The Old School
Someone whose career in music began before the invention of the tape recorder will have witnessed a revolution in music technology. Peter Ridsdale shares the experiences of a man who has spent a lifetime composing for pictures.
Ed Williams began his career in music before the invention of the tape recorder, in his time he's seen tremendous advances in technology - and he's not tired of it yet..
ED WILLIAMS IS PERHAPS BEST KNOWN outside the professional world of TV and films as the man who wrote the music for David Attenborough's Life On Earth series (the epic 13-part nature documentary). This was just one episode, however, in a career that began before the second world war. Williams is completely self-educated, musically speaking, and is at home with orchestral and electronic modes of expression. He has scored the music for two Oscar-winning films, amongst many others (Wild Wings and Dylan Thomas) and has contributed to a host of TV features including The Nature of Australia, Earth and Korea - The Forgotten War.
While his career began before the invention of the tape-recorder, Williams has kept abreast of technological developments as they've occurred and has retained an idiosyncratic approach to technology. There's a feeling, when talking to him, that he is never led by technology as so many people seem to be, but rather that the uses of any particular technology are carefully assessed to see where they fit into Williams' scheme of things. Perhaps the most striking example of this is the lack of emphasis on the keyboard as the principal means of control in Williams' studio.
Emerging from his first experiences with "classic" electronic techniques and a belief that the limited manipulation of plastic keys is not the most expressive way of making music, one of the manifestations of Williams' thinking in this area has been the development of the Soundbeam - the movement-to-MIDI converter that is now being marketed by British company EMS. It's also manifested in Williams' use of electronic transformations of acoustic instruments, both in the studio and live performance.
Let's begin with Williams' background as a film music composer:
"My working life to date, and there's going to be a good deal more of it, has seen amazing change. My first job was as an assistant to a man who directed music for films - a man called Muir Mathieson. The first music session that I went to in any sort of official capacity was at Denham Studios in 1941 for a film called The 49th Parallel made by Powell and Pressburger with music by Vaughn Williams - a session with the London Symphony Orchestra and Vaughn Williams himself. Muir had persuaded Vaughn Williams to come out of retirement to write the music for this film - it stunned me because Vaughn Williams was my hero and he was actually there. The reason I mention this is because at that session, and subsequently for some considerable time, the recording engineer's job was to listen to the music in the studio and then go into his little box and make sure that the recording machines recorded a faithful picture of what he'd heard. Of course the thing has totally changed even from a recording point of view. No recording engineer today goes and listens to what people are playing he makes the sound himself - he mikes up the drums in such a way as to produce the sound he likes. The composer writes for loudspeakers, and regards the engineer as a co-operating partner in the business of producing music for loudspeakers."
Recordings at this time were made directly onto the soundtrack of 35mm film, using either variable area or variable density light image. The BBC had the rather dangerous Marconi steel wire recorder, but tape recorders didn't become widely available until the early '50s. Magnetic tape opened up a whole new realm of electronic possibilities which composers of Williams' generation were not slow to pick up on - but Williams, with characteristic modesty, disclaims pioneer status.
"At about the time that I was an assistant to Muir Matheson - '48, when I was 27 - other people had gone entirely into electronics and were working away at electronics in a way that I certainly wasn't - the Darmstadt people for instance. The French school of musique concrete were using real live sounds to make music - concrete blocks dropping on the floor, railway trains, et cetera. Those two schools, the French and the German, and to a certain extent the Italian school, were working away with very limited technical means. There were wire recorders by then but still no tape recorders.
"The English person who did most in electronics was a composer called Tristram Cary. He had had a musical education before the war as a cellist and composer, and a training in signals and wireless during it. After the war he started making a whole lot of electronic devices at his own studio in Norfolk. He actually got employed in films quite a lot making music of that kind - I think I'm right in saying that he had to do a famous noise for The Man in the White Suit, an Ealing comedy. Anyhow, the point is that Tristram developed various means of making music electronically - he knew enough to be able to construct oscillators and to use wire machines - in fact he told me once that he first of all started making loops on gramophone disc cutters."
Had he by any chance perfected the glitch-free loop for the record player?
"God knows - I was thinking of that as I was saying it - I wonder how he managed.
"Tristram was very keen that all composers should get involved in electronics so he laid on a ten-day course at his studio, and ten or 12 of us assembled there - Thea Musgrave was one of the composers involved, Alan Rawsthorne was another. He persuaded us that things like oscillators and amplifiers were interesting to play with and we ended up by making a piece which I've still got a recording of. Around about that time I got asked to do some music for a wildlife film which had a certain amount of underwater stuff. It was called Between the Tides and that was the first film for which I did an electronic score. I wrote a whole lot of piano music and I then took it to a friend who had a recording studio in London and he messed about with it in all sorts of interesting ways. I didn't really understand what he was doing - I really had no claim to authorship of the electronics but it was the first one I tried...
"Today composers write for loudspeakers, and regard engineers as cooperating partners in the business of producing music for loudspeakers"
"I tried all sorts of experiments - I persuaded one fellow to let me make big loops on film. The theory was that I would write a piece for trumpet which was a four-part canon that would also fit with itself in augmentation - that's to say twice the length of notes and also in diminution - half the length of notes - so that out of one trumpet player we would get 12 loops. We played them round and round and then on the mixer we got what we wanted for the film. I remember people passing these 30- or 40-foot loops out of the projectionist's window into the yard and back again."
"IN THE 60'S MOOG INVENTED VOLTAGE control. Within a year of that, Peter Zinoviev and the firm EMS produced a voltage-controlled synthesiser called the VCS3. That came about because Zinoviev was at that time a composer who used computers to make decisions about composition. He wanted a machine which would realise in terms of sound the compositions that he produced, so he got Tristram Cary in to specify the various gadgets that he would need. Miniaturisation made it possible to specify oscillators and filters which were really tiny in comparison to the early Moog. Two years after the Moog that was the size and cost of a house, EMS in London were able to produce the VCS3 at about the cost of a Mini car. EMS went on from there, but at that point or shortly after I acquired my first VCS3 - I think they're marvellous machines and I still use mine every working day. So, I got one of those and I started seriously using it - I didn't have a keyboard at first. Around about then, along came a job - a documentary film about the geological history of the North American continent and there was a lot of fossil stuff and underwater stuff and I used my VCS3 for the first time for that but... But. I really felt that the sounds of oscillators by themselves were very inexpressive. So I started using my VCS3 to mess about with conventional instrumental sounds."
Williams also began to get heavily into tape feedback. About this time a young art student called Brian Eno began to experiment with mascara and Revoxes. In California a cocktail bar pianist called Terry Riley started giving all-night concerts with two of these legendary tape recorders, and a certain Robert Fripp was calling the twin Revox system "Frippertronics".
The origins of these techniques however, as with so many others, go back to earlier days.
"I remember a friend - an engineer at Beaconsfield in the days when that was a recording studio for a firm called Anvil - having something go wrong and getting tape feedback. This was the first time I heard it, and it sounded absolutely riveting, so I got him to do it again for me and I've been using it ever since - using two tape machines and putting it through the VCS3 and so on. I've abandoned that in the last two years; we now have digital delay lines which do exactly the same thing with a great deal less loss of quality. The interesting thing is that the loss of quality very often becomes something worth having for its own sake. With digital delays you don't get any deterioration at all - you have to put up with hearing it very clearly."
Whilst Williams acknowledges that the painstaking efforts of early electronic music composers produced an "aura" that is all too often missing, when you can achieve at the press of a button what would have previously taken weeks, he also welcomes the technical advances.
"I'm a very lazy person indeed. The thought of getting stuck into some of these heavy procedures where if I put that thing next to that and then grind down a few bits here, then get another bit made here and so on, next Thursday we might hear something - I can't manage with that, I want to dabble my toes in it and feel it as it goes along. I'm continually trying to set it up so that I can throw spanners into the works but control it at the same time."
FOR MANY OF US THE DIGITAL revolution happened when we acquired our first digital keyboard, but this was not the case with Williams. There are keyboards at his studio, but as often as not they're likely to be used as a row of switches rather than as a musical instrument.
"I've never been a keyboard player", he explains. "I can doodle but I'm pretty incompetent. As far as I'm concerned, the digital revolution has happened to me in the last two years and it hit me with a bang - I acquired a sampler, joined the Composer's Desktop Project and bought an Atari. I understand how those things work and I'm very much interested in them."
"I remember a friend having something go wrong and getting tape feedback - I got him to do it again and I've been using it ever since."
For those of you who haven't come across the Composer's Desktop Project before, it's a group of composers and computer buffs who are working in the field of non-commercial music, trying to make the high-power software programmes developed at places like IRCAM and MIT available to Atari users.
"There's a great feeling of comradeship and mutual help in the CDP. There is criticism by some members that there is an enormous amount of software in the commercial field which competes with what they do and which they haven't taken much notice of, but it's actually run by a lot of selfless people simply slogging away and not composing themselves as a result - they're trying to get it off the ground so that it is truly mutual and co-operative.
"A great many people in the CDP are interested in making sounds up from scratch using computers and digital means and making very beautiful sounds too. But it's a very deliberate form of music making - you have to write down a lot of figures, type out a whole lot of things and wait for six weeks and then perhaps you'll get something out of it. I can't work like that, or at least I don't want to work like that. What I'm after is getting samples which I can use in compositions, and then messing about with them in digital form, or mixing them with others or making them amenable to performance with a keyboard."
According to Williams, the CDP arc having great success abroad and are "very cheerful" about their decision to stick with the Atari in the face of possible incursions into the musical arena by IBM PCs.
"There is enormous investment in the Atari and I think that in the same way as the Acorn BBC got itself well stuck into all sorts of schools - there are still thousands of them about and there's still a tremendous amount of software for them - I guess that the wide investment by musicians in the Atari means that, if it ceases to be the flavour of the month and people go off in the direction of the IBMs, the Atari user will not be left behind."
And the next step forward?
"Another of those changes that's just about to happen to me is the change from analogue tape machines to digital. I'm going to get an RDAT machine now, because it's a noiseless means of reproducing sound. Also, the CDP proposes that one of the pieces of equipment you need is a Sony PCM, whose job it is to be an analogue-to-digital converter so that you can then store your results on a cheap Betamax video tape machine. You can manipulate and mess about with the stuff on hard disk and then when you've finished with your composition you record it onto video tape. RDAT has come to prominence since that system was decided on, and they're now adapting it so that it will take an RDAT machine instead of a PCM."
Williams has been keen over the years to achieve "studio" transformations of acoustic playing in live contexts. To this end, he's done a number of workshops and performances with other musicians and artists. He is currently planning an ambitious multi-media dance and music performance with Brian Johnson, a video artist who is similarly interested in visual transformations. The keyword here is "interactive" as the plan is to have several Soundbeams activated by dancers so that they partly control the music they're dancing to. Williams and Robin Wood of EMS were the moving spirits behind the Soundbeam device, which was finally designed by Richard Monkhouse. It is a kind of Theremin for the '80s and uses an ultrasonic echo-sounder to detect the presence and range of any object in the path of the beam. It's MIDI equipped so that any synthesiser, sampler or sequencer can be controlled by it. By simply moving about in the beam it's possible to trigger preset or user-defined scales, patch changes, samples or whatever takes your fancy. It has also won the 1989 award from the Institute of Social Inventions, as the device has opened up a new world of music making for the disabled. With a range of 0.3.6 metres the Soundbeam can be set up so that even the most limited movement can make dramatic aural changes. For more about this interesting box of tricks watch this space.
Meanwhile back at the interview, Williams concludes by applying his long-range perspective to the essential benefits of electronics.
"One of the main things that electronics has given us is the ability to achieve complexities without putting orchestral players through it - some of the complexities which players are asked to deal with seem so boring. I'm not sure if the composer has the right to ask such miseries of orchestras. Electronics give us the opportunity of giving players interesting and rewarding things to do without having to avoid complexities - electronics can be used to make transformations into the complexities that composers want to hear."
Perhaps it's not so strange that such a positive view of the future should come from someone with such an insight into the past.