Desmond Briscoe: A Tribute

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Chris Morley pays tribute to Desmond Briscoe, an early pioneer of electronic music and co-founder of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.


While we all know of the Radiophonic Workshop as a cult concern responsible for soundtracking the early years of Doctor Who, comparatively less has been said of the origins of that most experimental of BBC departments hidden away in Room Thirteen at Television Centre. The man who alongside Daphne Oram served as studio manager of the embryonic Workshop, Desmond Briscoe, was born on June 21, 1925 in Birkenhead.



Briscoe initially joined the Beeb as a drama studio manager in the early Fifties. He & Oram would work together on a production of Samuel Beckett's All That Fall for radio in January 1957, the resulting piece of work seen by many as the true beginnings of Radiophonic experimentation.



A 2006 Guardian obituary would later hail his foresight, saying,
"Realising Beckett's wish for a new kind of "pure radio" - one that blended dialogue, music and sound effect - Briscoe used the Parisian techniques of musique concrète (music made by editing together and manipulating bits of prerecorded magnetic tape) to create sounds previously unheard on British radio, thus bringing to public attention the potential for electronic tape effects in drama."
And how were these effects achieved?
"Since the journey of the main character is presented psychologically, Beckett asked for natural sounds to be adapted in unnatural ways. Briscoe, as sound designer, and Norman Baines, gramophone operator, altered farm animal sounds from the BBC’s extensive sound effects library using concrète techniques."
Indeed, the place's reason for being was just that, to provide new music & sound effects for radio. Giles Cooper's The Disagreeable Oyster & Frederick Bradnum's Private Dreams And Public Nightmares would follow later that same year , the department officially coming into being in 1958. Desmond would then soon begin work on the famous Quatermass And The Pit broadcasts!



Was there ever a more succinct summing up as that offered by the man himself? Speaking in 1983 he said,
"We are often asked for sounds that have never been heard before. We have prospered because we have provided and realised them on anything and everything from the most advanced synthesiser/computer in the world to a red fire extinguisher, in approximately G sharp."
Even the loss of Oram in 1959, as she began to develop her own Oramics system, though, couldn't derail Briscoe. And as the Fifties gave way to the Sixties, the technical journals the Workshop published available free of charge would influence the likes of Pink Floyd - The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn embellished using lessons learnt Radiophonically. And take a listen to the riff of One Of These Days from Meddle...



Coincidence?

If the Workshop were an inspiration to Floyd, then who inspired the Workshop? Or more specifically, who inspired Briscoe? The answer to that is a pair of French musicians...
"Initially, [Briscoe's] job was to control the balance of instruments in musical performances and drop recordings of sound effects into drama productions, but he also worked with producers to start incorporating more unusual effects.

Although he had never been to Paris specifically to hear musique concrète, he had heard recordings of early electronic music by Pierre Schaeffer and Karlheinz Stockhausen, and was fascinated by it."


Schaeffer's work at the forefront of early experimental music would prove an inspiration to the department Briscoe would help to found by '58. And a certain '63 commission would cement its reputation.


Brian Hodgson would later write a tribute to the late Delia Derbyshire concerning her work on Ron Grainer's theme for Doctor Who,
"Grainer had worked his tune to fit in with the graphics. He used expressions for the noises he wanted - such as wind, bubbles, and clouds."

"It was a world without synthesisers, samplers and multi-track tape recorders; Delia, assisted by her engineer Dick Mills, had to create each sound from scratch. She used concrete sources and sine- and square-wave oscillators, tuning the results, filtering and treating, cutting so that the joins were seamless, combining sound on individual tape recorders, re-recording the results, and repeating the process, over and over again."
Not bad at all for a department Mills would later reflect upon being thought of by critics as producing...
"...sounds that nobody liked, for plays that nobody could understand!"

Under Briscoe's direction the Workshop grew from being a small back room department to being one of the most acclaimed electronic studios in the world. He stepped back from organisation duties in 1977 but remained with the Workshop until 1983, supporting and encouraging the new breed of composers to join the Workshop's ranks. As The Guardian wrote,
"[Briscoe spent much of his time] indefatigably fighting with BBC administration for more equipment, space and money. These efforts resulted ultimately in one of the most influential electronic music studios in the world, whose impact continues to be felt in both popular music and the music of film and television."
The Workshop eventually closed its doors in 1998, but during thirty years of innovation it produced countless ground breaking soundtracks, and it all began thanks to the pioneering engineer Desmond Briscoe.

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