Brian Hodgson, Radiophonic Workshop

Brian Hodgson, one of the founding fathers of British electronic music, explains how he imagined the future...

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 17 Sep 2014
  • min read
Brian Hodgson (above, 1962) is one of the founding fathers of British electronic music.

Through his groundbreaking work at the now-iconic Radiophonic Workshop, he helped define a completely new way of working and imagined sounds into being which had never been heard before.

Today, we talk about music in terms of ‘beats’, ‘blips’, ‘beeps’ and ‘whooshes’, but back in the early sixties when Brian joined the workshop, the language of sound was very different.

Through his love of technology, rudimentary recording equipment and new sonic adventures, Brian created some of the BBC’s most futurist music, including the sound effects of the TARDIS in Dr Who.

He has since gone on to run studios, score ballets, create library music records and, together with Delia Derbyshire as Unit Delta Plus, put on the UK's first ever electronic music concert in The Mill Theatre, Newbury, in 1966.

Alongside the likes of John Baker, Daphne Oram and Delia, Brian has unarguably shaped British music in immeasurable ways.

Through their work, which was beamed into British homes and schools on a daily basis, they were unknowingly priming a whole generation of kids to embrace the alien concept of electronic music.

Following our recent Women & Machines feature, which explored the work of Daphne, Delia and their female predecessors, we spend time with Brian to learn more about the Radiophonic Workshop from his perspective...

What’s your musical background?
I came from the theatre. I had no formal musical training and in fact, most of the stuff we did I just called ‘sound’, although others call it ‘music’.

For you, what are the differences between sound and music?
It’s so blurred in so many ways. If you’re doing a sound piece – such as the ballets I did – the process of composition is hard and complex and you really do have to know what you’re doing before you start. So, in a way, I suppose its music, because it’s composed and arranged. Even the TARDIS was quite a complex thing to actually sit down and score – which I did in the interval of a movie at Kensington Odeon. But then I threw the graphic score away because I never thought it would become that important.

I’m interested in the very early days of the Radiophonic Workshop – what was it like when you joined?
I joined in late 1962 – Delia had already been there two months and John Baker joined about two months later.

It’s well documented that the workshop was massively underfunded; how did you make do?
The impetus to set up the workshop had come from the drama department rather than the music department, which had famously sent Daphne Oram a letter saying the BBC employed six orchestras to supply all the music they wanted, thank you very much! The drama department provided the push as they did a few experimental broadcasts. I don’t think it would ever happen again.

Did the lack of resources inhibit your creativity or enhance it?
The equipment was stuff that had been repaired than had initially been thrown out by the rest of the BBC. We worked on semi-professional tape recorders and lots of equipment that the BBC had bought, decided was useless and thrown to one side. We had a very good engineer called Dickie Bird. He was a genius at taking piles of broken junk and making it useable. We had 12 oscillators, a frequency standard oscillator and a frequency sweep oscillator that had been originally used for testing acoustics. We had a couple of tape recorders that had been made by a motorcycle manufacturer in Switzerland. They were quite amazing – they took 15 seconds to get up to speed but once they got up to speed they would run at solid speed in sync for most of the day. They were massive. To service them you pressed a button on the front and the whole front deck rose majestically into the air and then you went round the back and opened a little gate to get inside.

We were on the edge all the time. There was nowhere else in the world that had equipment like that we could work on so it was very exciting. Maddalena [Fagandini] was still there when I joined and I’d worked with her on several radio dramas, which is really how I got so interested in the workshop. Her work was magnificent. I was the studio manager on a brilliant early piece of radio called Living Time by Asimov, which Maddalena had done the music for. She was immensely talented.

You’re known for creating the sound effects for the TARDIS – what was the brief like for that? It must have been very vague!
Yes it was! Waris Hussein and Verity Lambert [director and producer] said they wanted a machine that travels through time and space. We were given a short piece of graphic that was done by [designer] Bernard Lodge, which was some video feedback, and they said they’d probably use it every time it takes off and lands but they’ll also use it in the titles. So they gave me a rough timeframe but of course they never did use it when it took off and landed so I could’ve used any timeframe I wanted. But the original piece was done to fit that load of graphics I’d been given.

Where did the sounds come from?
I had to think about it for an awful long time. The phrase, ‘the rending of the fabric of time and space’, kept being bandied around either by me or Verity or Waris or somebody, and I thought – ‘Where does a time machine go?’ It doesn’t go, ‘Bang! Whoosh!’ It’s not a rocket, it doesn’t go up. Does it go down, does it go sideways? Conceptually, I wanted something that would suggest it was coming and going at the same time, which I did with reverse echoes and reverse feedbacks.

So that’s how you put the momentum into the sound?
Yes, and once I’d done it I played it to them they got it but they said it really needed to have an upward swoop on it. That’s when I added – literally within the hour – an upward swoop on it with added feedback, which helped. It’s strange because it’s sort of become iconic. I used the noise of a key scraping up a piano because I wanted to get the ripping and rending. They were pre-recorded and then speed changed and cut together at different speeds. Loads of treatments were put on them.

When did you discover that you could earn royalties for your work?
I never thought of it as a piece of music, quite frankly. Because we weren’t members of PRS in those days, the BBC contract took all rights for everything you did. It wasn’t until John Baker had a battle with the BBC and put a waiver in the contract allowing the composer to register with PRS while the BBC retained the mechanical copyright. I forget when that was, but it was after Dr Who had started.

So you had your own negotiations with the BBC in 1977?
Yes, I’d never really declared much of what I had done anyway. I’d had some pieces published by Standard Music but I didn’t bother registering anything as music. We were just too busy doing it to be interested in that side of things, and Delia wasn’t fussed either. John was, but he did a lot of signature tunes so he registered everything. Delia was very lackadaisical at registering anything.

When you were at the Radiophonic Workshop, a lot of the electronic sounds we are familiar with today hadn’t ever been made before. How did you imagine the sounds that you wanted to create? How did you even know what things should sound like? Was there a lot of collaboration to work out your ideas?
No there wasn’t. You were very much on your own, working with the producer if they were that interested. But usually they’d come along and say what they wanted. The worst thing was when someone would come over and say, ‘I want a sound that nobody has ever heard before!’ And you’d think, ‘Crikey, where do I start with that one?!’

So, I suppose, you just use your own imagination. What does anybody do when they sit down and start to compose anything?

I think the vocabulary of music has really changed since then though and the Radiophonic Workshop had a big part to play in that. People will describe a lot of electronic music sounds now in ways that refer back to the work you were doing…
It’s strange because in the old days, people would talk about ‘trumpety’ sounds and ‘string’ sounds, but people don’t refer sideways anymore, they’re quite happy to accept an electronic sound for what it is rather than saying what it’s like.

If the workshop has left a legacy, I think it was down to the fact that we did so much schools’ broadcasting. We changed the ears of a generation. Children were loads more open and accepting of sound. All through the schools broadcasting, they were using the workshop a lot and so children just became used to different sounds.

You used a lot of found sounds too didn’t you?
Absolutely. We didn’t have any generators – any synthesisers or computers. You’d find all sorts of things. I’d use my dog barking, blowing bubbles through thick detergent, dropping scaffolding poles, banging empty water cylinders – anything that would make a noise. There was one marvellous time when I accidentally dropped a spring echo machine that we’d just had made for us by our engineer. It didn’t do it any good, but it made a smashing noise and that become allsorts of ray guns and crashes and bangs!

That idea of collecting sounds from everyday objects has been really assimilated across all genres of music, from folk artists to techno producers. Do you feel the workshop played a part in that?
Yes, I do, but don’t forget, found sound is the whole basis of musique concrete, which can be traced right back to its French roots. In fact, probably back to the modernists.

Oh yes, we were very conscious of the stuff people were doing elsewhere. We couldn’t get too involved in what was happening elsewhere though, because we were too busy! In those days, everything took a lot longer, even the minor pieces. It took me three weeks to put the TARDIS together. It took Delia about a month to realise Ron’s score for the signature tune. Nowadays you go into the studio, decide what you’re doing to use, stick it all in the computer and manipulate it. Everything we did was by hand on tape. You’d have to change the speed and at the beginning we didn’t really have a proper speed change machine.

Outside of the workshop, you had lots of other musical adventures didn’t you? Things like the White Noise project with Delia…
Oh yes, and Unit Delta Plus, which did one of the first electronic music concerts in The Mill theatre at Newbury.

What was the impetus behind these projects, which were outside of your work at the BBC?
I think we were encouraged. By then, Daphne had left to form her own company in Kent and Desmond Briscoe, who was head of the Radiophonic Workshop, was very keen for us to have as much stimulus as possible, from film, theatre and other things. It’s very important to get outside stimulus otherwise you disappear up your own nostril. I really enjoyed working with others.

What is your abiding memory of Delia Derbyshire?
She was a very good friend and a very talented, wonderful person – but also very troubled in many ways, especially towards the end. She became quite paranoid and she was abusing alcohol towards the end. She never got drunk or anything like that, it’s just that she would start sipping wine very early in the morning and would carry on all day. This made her quite erratic. One minute you would be the best friend, the next minute you would be this awful person who was stabbing her in the back. She went through all of that with Pete Kember as well. When she first met him she rang me to tell me about this wonderful boy who was so clever and was going to get her interested in music again. Next minute she’s on the phone talking about this awful person who’s trying to rip her off and has stolen all her equipment – but she went through that with everybody. She made up all sorts of stories about me! She would say I was alright because I was a relation of Desmond Briscoe, which I wasn’t! It was all rather tragic and such a futile waste of time.

Where do you think that frustration might have come from?
I think because she was so gifted, everything was always expected of her. She was always under pressure to produce results and I don’t think she was strong enough to cope with all of that. She left the Radiophonic Workshop in 1971 or 1972 when I left to form Electrophon [studio]. She was supposed to come with me but she really wasn’t with it at all. She was just fed up of the pressure and she was fed up with the equipment, which wouldn’t do what she was doing in her head. One of the great tragedies was had Delia been alive when sampling and computer synthesisers were more readily available, she would have blossomed. But by the time those things were available she wasn’t capable of assimilating them.

Members of the Radiophonic Workshop have reconvened to form a live outfit, including Peter Howell, Paddy Kingsland, Dick Mills and Mark Ayres. Their upcoming tour dates are:

9 October: Norwich, Epic Studios, with Public Service Broadcasting and Ulrich Schnauss
13 October: Leeds, City Varieties
15 October: Birmingham, Town Hall
18 October: Brighton, St Georges Church
22 October: Glasgow, Art School