The Polish electronic music revolution of the 1950s

16 November 2019

9:00 AM

16 November 2019

9:00 AM

It was created in November 1957, a year before the BBC’s fabled Radiophonic Workshop, and was far more influential in shaping the development of electronic music, yet the Polish Radio Experimental Studio (PRES) is now virtually unknown even in Poland. Radio 3’s feature on Sunday night, Poles Apart (produced by Andrew Carter), made the case for its significance, taking us back to those early days of analogue bleeps, bongs, blurps and squelches. Robert Worby and the eerily electronic undercurrent to the programme gave us a completely new perspective on what else was going on in Poland in the 1960s besides the trouble at the Gdansk shipyards and the suppression of political thought.

Housed in a drab, high-security building with armed guards at the door, the home of state-run Polish Radio seemed an unlikely place for extraordinary invention. But, says Worby, the Black Room studio, so-called because of its black walls, was ‘a powerhouse of music… and a cultural beacon,’ providing the soundscape of countless sci-fi and animation films that have been watched around the world. Packed with bulky machines and glowing valves, the studio brought together composers like Krzysztof Penderecki and Nigel Osborne who were given the freedom to experiment; indeed were encouraged to do so.

The studio was abandoned in 2004, although its machines still survive as a reminder of analogue’s innovations. By telling the story of PRES, Worby, a composer himself, set out to prove that there is always another truth beneath the surface if you’re prepared to listen, to pay attention. Under the sullen carapace of communism, Polish technicians and musicians developed a completely new sound world.

Just in time for Remembrance, Tania Hershman’s programme for Radio 4, Who Will Call Me Beloved? (produced by Faith Lawrence), took us inside the huge Southern Cemetery in Manchester (said to be the second largest in Europe) to remember the dead. She’s the writer-in-residence. A curious job, you might think, days spent wandering through the graves, noting the epitaphs for ‘Little Florrie, Beloved Child’ and the extraordinary quotes that have been chosen as memorials (‘They shall be mine, saith the Lord of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels’). Hershman has also taken to talking back to the dead, reciting their names as if by so doing you might breathe life into them.

Her quest, though, is to settle in her own mind what she would like on her own gravestone and whether or not anyone will ensure that she is described as ‘beloved’ given that she is happily single and doesn’t intend to recruit a partner for the purpose. Her programme is a reminder that we should all prepare for our own funerals, yet it’s not something that most of us find easy to discuss. How do you bring up such a question? Too casually, and you might seem flippant; too serious, and you might be accused of a morbid melancholy.

When Fanny Met Germaine (last week’s Thursday-afternoon drama on 4, sharply directed by Jonquil Panting) is a clever telling of the real-life encounter between the English novelist Frances Burney and the French writer and heroine of the revolution Germaine de Staël. Burney, aged 41 and very much on the shelf, is staying with her sister Susannah in the Surrey hills after finally escaping from her tortuous days at court in service to Queen Charlotte. De Staël, still only 26, has escaped from Paris with her lover, the Count Narbonne, abandoning her husband, the Swedish ambassador, and her children, and setting up a community of French exiles in an English country house, Juniper Hall.

They are such a mismatch of minds, Frances, always hyper-conscious of her indeterminate social status and unwilling to jeopardise her royal pension by consorting with a revolutionary and adulteress (‘You don’t visit them?’ she questions Susannah, ‘Unchaperoned?’); Germaine, clever, free-thinking, aristocratic in every fibre of her being, and, to Fanny’s dismay, uncorseted. It’s rich material for comedy, with which the writer Sian Ejiwunmi-Le Berre (new to radio) makes merry. But more impressive is her thoughtful use of the medium, inventing an African servant, Louise-Marie (played by Lorna Gayle), for Germaine, who fills in the history for us and drives the narrative along with her cheeky insights and ribald commentary. It’s a lively character study of both women, faithful to what we know of them from their diaries.

Audible is developing a range of podcasts to rival Radio 4, with Homeless Bodies & Other Stories (produced by Hana Walker-Brown) sparked by some of the objects in the Wellcome Collection. Six writers have been invited to create a story based on an object that has intrigued, inspired or horrified them, including the scold’s bridle and a couple of 19th-century tattooes now surviving on pieces of skin cut from the bodies which once paraded them. (They were bought in Paris on behalf of Sir Henry Wellcome in 1929.) Each story is too long for my taste but Oyinkan Braithwaite’s translation of the medieval bridle to Nigeria is vivid and assured, her heroine too outspoken, too unusual for the community into which she marries. ‘She may have freedom but they have community. And who’s to say that freedom is better.’

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