"What’s the point of music anyway?” hmv.com talks to Matthew Herbert of The Radiophonic Workshop
10.2 million people tuned in last weekend to watch the 50th anniversary episode of Doctor Who. Its iconic theme tune was created by the Radiophonic Workshop; the BBC’s experimental sound laboratory, sadly closed down in 1998. Now it is making a comeback, with two vinyl reissues out this week. We caught up with new head honcho, Matthew Herbert, to discuss their plans for the future.
So, The Radiophonic Workshop is back! How did that come about?
Matthew Herbert: Yeah, I was invited to think about sound for thespace.org, which is being re-launched next year as a collaboration between the BBC and the Arts Council and is kind of an experimental approach to broadcasting with content based around the arts. So I discussed it with the BBC and I felt it would be a good opportunity to re-launch the Radiophonic Workshop because I feel like, were it around today, it would be working much more in the digital realm.
How is it being funded these days?
It’s now a standalone unit, so funding comes partly from grants but also we operate as a group that is commissioned to do paid work, for the BBC, for live shows etc.
Can you tell us about the new Vinyl re-presses that are out this week?
I actually haven’t had anything to do with it but the ‘old’ Radiophonic Workshop are reissuing some releases. There’s a sort of retrospective aspect where they are still releasing older stuff from the archives but I’m not privy to that, we’re working on other projects.
So what are you working on now?
Well, there’s still a slight air of secrecy around it and there’s quite a lot of stuff I’m not allowed to talk about! So, much in the same way as in the original Workshop where people weren’t always entirely clear what they were doing…we’re continuing that grand tradition! But there are various things…we’re creating software for people to write music with. One of our members is involved with a revolutionary new app called Chirp, which allows you to send photographs through music. So it converts music & text into a unique melody, then any device that has that software installed can decode that piece of music and get the information. It’s really amazing!
The Workshop recently did a new version of the Doctor Who theme for the 50th Anniversary episode at the weekend, how was this approached?
It’s not something I’ve been directly involved with. But we’re in touch with some of the original members, we did a public day of talks last year which we’re hoping to do again this year. There’s an educational aspect to the Workshop that’s important to us, for example we did an education workshop at The Proms for younger people. I have huge respect for the people involved in the original Workshop and feel very humbled to be involved with the next version of it, but we’re trying to do something quite different, because the landscape has changed so much.
So you’re taking a very different approach not just in the way you make music but what you are making it for?
Yeah, absolutely, I think it’s a great opportunity to think about music…I mean, a third of all the music on iTunes for example has never been downloaded. Not even once. So there’s huge amounts of music out there that is not being listened to and I guess part of the Radiophonic Workshop’s brief is to think “Well, what’s the point of music anyway? Do we need any more of the stuff?”
What kind of equipment are you using these days? Is it all digital?
Generally we try and make everything we need from scratch, so we’ll make bespoke software specifically to fulfil a function. One of the areas we’re very much interested in is HTML5. The browsers we have nowadays have built-in modular synthesizers, so all the things the original Radiophonic Workshop were having to build giant machines for, you can now do in your browser for free. In fact, the BBC research and development team have developed some Workshop tools using that, things like the Wobbulator that you can play around with.
So you don’t have piles of vintage gear anymore?
No, and I think…partly because we all make music in our ‘day jobs’, so to speak…there’s no point doing something for the Workshop that we could do anyway, so we’re trying to use different tools, more collaborative tools, that kind of thing.
What can we expect from your output over the next year?
Well, hopefully it will be surprising and challenging, but it will be across a broad range of things; educational tools, sound installations, live events, sound art exhibitions with some scale to them, collaborations with other institutions. We’re also putting forward some proposals for radio programmes. So it will be quite a broad spectrum.