Beckett And The BBC Radiophonic Workshop

One of my favourite Samuel Beckett pieces is ALL THAT FALL, and, in search of a memory-refresher on a detail of the piece, I found this thing that I don’t think I knew before:

Since the journey of the main character is presented psychologically, Beckett asked for natural sounds to be adapted in unnatural ways. “New methods,” Martin Esslin writes, “had to be found to extract the various sounds needed (both animal and mechanical – footsteps, cars, bicycle wheels, the train, the cart) from the simple naturalism of the hundreds of records in the BBC’s effects library. Desmond Briscoe [sound technician] (and his gramophone operator, Norman Baines) had to invent ways and means to remove these sounds from the purely realistic sphere. They did so by treating them electronically: slowing down, speeding up, adding echo, fragmenting them by cutting them into segments, and putting them together in new way.”[80]Actors produced the sounds of all the animals but “Beckett was actually unimpressed by the use of human voices for the rural sounds when he listened into the … broadcast.”[81]

“These experiments, and the discoveries made as they evolved, led directly to the establishment of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Beckett and All That Fall thus directly contributed to one of the most important technical advances in the art of radio (and the technique, and indeed technology, of radio in Britain).”

Also in Briscoe’s Guardian obit:

The pioneering sound engineer Desmond Briscoe, who has died aged 81, was among the first in Britain to realise the potential of electronic music in the 1950s, initially through composition and eventually as manager of the BBC’s electronic music studio, the Radiophonic Workshop, from 1960 to 1984.

His breakthrough commission – the success of which ultimately led to the creation of the studio – was Samuel Beckett’s first radio play, All That Fall (1957). 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.

I kind of love the notion that the sainted BBC Radiophonic Workshop is all Samuel Beckett’s fault.