Return to Atlantis
Can I offer a footnote to Dan Wilson’s weirdly fascinating piece on Daphne Oram (The Wire 330)? Louis Niebur’s recent book Special Sound: The Creation And Legacy Of The BBC Radiophonic Workshop (reviewed in Print Run this month) was a revelation to me for its forensic exposure of the BBC’s suppression of experimental music in the post-war period. One of the only openings for electronic music was through radio drama. He notes an early example from 1958, a production of Prometheus Unbound which included radiophonic effects devised by Daphne Oram and Madeau Stewart.
I knew Madeau quite well. She was a formidable character, cousin to the Mitford sisters and saviour of the V&A’s musical instrument collection. In the 1960s, during visits to Inch Kenneth (the Scottish island over which the deranged Unity Mitford had flown a Nazi flag in the 1940s) she played flute to the seals. Aside from writing an introduction to New/Rediscovered Musical Instruments, the little book I edited in 1974, Madeau allowed me open access and borrowing rights to the BBC Sound Archives from 1971 onwards and invited me (and Max Eastley) to make a number of unorthodox programmes for Radio 3.
Recently I came across a letter she sent to me in 1995, less than a year before her death at the age of 84. I quote: “Some years ago I was asked to provide the first chapter for a Cambridge Companion To The Flute... So I wrote it and included what I considered to be a rather brilliant passage about plate tectonics or continental drift which explained why there is such a wide distribution of similar myths, instruments, ceremonies etc etc all over the world. The editor thought the whole idea bunkum and went to the trouble of getting an eminent geologist to agree that it was bunkum. Well, the other day in a funny little shop of curios round the corner I found The Sunken Kingdom: The Atlantis Mystery Solved by Peter James. I haven’t finished reading it yet, but James goes into the continental drift thing and I am once again convinced that Once Upon a Time there was one huge land mass and one culture.”
Perhaps there is a radio drama to be written (with radiophonic effects) based on imaginary conversations between Oram and Stewart in the Broadcasting House cafeteria, circa 1958? David Toop via email
Bob Ostertag’s Collateral Damage essay and Charles Taylor’s letter (The Wire 330) highlight something that seems to be missing from the debate on illegal downloading and its effects on music: a moral stance. We need to step back from the current, taken-for-granted view that illegal downloading and file sharing ‘just happen’ and that it’s simply the way things are. Why not – gasp! – take responsibility for our actions and not do it?
In the same issue Alex Botten’s excuse in his letter that he downloads music “because I have no money” doesn’t really hold water. I realise, in saying this, that he isn’t “going to be shamed into buying records” by a letter in The Wire, but it might be worth applying his reasoning to the real world. If you passed a restaurant and fancied an expensive, carefully prepared meal but couldn’t afford it, would you go in and take it regardless? Do you expect to travel for free if you want to go on holiday but can’t afford it? Then why, when there are so many free means of listening to music (Last FM, Spotify, YouTube, etc), do you rob artists of their earnings?
I realise this might seem like a tediously earnest and sanctimonious view; I understand the landscape has changed beyond recognition and the clock can’t be turned back. But if we all simply assume ‘well, y’know, that’s the way it is, my behaviour won’t make any difference’ and carry on, then we are continually, repeatedly to blame. Matthew McKinnon via email
Re: Joseph Stannard’s review of Jean Michel Jarre’s inaccurately named Essentials &
Rarities set (Soundcheck, The Wire 330). While I reluctantly concur that Jarre has increasingly diluted the strength of the work that first catapulted him to fame with every subsequent album released following Zoolook thanks to his increasingly prolific concert staging – although Rendezvous is not without its charms and shares a bond with Zoolook, in that they both rework key material originally presented on the Music For Supermarkets album – I do feel that there’s a far bigger criticism that has been missed in the review.
After many years of waiting for someone to gather up all Jarre’s early work, 7" remixes and 12" re-workings in some form, never mind early live classics such as the Place de la Concorde show, what we have here hardly scratches the surface. It certainly isn’t the long overdue comprehensive singles retrospective that I, for one, have long hoped for, and half of the Rarities disc appeared on CD just a few years ago as part of the full Granges Brulées soundtrack. However, while some of the material here is thin in comparison to later work, “Hypnose” (which I hadn’t heard before) is a cracking proto-“Oxygene” piece, and the previously unreleased “Happiness Is A Sad Song” would certainly not be out of place on a Radiophonic Workshop album of the time. “Black Bird” is worthy of repeated listens too, and, as Stannard mentioned, so is “Iraqi Hitch-Hiker” (with an unexpected Rendezvous-era sound towards the end of that one).
Back in the early 1990s there was talk of a rarities box set, and I’ve seen an identical cover to the one used on the back of the Essentials & Rarities box on a bootleg of his early work, but this is hardly the same thing. And so I’m left feeling puzzled as to who they think will buy this apart from hardcore fans such as myself, especially as the so-called Essentials disc only really serves as an album sampler in tribute to the sadly departed publisher/label founder Francis Dreyfus.
It’s a real shame because Jarre’s music more than deserves to be collected in a coherent way. Like many artists, he needs someone with a sympathetic ear to both curate it and pull it all together. Not that I’m trying to volunteer myself, of course! Rob Kirby Hitchin, UK
Re: Clive Bell’s article on sea shanties (The Wire 328). Clive states that sea shanties share the call and response format with “the field hollers of slavery and the priest/congregation interchange of church liturgy”. This is a mistake, as a field holler is a solo lament and not a call and response form at all. I’m sure there was a certain amount of cross pollination between the work song (which should have been used as an example in the article) and the field holler, but there is no reason to mislead readers that they weren’t distinct forms. I recommend reading Alan Lomax’s The Land Where The Blues Began if you want to learn more about this period of music history. Daniel Sowerby via email
Wet behind the ears
Re: The review of Death By Water (Outer Limits, The Wire 327). Nick Richardson, in spite of what he claims about the familiarity of laptop sound processing techniques, needs an ear training programme to discern digitally processed sounds from analogue ones. In our work we never used laptops or computers to process or sample sounds. Fabio Selvafiorita via email
Corrections Issue 330 In the Jim O’Rourke Primer, it was stated that O’Rourke first met Peter Rehberg in 1997 in Nickelsdorf; in fact they were introduced to each other in 1996 at the Hyperstrings Festival in Vienna. In the Soundcheck review of 4 Compositions For Orchestra it was stated that Pat Thomas has won a Paul Hamlyn Award. He has been shortlisted, but the award winners will not be announced until November.
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