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Special Sound: The Creation and Legacy of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop Paperback – Oct 1 2010

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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10 of 14 people found the following review helpful
Great subject, but falls short Nov. 16 2010
By Kyle A. Wright - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The BBC Radiophonic Workshop was established in the late 1950s to create "special sound" for BBC radio (and later TV) productions. Initially working with tape and primitive electronics, the workshop created some of the earliest electronic sound effects and music, all for various BBC productions (most famously "Dr. Who"). They continued in this for 40 years, often pioneering the way with synthesizers and MIDI systems.

Most likely due to the fact that they were not part of the academic music establishment at the time, the workshop's history has rarely been written about - the only real exception (to my knowledge) being Desmond Briscoe's impossible-to-find history of the workshop's first 25 years. Louis Niebur therefore sets out here to provide an account of the workshop's founding, the work they did, and their legacy.

The text itself clocks in at just over 200 pages and reads very much like a thesis with lots of end-notes and phrases like "In the next section I will present...." There's also a lot of repetition (re-introducing people and pieces) and overload (including exhaustive accounts of newspaper reviews), particularly in the first half of the book. Some content would have been better served as an appendix.

Nieber devotes a large portion of the book to discussions of the sociological & cultural issues surrounding the creation of the workshop and interactions within it, lengthy note-by-note dissections of pieces, analysis of pieces to their radio/tv contexts in terms of film theory, and lots of guesswork as to the composers' motives behind their compositions and choice of sound. These can get really tedious, and you have to wonder if he's just trying to fill up pages.

That said, the book does have some very interesting and well-written material on the studio's move from tape to synthesizers to MIDI, the work done for various BBC projects, and electronic music's gradual acceptance within the BBC. The publisher also provides a companion website which has audio and video examples referenced in the book.

But I feel that there's a lot left out. At most there's only minimal discussion of the actual construction of the tape works (and the techniques involved). The coverage of the pre-synthesizer equipment and electronics used in the studio was severely lacking too - the author keeps bringing up this amazing "glowpot mixer" but never actually says what it was or did. Additionally, there is very little in the way of context outside of the workshop (what was going on at other electronic music studios? where were other electronic radio/tv/film scores being composed?). I think this sort of content would help the book tremendously, making it more readable and interesting to a wider group of readers.

As an academic document, or for those interested in the history and theory of film music, I imagine that this would be an excellent book. But for those interested in what the workshop composers and engineers did - and how they did it - the book sadly falls short.