set out on their own voyage of discovery – each armed with only a few household items and a sense of adventure. Here’s what we came up with:

But where exactly did this boxset come from in the first place? Now that we’ve travelled through the cosmos, let’s take a trip back in time. To offer a sense of the broader educational environment of the late 1960s and 1970s, we highly recommend watching ‘Music in School: A New Sound’, a television programme produced for BBC Schools in 1969 by John Hosier – who also produced the long-running BBC series Music Time. It features pupils from Shoreditch School and Ivydale Primary School engaged in numerous exercises in experimental composition and performance, before using these sounds to tell the story of a journey into space, to a far-flung celestial body known only as ‘the planet Galaxy’. We’d recommend making yourself a hot beverage and just settling down to watch the whole charming, wondrous affair in one sitting. Can you remember your music classes at school being anything like this? We certainly can’t!

Watching it over half a century later, what makes this programme especially fascinating is the emphasis on several themes – an understanding of sound, an imaginative interpretation of instructions and a sense of co-creation, or collaborative creativity. Obviously, something quite fresh and exciting was going on at this time – and this was still a full seven years before our boxset came into being.

In those years between 1969 and 1976, this more experimental approach to listening and making music moved into the mainstream of music education in London’s schools. This was due to the rise of electronic music in the popular consciousness and also to a few remarkable people who worked in ILEA’s music department and various organisations in its wider orbit (no pun intended).

We were particularly excited to spot the name John Baker in the boxset’s credits as ‘Audio Producer / Editor’. There could be little doubt that it was the same pioneering composer who worked for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop from 1963 to 1974, best remembered for his astonishing work mixing jazz with the latest developments in electronic music.

John Baker at the Radiophonic Workshop studios at Maida Vale – unknown photographer

For the uninitiated, this short video provides a brief history of the Radiophonic Workshop and attempts to place it in context, demonstrating the influence that its output had on generations of music makers, many of whom would have been schoolchildren in the 1970s. Mention the name of this hugely influential BBC department to your average electronic music enthusiast and just watch their eyes light up as they enthuse about its seismically important role providing music and sound effects to the TV series Dr. Who, particularly the iconic theme tune. Originally composed by Ron Grainer, it transformed into an eerie, otherworldly voyage through the ministrations of the late electronic pioneer Delia Derbyshire and the ever-affable engineer Dick Mills – in fact Grainer’s first response to hearing their treatment of his work was rumoured to be simply ‘Did I write that?’. Note the frequent use of visual language in this fascinating video describing how the theme was put together:  

In a time before synthesisers and computers made electronic music a more simplified process, members of the workshop would use household objects, rudimentary electronic equipment and the experimental cutting and splicing techniques of musique concrète to create the sounds of other worlds and conjure up nightmarish creatures – bringing modernist avant-garde sounds into the nation’s living rooms every Saturday teatime as it did so. But while the Radiophonic Workshop is perhaps better known for soundtracking the nefarious misdeeds of Daleks and Cybermen, they were also instrumental in bringing the sounds of the future into our schoolsstarting with the gymnasium.

This is the BBC Schools LP Movement, Mime and Music from 1969, created to accompany the long-running radio series of the same name. It features a number of compositions under the title ‘Radiophonic Music – Useful For Movement’, including John Baker’s ‘Structures’, one of the most remarkable works on an already remarkable album. Composed by Baker a year earlier, the sleeve-notes describe it as ‘An abstract ‘space’ sounding composition which, after hearing several times, could be built into a dance structure, with individual movers working separately and then towards group sculptures at certain points of the music, which then melt and reform as a different sculpture’. Watch the video below and you’ll notice it makes a rather fitting soundtrack for modernist architecture as well!

We’re so used to hearing electronic music in every facet of our lives now that it’s easy to forget what a seismic impact these sounds would have had in the 1960s. Compositions like ‘Structures’ were not created by computer and synthesiser which at the time would have been prohibitively expensive. They were quite literally created by hand, using whatever implements were available and painstakingly cut and spliced into a final arrangement on a reel to reel tape recorder, using razor blades, sticky tape and a steady hand. Writing in 2008 for the release of archive collection The John Baker Tapes on Trunk Records, John’s brother Richard Anthony Baker offers us a tantalising glimpse into his work:

John invented many techniques. He recorded onto reel-to-reel tape the sound of everyday objects, such as the twanging of a ruler on a desk or a cork being pulled from a bottle. By changing the speed of the tape, he could alter the sounds’ pitch and was then able to compose a melody from these sounds by, for instance, making a minim fill four inches of tape, a crotchet, two, a quaver, one, and so on. More cleverly, if he wanted to introduce a jazz feeling to the tune, he cut a note slightly short so that it anticipated the beat. The work was painstaking and demanded a steady nerve. But it was the job for John. He loved it and was never happier.

John himself describes the compositional process in this archive clip discussing an eight second jingle he created for the long-running BBC series Woman’s Hour. Listen to the intricate complexity of this recording and marvel at the fact that the whole thing was put together by cutting and splicing innumerable tiny snippets of tape!

While John appears to have taken a less creative, more editorial role in the production of ‘Creating Music In Class’, his years at the Radiophonic workshop and the creation of so much remarkable sound would have made him the perfect candidate to help bring the sounds of the future into the classroom. And it’s important to remember that despite the avant-garde ideas in play throughout the Creating Music in Class teaching programme, it is still very much the classroom it was intended for. Indeed, the intended age group is specified as 10-13 years, which is all the more astounding when you consider that the handful of compositions on the accompanying reel to reel tapes don’t sound that far off from the experiments being simultaneously conducted across Europe by grownups!

By encouraging the use of household items in our own video, we hoped to encourage viewers to think creatively about sound making, in particular those without access to more conventional instruments. It was also intended as something of a tribute to John’s work extracting intriguing sonic textures from cider bottles, popping corks and twanging rulers. Furthermore, the decision to concentrate on making our sounds using a single glass was also, in its own way, a small nod of appreciation to Shoreditch School’s Brian Dennis, his class of ‘69 and their experiments together conjuring up ‘heat, radiation, relentlessness, intensity, stillness’. All words that could easily be applied to our current year of 2020! 

So, what are you waiting for? There are far worse ways to observe social distancing than travelling through the cosmos with a wineglass! We’re hoping this video will inspire a whole new generation, old and young to get creative and come up with their own soundtracks to the score, or better still, make their own graphic score and create music for that. And if you come up with something interesting, be sure to share it with us, either by getting in touch or by posting it online with the hashtag #SaveOurSounds. We can only speculate as to what the music team at ILEA would say if they knew that something they’d created in 1976 was still inspiring new generations of sonic explorers today. But we’re pretty certain they’d roll up their sleeves and jump right in themselves…

Graphic score by Jess, aged 5