Sensoria: The Alchemists of Sound

alchemists-of-sound-montageLate April brings the eclectic and occasionally eccentric Sensoria film and music festival to Sheffield. Stepping beyond the usual tokenism of other single media festivals Sensoria manages that rare feat of keeping one foot in the live music venue and the other in the picturehouse. The most headline grabbing attraction this year has been the big-news-in-certain-circles reunion of local post-punk legends The Comsat Angels introduced by the quiffed face of British mainstream film criticism Dr Mark Kermode (residing). Which in my book at least lived up to the hype, carried if nothing else on the radioactive love of the Comsat fans. I doubt I will ever again see quite so many middle-aged men in quite such a buoyant state of boyish ecstasy. Three more ‘final weekend’ dates have been announced so look them up if you’re in need of some angular early 80’s introspective pop.

Yet the Alchemists of this post aren’t the Walkley-based foursome but rather the title of a 2003 documentary about the spectacular and cultishly lauded BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Their name may not be instantly recognisable to most but their output will be, if purely for the iconic music to many a British childhood nightmare in the theme tune to Doctor Who. On a smaller scale anyone who’s had to endure a stint in the British education system may be familiar with the workshops’ electro signatures to any number of mind-numbing educational programmes. Just about the only fond memory I have of geography lessons is chanting along with my peers to the relentlessly progressive and chirpy theme to something billed as Landscapes or Global or something equally asinine. Schools programming parody Look Around You excellently captured the incidental swooshes blips and blops that gave these programmes their bizarrely futuristic sound. That is to all purposes the Radiophonic Workshop at its simplest.

Born in the late 50’s out of the experimentation and engineering know-how of the sound technicians at BBC radio the story of the workshop is one of decidedly British eccentrics from both the sciences and the arts honing away at defining their own craft. It’s an absolute goldmine for a documentary. Alchemists of Sound takes the conventional talking-heads route of anecdote driven historicizing, spliced together with narrated segments of that classic tv documentary trick of tracking and zooming in/out of still images. Which is perfectly ok as there’s something ineffably awesome about seeing musicians dwarfed by banks of sound modulators, or hunched over an array of magnetic tape decks. It is as fine a document as any of the genuine razors-and-tape craft which went behind these early electronic experiments. About five and a half minutes into the Youtube clip below you can see how they laboriously constructed the Dr Who theme, layer for layer. It’s amazing, I could listen to that opening bass note all day.

As if in illustration of the gulf between early sound technology and modern digital sound manipulation, the archivist concludes the segment by compiling the meticulously layered tracks one by one on his rather handy computer. It’s almost a little deflating.

The screening was followed by a Q&A with Dick Mills, one of these very alchemist interviewed in the documentary who was more than willing to share tales of late night splicing and rushed commissions for long forgotten regional programmes. Rounding up the session one of the organizers for the festival asked Dick if he knew any reason why the gathered audience was predominantly made up of ‘young folk’. He was much at a loss to explain this new generation’s interest, but the audience itself was more than keen to chip in. Respect for the craft, the discipline and the sheer inventiveness of the Workshop were all cited and Dick was more than a little bowled over.

The added value of film festivals is more than reciprocal for an audience who goes out of their way to encounter both strange films and occasionally those brave souls associated to these strange films. Those tech savvy kidz could have more than likely just stayed at home on that frightfully wet Monday evening and just sneakily watched it on Youtube. But then that would be to rather miss the point.

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