Drama Workshop. Radiophonic Music By David Cain, poetry by Ronald Duncan
This album is a “cult” classic in many ways. Always a little devil to find, I first posted it up on the Recommendations pages in 2003. This was one of three copies I’d found with Martin Green at a Tonbridge Wells record fayre in the late 1990s. Several people in my small circle of peculiar musical chums also came across it, and by the mid naughties it was coming across as a major influence on retro futurism and the new fangled scene they named hauntology. This comes as no surprise as the album has several layers and levels to it; it is weird, spooky. unsettling, very British, has an unusual whiff of childhood to some, it comes scattered with pregnant language and is full of unexpected metaphors, pagan oddness, folk cadences and insane noises. Does it get any better? Considering this was an LP made for children’s education and improvised dance, I think not.
Sleevenotes have been written by Jon Brooks (The Advisory Circle) and below is the full Q & A between Julian House (The Focus Group) and David Cain. The sleevenotes also contain the full poetry, rare images, biogs and more…
Q & A Between Julian House and David Cain
When the project was commissioned did it come directly to you, or did jobs come into the Workshop and then be allocated to an individual?
It came directly to me – I had already worked with David Lyttle and he was looked at as a problem producer so other requests from him came to me! I did at least twelve programmes with him, a prickly bloke but we got on very well together.
How did the project take shape, were you working in tandem with Ronald Duncan writing, or was the poetry completed before you started the music?
All the poems were already recorded. I had no contact with Ronald Duncan but was in contact with Derek. He was involved with experimental drama in Devon and later in London. I also had contacts in London, for example with Brian Wayand Leo Aylen who were also involved in drama in education.
Would you start by writing the music on a conventional instrument and then adapt it, or did the sounds you were generating suggest their own patterns and melodies?
It all happened in the head!! I can’t play any conventional instrument apart from the double bass (and that not for the past 35 years!!)
Was your interest and involvement in Early Music an influence on the score?
Maybe yes. I wrote a very simple basic piece of music ( i.e the march for The Year) and then wrote a set of variations as they did in the Renaissance. No more than that!
There's an unusual timbre to the sounds varying from abrasive square-waves to softer sine-waves and concrete percussion.There’s a feel of strange old percussion, reeds and flutes at work. Was there a nod to ancient instruments in the sounds you generated?
I don’t think so. The musical basis is like I said before but the actual sounds were not an attempt to copy real instruments.
How much it the sound is pure electronic and how much is concrete/acoustic?
The primitive drum in the final march is a primitive drum!! The rest is either totally electronic – from wave generators – or from the wonderful autoharp in the workshop!! Various notes recorded an then changed on a variable speed tape machine and then filtered etc. etc.
There’s also something 'earthy' about the sounds, almost elemental. Tape gives everything a warmth and grain and there’s white noise, evocative of wind sounds. Was that something you were aiming for?
Yes!! This is not a big deep statement BUT The Seasons are The Earth so I tried to create a musical environment that evoked this concept. Maybe the important thing is that the emotional, creative side of the whole project had to be realised in a technical, calculated way. This is the crux of all creative ventures. How to be emotional and creative while measuring, cutting and sticking together bits of tape!! Answers on a postcard.
The composition of the music is wonderful, seeming sparse and complex at the same time. My music theory is very basic, but would it have been composed as counterpoint? (there may be another way of explaining this sort of composition upon which I'm sure you can enlighten me…)
Maybe there is a bit of counterpoint but the main thing is variations as I said before.
Would this composition have taken into account the meter of the poems?
A little. But the meter was so free that I didn’t feel oblige to pay a lot of attention to it.
Did you want each theme to have a 'character' of the month or season it was accompanying? Were there any images or ideas from the poetry (or your thoughts on the seasons) that influenced the way the music took shape - either in melody/ composition or sound design?
Yes!! I can’t really say any more.
The Radiophonic Workshop is often associated with science fiction and the future. But I've always found something strange and almost ancient in some of its music, maybe because of certain melodies or the combination of electronic and vernacular concrete sound sources. There’s something paradoxical about its character, a feeling of future and past crossing over each other. Was this something you were aware of?
Aha!!! Aware then!? Maybe not. Remember that I had only been there a year or so when I did The Seasons. Later – when the synthesizers arrived – I was aware that The Workshop was heading towards being an electronic music factory. This was not my road. I was interested in creating sounds, environments etc. that could not be done in other ways. I spent my last few years creating radio sound-scapes. ‘The Hobbit’, ‘Rus’, ‘The Foundation Trilogy’.
Do you feel the Workshop lost something when it moved away from tape composition and concrete techniques, the magic/alchemy of that process as opposed to pure synthesis
Aha! No, it wasn’t about how the music was created. If I could have done ‘The Seasons’ without sitting and cutting bits of tape I would have been very happy!!! Of course it was my first voyage into the world of tape and rulers and I was fascinated by it. Later, it became clear that the new road was basically to produce electronic pop music to order! Of course Doctor Who was an enormous distraction, it became the focus of the output and everything else was pushed into the background. In fact, it was the first step in the door of the Workshop for television. And television has pictures – radio doesn’t. My personal feelings about the next lot of people in the workshop was that they were mainly interested in creating pop music to go with pictures!!
For my generation the Radiophonic Workshop (and this LP in particular) is evocative of a certain Post War British consensus which brought the avant garde into education and popular media.The Seasons is quite a challenging record in some ways and its hard to imagine its like in contemporary radio or schools. Were you aware of how 'out there' the LP was..
(personally I think its a great shame there isn't enough material with its strange dark beauty in contemporary children's programming..)
Maybe what you are saying about the avant garde is true. The sixties in Londonwere amazing, especially about drama and film. This had a great effect on me. The Royal Shakespeare in the Aldwych Theatre – Peter Brooke etc. The London Film Festival with all the amazing films from France and Italy. The World Theatre Seasons with drama from the whole of Europe!! Jesus, that was a fantastic time!! I worked in The Royal Court Theatre with many brilliant directors. BUT - ‘Out there’??? No. I knew I had to create, with my music, a sound environment where kids could be creative. I also knew it should be something different to the sounds and music that they normally listened to. That’s it really. But thank-you for the concept of dark beauty. I have listened again several times to what I did. It’s dark beauty!! And the question is-‘What does a composer do to create Dark Beauty?’ I don’t know! But maybe I did it. It wasn’t ‘Out There’ because it was in the contemporary scene. Now is that deep or what!!
Theatre and film are obviously important to you, was this an influence on you joining the Workshop.. its routes being in radio theatre production as opposed to music...
I was interested in radio as a creative medium, the original workshop road. So it was part of the whole area of drama, theatre etc. that was around in the sixties. So technically the way that the sounds/music were created were secondary, the main thing was that we were creating a sound picture. ‘Rus’, ‘The Long March of Everyman’, ‘Six Bites of the Cherry’ were about using sound to create situations that would provoke reactions. Music, speech, sounds, electronics etc. were part of this creative time. The sixties members of the Workshop were a band of people who were obsessed by sound in all its various aspects. The seventies members were mainly about having a place where they could do their electronic bit for free and further their personal musical aspirations. Not the same!!
One last thing this music was around about the same time as your pieces for The Shagbut, Minikin, and Flemish Clacket spoof on the Radio (or was that earlier.. 1968?).. was there any crossover in ideas while you working?
It was at the same time but cross-over? – None.
Conducting Ronnie Stevens in 'The Tempest'
David Cain in room 11 in the Radiophonic Workshop