Langham Research Centre are fanatical about tape manipulation and the sonic smorgasbord that surrounds us. And if you have ever wondered what an abandoned nuclear weapons testing site overlooking the North Sea sounds like…
“We’re all fascinated by whatever has made any sound we hear. It’s a primeval thing. Something to do with survival. We need to know the source in case it’s a sabre-toothed tiger coming to eat us. If we don’t recognise a sound, our imaginations run wild.”
So says Robert Worby, pondering what might drive Langham Research Centre’s collecting and processing of real-world noises. He and his three fellow group members summon up uncanny atmospheres by manipulating field recordings, feeding an array of intriguing tones through reel-to-reel tape machines, and adding oscillators, reverb, delay and filters to colour their creations.
Strongly influenced by musique concrète, their ‘Tape Works Vol 1’ album for the Nonclassical label caused a stir on its release in 2017. Since then, their various gallery installations for the likes of Tate Modern and the Barbican have seen them blurring the boundaries between music and experimental sound art.
Langham Research Centre’s new release, ‘Tape Works Vol 2’, finds them further investigating how our environment shapes what we hear, mixing wisps of electronics with echoing spaces and all manner of metallic clangs, crackles and bumps. Gathering samples from an abandoned weapons testing facility in Suffolk and Brutalist buildings in Paris, and using the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall as a giant reverb chamber, ‘Tape Works Vol 2’ is an immersive and, at times, unearthly listen that shows what’s possible with some basic equipment and a little sonic sculpting ingenuity.
Before they formed Langham Research Centre in 2003, Philip Tagney, Iain Chambers and Felix Carey were all working as producers for Radio 3 music programmes at BBC Broadcasting House in Langham Place, central London. They began making sounds of their own using some of the building’s old equipment.
“We had a little studio in our department for recording interviews,” says Tagney. “It was Iain’s idea that we try to do some electronic music because this studio had reel-to-reel tape machines in it, along with a reverb unit and microphones, obviously. We used to go in on a Saturday, record some sounds in the morning, and then work on them in the afternoon, aiming to get a piece done by the end of the day. That was our hobby for several months.”
Chambers had already dabbled in beat-based electronic material, while Tagney has a master’s degree in classical composition. Each time they worked on a new piece, they sent it to Robert Worby – a presenter on Radio 3’s ‘Hear And Now’ programme who had much more experience in making music – to get his expert opinion.
“He was always very encouraging, suggesting approaches that we might take,” says Chambers.
“We were pretty primitive then,” adds Tagney. “We hadn’t been taught much in the way of technique. We just wanted to try it out for ourselves and Robert certainly gave us some tips.”
It was a few years after LRC started that Worby joined and began to apply the many ideas he’d amassed over the previous few decades. He’d studied Spanish guitar at college in the 1970s, although he’d been more interested in the Ferrograph tape recorders there than the course he was doing.
“There were quite a few how-to-compose books around at that time,” he says. “There was a brilliant one by Terence Dwyer called ‘Composing With Tape Recorders: Musique Concrète For Beginners’.”
Worby became obsessed with musique concrète and he also persuaded the college music department to buy a bulky EMS VCS 3, teaching himself to play it by reading the manual. He spent the following years learning new manifestations of music technology, attaining a master’s degree from the University of Birmingham along the way. But despite the numerous innovations he was exposed to, tape remained his principle source of fascination.
“Birmingham had an analogue studio with four Revox PR99 tape machines,” he recalls. “I hung around in there because no one else wanted to use them. They all preferred using the computer.”
Tape plays a pivotal role in LRC’s work. In their hands, a reel-to-reel machine isn’t merely a recording device. It’s responsible for altering and shaping the sounds run through it, especially when hooked up to a host of reverbs and filters.
“The tape machine is an instrument,” declares Worby. “People play laptops, of course, but when you approach tape in the way we do, with the techniques we use, it is similar to playing a guitar, a piano or a clarinet. Our approach is very simple. Record, cut and splice, reverse, slow down, speed up, filter, re-modulate. All those things are extraordinarily sophisticated and they produce the most amazing results.”
For Iain Chambers, processing sounds via tape is far more satisfying than using software. He says he enjoys the physical interaction.
“I think it’s the hands-on feeling. You can drag tape through a machine at any speed you want and in a way that would be quite tricky and less fun to do using plug-ins. Plus, there’s the variability of it. You can’t rely on tape doing the same thing every time. I quite like that.”
Along with their reel-to-reels, LRC also use cassette recorders for their portability and bursts of shortwave radio for its random musicality.
“We got that idea from John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen,” says Worby. “In an interview I did with Stockhausen, I asked him why he used shortwave radio, because he’s made many pieces with it. He looked at me, shrugged his shoulders, and said, ‘Instant electronic music’. When you’re between the stations, there are whistling sounds and pulses, there’s filtered noise and distant speech… it’s already ring modulated.”
Beyond the purely electronic, the group also like to collect bizarre objects and tones. Anything from a clam shell to a cat comb can become an ingredient in their musical recipe.
“Robert is a particularly avid cataloguer,” says Chambers. “He will draw from everything he’s got whenever he’s making a piece. So it’s a rich library that we’re constantly adding to.”
“It’s driven by curiosity and detail,” adds Worby. “In everyday life, I might suddenly hear something that intrigues me. My desk here is littered with objects that make sounds.”
With ‘Tape Works Vol 2’, Langham Research Centre focus on the idea of amplified places and spaces by magnifying their inherent strange sonic qualities. The group first explored this concept in an earlier work, ‘Gateshead Multi-Storey Car Park’, a recording of the interior of the Brutalist building famous for its role in the film ‘Get Carter’. Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 as part of the ‘Between The Ears’ programme and released on the Econore label in 2018, the piece combined the group’s interests in musique concrète, field recordings and architecture.
“There was an element of a joke about it – musique concrète about a concrete car park,” says Philip Tagney. “But it was also serious, because it was a building we admired and there were lots of interesting sound sources in and around it.”
One of the highlights of ‘Tape Works Vol 2’ is ‘Return To Spatial Futures’, which features recordings taken from structures in Paris, including Maison Du Brésil, designed by Le Corbusier and Lúcio Costa for the Cité Internationale Universitaire as a halls of residence for overseas students. Tones, hisses and bleeps are added to the track to decorate the building’s reverberations – footsteps, distant voices and, unexpectedly, a piano.
“The students were on vacation, so it was largely empty,” says Worby. “I had to trick my way into the building and then I thought, ‘There’s nobody here. What do I record now?’. But turn on the recording device and there’s a lot going on. A door closing far away, a coffee machine…”
“There was a recital room with a grand piano in it,” adds Chambers. “Robert blagged his way in, played some random notes, and then shared the material with me.”
Another track on the album, ‘Accarezzo’, is a blast of blustery North Sea wind, barely discernible electronics, and disquieting scrapes and crackles. For this, LRC made recordings at the abandoned Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Orford Ness in Suffolk, a former nuclear test facility turned nature reserve that is renowned for its desolation. As well as being littered with old concrete buildings, the site has a number of intriguing sound sources, plus that slightly unnerving atmosphere the group are clearly drawn to.
“The place has a strong post-apocalyptic vibe,” says Chambers. “There are the so-called ‘pagodas’, where they tested the warheads that were designed to carry the British nuclear bomb. You can go into the laboratories, but they don’t resemble weapons labs now, they’re more like something from 200 years ago that’s been taken over by birds and the sea. It’s really eerie and it makes you think of how the planet will be when we’re not here anymore. You can feel that as you go around it. There are some great spaces to record in, like a bomb ballistics building with a metal staircase going round it from the outside, where the wind is unremitting. On the right day, it will play three or four pitches like a wind chime.”
Elsewhere on ‘Tape Works Vol 2’, ‘Terminal Voltage Traces’ utilises impulse recordings of Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, effectively taking a “snapshot” of the space and using it as a massive convolution reverb effect in which to place sounds. Both this and ‘Accarezzo’ exhibit a desire to capture the essence of an environment, its history, and how it affects the people passing through it.
“We’re interested in revealing something of a place that’s below the surface,” says Chambers. “We want to somehow get to the source, to how a place really sounds.”
This idea relates to psychogeography, the term coined by Guy Debord in 1955 and explored more recently in books by Iain Sinclair and WG Sebald. Chambers also views the group’s work through the lens of science fiction.
“I’m a big fan of WG Sebald,” he says. “I know he wrote about navigating Orford Ness and Suffolk in general. But I think a closer influence would be the writing of JG Ballard, which has a certain futurism to it. It’s anchored in today but is also looking to tomorrow.”
“JG Ballard said, ‘I write science fiction, I write about the future… the next five minutes’,” adds Worby.
As radio presenters and producers in their regular work, Langham Research Centre’s music is like a form of documentary making.
“It does have a slight research bent to it,” admits Chambers. “We feel as if we’re trying ideas out and investigating things that we don’t have the answers for.”
This also relates to musique concrète, reflecting how composers such as Luc Ferrari and Bernard Parmegiani transformed the noises of the world around them into music. These artists captured aspects of life in aural documents, diaries almost, that could live on beyond that moment in time. On the track ‘Dinotique’, LRC sample Luc Ferrari’s ‘Les Anecdotiques’, incorporating extracts of speech and other captured sounds – the squeak of an old bicycle, distant loops of wind instruments, and cawing crows.
“One of the sections has the sounds of a grape harvest, so there are people shouting and machines going,” says Worby. “There’s a huge narrative sweep of activity, but there’s incredible detail within that. You can pick out one single clunk, one tiny thing you can work with and amplify in the context of the bigger picture.”
Now that sampling is ubiquitous across multiple music genres, it’s tempting to wonder whether musique concrète has lost the mystique it once had. Chambers, however, reckons it offers something that more overtly electronic sounds or beat-based music can’t.
“Sampling tends to be shorter bursts of things – DJ Shadow will build an entire album from a collage of samples,” he says. “The kind of sampling involved in musique concrète is quite different from that, in terms of making field recordings, putting them onto tape, and then manipulating them there. So you’re transforming them and contrasting them with other sources. We’re all fans of Beatriz Ferreyra, whose approach is to work very precisely with different sounds she’s recorded and form chords out of them. I guess the idea of finding new musical possibilities using things that are around us is always in the back of our minds.”
As employees of the BBC making electronic music, LRC could be compared to the Radiophonic Workshop. But while they’re quick to point out that what they do is more abstract and left-field, they do concede that the group formed in a similar way.
“The Radiophonic Workshop inspired us in practical terms rather than by the actual music they made,” says Tagney. “So it was more about working at the BBC and thinking we could do stuff with tape machines.”
“The way it was set up was very similar to how we began – under the cover of darkness at weekends,” adds Chambers. “We would covertly move tape machines together and hope no one came in and saw what we were doing.”
With their strange noises, gigs in galleries and radio performances, LRC cross over into the realm of sound art. Once an obscure medium, the group believe it has become increasingly appreciated in recent years.
“There is a tradition of working with sound within the fine art context, coming out of painting and sculpture,” says Worby. “Now it’s commonplace to use the term ‘sound art’ on Radio 4 in the morning without having to explain what it is. The practice has taken off and it overlaps the world we inhabit.”
As well as releasing ‘Tape Works Vol 2’, Langham Research Centre have a regular radio show on Resonance FM and have recently launched a free iOS app called ‘Quanta / Signal / Noise’. It seems the lockdown has only spurred on the group’s productivity. Their obsession with strange noises endures.
“I was struck by a quote from Richard D James a while back,” concludes Chambers. “He considers himself ’an assassin for sound’. Once he hears something that interests him, he has to find it, and then work out how to do it on whatever gear he’s got. I think we share that approach. Sounds are what drive us.”
‘Tape Works Vol 2’ is released by Nonclassical