Early BBC Radiophonics: Private Dreams And Public Nightmares (1957)

Private Dreams and Public Nightmares (1957) is an early BBC experiment in radiophonic sound, predating the establishment of the Radiophonic Workshop. It was created by Frederick Bradnum and Daphne Oram (pictured) and produced by Donald McWhinnie.

Donald McWhinnie introduces the work, which starts at 4:20.

via straypixel:


“This programme is an experiment. An exploration. It’s been put together with enormous enthusiasm and equipment designed for other purposes. The basis of it is an unlimited supply of magnetic tape, recording machine, razor blade, and some thing to stick the bits together with. And a group of technicians who think that nothing is too much trouble – provided that it works.

“You take a sound. Any sound. Record it and then change its nature by a multiplicity of operations. Record it at different speeds. Play it backwards. Add it to itself over and over again. You adjust filters, echos, acoustic qualities. You combine segments of magnetic tape. By these means and many others you can create sounds which no one has ever heard before. Sounds which have indefinable and unique qualities of their own. A vast and subtle symphony can be composed from the noise of a pin dropping. In fact one of the most vibrant and elemental sounding noises in tonight’s programme started life as an extremely tinny cowbell.

“It’s a sort of modern magic. Many of you may be familiar with it. They’ve been exploiting it on the continent for years. But strangely enough we’ve held aloof. Partly from distrust. Is it simply a new toy? Partly through complacency. Ignorance too. We’re saying at last that we think there’s some thing in it. But we aren’t calling it ‘musique concrète’. In fact we’ve decided not to use the word music at all. Some musicians believe that it can become an art form itself. Others are sceptical. That’s not our immediate concern. We’re interested in its application to radio writing – dramatic or poetic – adding a new dimension. A form that is essentially radio.

“Properly used, radiophonic effects have no relationship with any existing sound. They’re free of irrelevent associations. They have an emotional life of their own. And they could be a new and invaluable strand in the texture of radio and theatre and cinema and television.”

5 thoughts on “Early BBC Radiophonics: Private Dreams And Public Nightmares (1957)

  1. This is interesting to think about in connection to the Beatles. This is from 1957. The Beatles got around to, say, “Strawberry Fields” about 1966. The accepted history of the Beatles is that they were “playing with tape” and just making up wild techniques as they went along. But the spoken introduction says that in Europe people had been playing with tape effects for some time. And this has some interesting effects from 1957. This isn’t “Revolution No. 9” but it has some dense parts.

  2. Fantastic stuff! The introduction is really great and he has a point there: about how tape / electronic effects lend themselves quite naturally to certain emotional overtones but far less readily to others or – at least – that’s something I’ve been thinking about myself this afternoon whilst playing with Phonogene and ADDAC WAV player… Thanks for posting!

  3. The part of the introduction I’m referring to isn’t included in the above transcript so:
    “… there are any number of ways of using these new techniques. They’ve already been applied in a modest way in thrillers and science fiction plays. Indeed the broad effects are the easiest to achieve: horror, hysterical comedy… Much more difficult to manage tenderness, lyrical beauty, sweetness and light. Perhaps because of the inhuman element in the actual process of manufacture.”
    Isn’t it still true that extending experimental electronic music beyond a certain rather narrow emotional repertoire is something of a challenge? Or is ’emotional repertoire’ altogether the wrong territory?

  4. >Isn’t it still true that extending experimental electronic music beyond a certain rather narrow emotional repertoire is something of a challenge?

    I’ve wondered about this too. But the modern world is so commercial, and so narrowly commercial, that I generally don’t blame electronic instruments and tools, but rather the modern culture. About the only place really large numbers of people hear music together is on movie soundtracks. So music is always doing the same things: supporting a car chase or swelling up some emotional scene or underscoring some drama scene. What’s the rest? Dance music and advertising, which also have narrow, well-defined boundaries.

    Today isn’t like the days of folk or folk-jazz, when music was expressing the personality of the different performer. There is some of that, still, of course, but I think we see such a narrow range of electronic music because everyone is trying to fit in and be a part of a culture that only needs a narrow range of music.

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