'A Hauntological Last Hurrah': Robin The Fog Interviewed
, July 31st, 2012 10:31
In response to massive cuts to the BBC World Service, studio manager Robin The Fog took to the corridors and studios of its now-former home, Bush House, with recording equipment in hand. He speaks to Laurie Tuffrey about the resulting album, and the importance of the World Service
On January 26th 2011, the BBC announced that it would be making some monumental cuts to the World Service as a result of the Government removing the grant-in-aid funding it had previously received from the Foreign Office. As well as an estimated 650 jobs being cut, the closure of five language services and radio programming in seven languages, the corporation announced that the 80 year-old World Service operation would be moved to Broadcasting House, away from Bush House on the Strand, its home since December 1940.
Before he left the building for good, World Service studio manager Robin The Fog set about making recordings of Bush House at night. Working under the moniker The Fog Signals, under which the erstwhile sound artist and DJ has previously released another album, February’s Notes On Cow Life, Robin collected the material in The Ghosts of Bush House.
Here, atmospheric noises are slowed down and looped, with the help of some of the World Service’s ancient reel-to-reels, to form a piece of beautiful, warm spatial exploration. Chords swell and harmonic patterns emerge out of the building’s crepuscular creaking or Robin’s whistling, using the labyrinthine Portland stone corridors of the building, at one time the most expensive in the world, as a giant reverb tank.
With one of the predominant trends in British experimental music over the past decade frequently tapping into the BBC's sonic history - both in terms of its broadcast content and the pioneering work of the Radiophonic Workshop - The Ghosts Of Bush House feels like an unusually direct take on the 'hauntological' spaces mapped by the likes of Ghost Box, Mordant Music and Demdike Stare. That it's specifically linked to the World Service, a hugely important aspect of the BBC's broadcasting remit for the past eight decades, lends it an unusually forceful emotional resonance.
A limited edition vinyl release of the album will be available soon from the Fog Signals’ website. Meanwhile, you can stream and download the album from the player below, or buy it on a name-your-price basis from the site. Also, you can watch the video that accompanies the album below.
The Quietus spoke to Robin about the making of the album, why the cuts to the World Service will be a devastating loss and how The Ghosts of Bush House may help recent mothers.
What gave you the idea?
Robin The Fog: I was working a lot of nightshifts in my capacity as a studio manager, and as a result would often have the place largely to myself during the small hours of the morning. On my journeys around Bush House, between the various studios and through its various spaces, I used to love listening to all the sounds around me: the creaks and rumbles of the old building echoed up and down the stairwells and through the corridors, even the most mundane of noises suddenly taking on a new significance in the half-light.
Like so many historic buildings around London, Bush House is constructed of Portland Stone, which is a wonderfully resonant material to work with. It’s also used to make an instrument called a Lithophone, which is basically a huge xylophone; and the stone construction of the walls coupled with the high ceilings gave you this extraordinary reverb. I would whistle to myself on the landings and then listen as the whistle fluttered round the space for what seemed like an eternity, transforming as it did so into something much stranger, as if the building was adding a few tones of its own. I liked to think these were the sounds Bush House made when it thought nobody was listening!
How was it made? Your blog mentions “scrubbing powdery oxide residue” off your hands...
RTF: It’s true, it did all get a little messy after a while. The whole thing was recorded and produced entirely at night in a dark, isolated basement studio and I think it’s amazing how much of a sense of that you get when listening. It’s definitely a 3am record!
The process of making the album was actually deceptively simple. Using a hand-held audio recorder, I would visit the different parts of the buildings and make a number of recordings of the atmosphere of Bush House by night, sometimes adding noises such as whistling, creaking door handles or riding up and down in the ancient lifts, trying (with reasonable success) not to get stuck in them again.
I would then take the recordings down into S6, the large basement studio where the World Service recorded many of its music and drama sessions, and where I could work on them undisturbed (except for one occasion when someone came to empty the bin at 5am and nearly gave me a heart attack – who knew it was such a priority?!). There were a couple of rather battered old reel-to-reel tape machines down there that were still functioning, despite having been decommissioned years ago, and my first step was to dub the recordings onto quarter-inch tape.
I remember my first recording was of myself whistling – really badly and out of tune! - into a mobile phone on the 3rd floor at four in the morning. I took the phone into the basement, held it up in front of a microphone, played the recording through its little tinny speaker, recorded it onto tape and then played the recording back on the tape machine at half speed. Suddenly this ethereal choir-like sound started coming out of the speakers and I figured I might be onto something.
Playing back the recordings in this way and ‘bouncing’ certain sections between the two reel-to-reels, one of which was fitted with a continuous loop of tape, allowed certain interesting sound textures or phrases to be discovered. These were then looped, mixed and combined into rough compositions. Hard as it may be to believe, no artificial echo or electronic effects were used in the making of the album, the entire project was made more or less using the technique described above. These are genuinely the sounds of the space. It really is amazing what you can do with a spool of tape and a sense of adventure!
As for the powdery residue on my hands, after a few thousand trips around the spool, it was inevitable that the loops of tape would begin to disintegrate, and this would then affect the nature of the recordings as well. The sounds would warp and distort as they gradually degraded and broke down, which would then offer up a whole new collection of textures to play with, provided the tape didn’t break or snap first. ‘Cold Space and Peeling Oxide’ is a prime example. All the sounds on that track were originally from a door handle, but they had been looped and bounced and degraded so much that they had developed a new and entirely alien identity. The track was produced in a single evening, and the tape loop suffered greatly - if you listen closely you can hear it protesting!
Is your fascination with audio artefacts like reel-to-reels deeply ingrained, or just a case of taking the opportunity while you still could?
RTF: There’s certainly an element of that, certainly. Bush House has an incredible history and these reel-to-reel machines are of course part of that history. The intention of the project was to capture the spirit of the building using only those materials present within it (though not including any of the three Bush House pianos, as that would be cheating).
Historical aspects aside, after so many years of creating work simply by staring at waveforms on a computer screen, it was fantastic to work with an actual physical medium and to have to literally get my hands dirty. The movement of tape across a play-head gives the sound such a rich, tactile presence and warmth compared with my usual diet of digital zeroes and ones. That warmth combined with a sense of space and the slight unpredictability you get when working with tape not only fitted the project brief nicely, but also made for some surprising and exciting results.
It wasn’t all positive, though. One night I was dubbing a finished track into the studio computer, but hadn’t noticed that one of the reels had jammed and the tape was spooling at fifteen inches per second into a gigantic scramble all over the floor. It took me until I was practically ankle-deep in the stuff to notice the problem, as the track just carried on playing as normal, even as it threw itself to its death.
Are you aware of other hauntological projects, like Alexander Tucker and Imbogodom’s tape-splicing experiments? They also recorded in Bush House, as well as in Big Ben and an old lighthouse in Dungeness, among other places.
RTF: Yes, I’m a huge fan of Imbodogom and of Dan and Alex’s solo work too. Did they really record in Big Ben? I didn’t know that!
Like Ghosts Of Bush their work in S6 was produced at night when everyone else had gone home, although they had largely finished their second album before I started frequenting the studio myself and I had to wait quite a while to be able to hear it. Sadly I never got to collaborate with them – talks of ‘one last jam’ were abandoned when S6 closed earlier than expected. Still, there might be an opportunity yet. For one thing, Alex’s glockenspiel is currently sitting in my kitchen!
How important do you think the World Service is?
RTF: I’m an ardent believer in the World Service and in public service broadcasting in general. It’s an incredible ambassador for British affairs and is renowned for its integrity and trusted the world over. It has brought independent and impartial current affairs to such places as the former Soviet Union, Burma and Afghanistan, which remains an incredible achievement when you consider how resistant many of these places remain to outside influence. In an increasingly small and fractious world, surely such communication between peoples is more vital than ever?
Cynics would perhaps say I have a vested interest, and there are times when the job drives me mad, but I’m extremely proud to be able to make my own contribution to this remarkable institution and hope to be doing so for a long time to come.
Have you had personal experience of the connectivity the service provides, through seeing it being used by people in different countries, for example?
RTF: Frankly, I’ve lost count of the times I’ve witnessed such happenings, even just while working in the UK! Apart from the obvious recent examples like the Arabic service’s coverage of the revolutions in Egypt and Syria, there was the appalling famine last year in Somalia, where the Somalian service was instrumental in spreading information about where to locate aid and shelter - very much a lifeline for much of their listenership. A similar example would be the emergency broadcasts aimed at Haiti in the wake of the terrible 2010 earthquake, although with increasing cuts in funding such specialized programming is becoming rare.
On a personal level, I was recently involved in recording a programme in Zambia, and the first sound that greeted me and my flight cases upon our arrival in Lusaka airport early on Monday morning was the theme to the Network Africa breakfast show coming from an office window. Noticing the BBC insignia on my shirt a local immediately came up and started chatting about how much he loved the World Service and how there was “nothing else here worth listening to”. Sadly he won’t be hearing that programme any more; after forty years, the final edition was broadcast a fortnight ago.
Have you had any feedback on the album from the denizens of Bush House?
RTF: Yes, the response has been incredible. I must admit I expected most people to be rather skeptical, but I’ve been getting a number of emails from current and former World Service staff alike congratulating me and claiming that it evoked some of their own memories of getting lost in the building at night. Others claimed it reminded them of whale-song and praised its “fabulously creepy” nature. But the nicest compliments of all have been those who compared it to the produce of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, an organization which has been a huge influence on my work and which I always used to fantasize about joining, despite its closing almost a decade before I joined the BBC.
I’ve also been informed that it provides the perfect soundtrack to breastfeeding, but I really can’t speculate on that!
Were you tempted to take a memento from Bush House?
RTF: Yes - the reel-to-reel machines I recorded the album on! All the Bush House equipment is being sold off and I’m currently being completely out-bid at auction by people with bottomless pockets! It would appear honesty is not the best policy after all. Still, those tape machines served their purpose and I’m very glad the album got finished in time. I also like to think that these might well have been the last sounds that studio ever got to make. A hauntological last hurrah…