Inventions For Radio (1964)/Vertigo Bird

Although she spent much of her active career in relative anonymity, the sounds created by Delia Derbyshire and her colleagues at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (David Cain, Daphne Oram, John Baker, Malcolm Clarke, Peter Howell, Paddy Kingsland and others) have seeped deep into the culture. She is best known for her 1963 arrangement of Ron Grainer’s theme for Dr Who but her influence runs much further than this one short piece and its associated sound effects: her 1969 White Noise collaboration with David Vorhaus on Love Without Sound and the startling aural textures of Ziwzih Ziwzih OO-OO-OO are tracks that still sound like a possible future in 2011, anticipating everything from Kraftwerk to such latter day retro futurists as Broadcast and The Advisory Circle. Her music acquires mystique and listeners as the years go by.

If the scale of her achievement has only slowly emerged from the archives, music libraries and other low-key places where it had been largely hidden from public view, her place is already secure in the pantheon of twentieth century music. Even before recent programmes of reissues and new releases of music from the Derbyshire archives made her achievements more widely accessible, copies of previously unheard material were doing the rounds of fans and aficianados of early electronics. It was by this route that almost a decade ago, a friend passed me a home recorded CD containing a piece of uncategorizable music and spoken word going by the title Dreams (Inventions for Radio 1964) with strict instructions not to pass it on, or let anyone else know I had it, owing to a slightly shady provenance and some copyright issues.

I can only assume those issues are now solved, since not only is the piece now available on the wonderful online archive resource that is Ubuweb (see the link above) an edited version is also the soundtrack to Charles Linehan’s Inventions for Radio (1964) as presented during the final weekend of Nottdance 2011 last Saturday. Linehan’s dance piece takes the layered voices and sounds of Derbyshire’s Dreams as they describe falling and running, drowning and surfacing, colours and changes in light, and adds a series of duets and trios which tap into the soundtrack’s unique atmospherics without falling into the trap of miming the odd stories we hear. If anything, Linehan’s choreography (in an inversion of the usual order of things) is treated as a kind of underscore to the soundtrack, rather than the main event.

That’s much less true of The Fault Index, the second Linehan piece presented during this mixed bill, which used a new score and a similar structure of duets and trios to examine various isolated sequences of movement: in one section, a rectangle of light on the floor seemed to become a sort of abstract boxing ring, echoing (probably coincidentally) an earlier re-staging of Jack Goldstein’s Two Boxers in this same space. While presented as a work in progress (some sections screened as rehearsal videos, others live on stage) there was an undoubted fluidity to this and the relationship of the choreography to ordinary movement made me think of poetry’s relationship to everyday speech: a heightening and refinement, rather than a different species.

Where Linehan’s work was subtle, understated and fluid, that of Iztok Kovač’s Slovenia-based En-Knap Group (EKG) was work of an entirely different order: Kovac and his company have worked all over Europe since they formed in 1992, but he and his long-time collaborator – the film-maker Sašo Podgoršek – appeared on Saturday to talk about a series of dance films shot in and around Kovač’s birthplace (and, it seems, inexhaustible muse) the post-Communist industrial town of Trbovlje. The two showed a montage of pieces from the company’s history (including material from this extraordinary sequence filmed on a cliff face) and then the full 30 minute Vertigo Bird, which culminates in Kovač striking graceful bird-like poses while circling the lip of a 365 metre tall industrial chimney: this was dance delivered with a force rarely seen on conventional stages.

The landscape of lunar dunes created by Trbovlje’s cement works is used, as are such locations as factory showers and rooms where workers change into protective clothing. At nearly all points, there’s a potent sense of physical force and potential danger, which gives the En-Knap films a rare ability to put viewers – as the Hollywood cliche would have it – on the edge of their seats. At times during Vertigo Bird, it was only the fact that Kovač was sitting on stage in front of us that gave reassurance that he would, after all, survive the remarkable things we were watching him do on film.

Ahead of the screening, he and Podgoršek joined Linehan for a short conversation, making light of their collaborations and focusing as much on the way that Trbovlje and its distinctive post-industrial landscape had shaped their work as on their own response to it. It seemed to be the case that the location required a kind of movement that pushed Kovač and his company into territory where the dance became adequate to the scale and sheer physical presence of its setting: Kovač noted that the end sequence of Vertigo Bird came about when Podgoršek suggested climbing the chimney (at the time, the tallest in the world) and it took all of five minutes to dispel his reservations: after that, it took a full hour to ascend the ladders on its side and reach the top, where the closing shots of the film show Kovač, arms outstretched, walking in circles around the chimney’s ominously cavernous interior against the backdrop of a valley dominated by factories.

Seeing images like these, it’s as though En-Knap are in the business of realising in this real context precisely the kinds of dream situations described by the voices in Delia Derbyshire’s Inventions for Radio (1964), where successive speakers find their bodies displaced, adrift in alien elements, or otherwise removed from everyday contexts.  Equally, the fact that much of what is seen in Vertigo Bird has now (according to Kovač and Podgoršek) disappeared, as the elemental industrial landscape is swept away by new economic forces, suggests that Derbyshire’s Dreams might also describe a reality that we’re still coming to terms with, as the potential futures her electronic textures and layers seemed to promise back in 1964 recede rather than advance as a current possibility.

 

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