For years now independent researcher Ian Helliwell has been excavating the early decades of electronic and tape-based experimental music, with a particular focus on the British story. He's displayed his discoveries via a radio series, The Tone Generation, the F.C. Judd documentary Practical Electronica, and most recently through an irregular series of in-depth features in The Wire. Now he's written a book, Tape Leaders: A Compendium Of Early British Electronic Music Composers.
As seen with his Wire article on Practical Electronics magazine as a hub for DIY synth operators, Helliwell's special fascination is for a breed of British amateurs who doggedly pursued their eccentric interests. Unlike Europe, where composers generally came out of the academy or were attached to the experimental units of national radio stations, or America, where they might also be supported by corporations like Bell, the U.K. was a particularly fertile ground for hobbyists - boffins like Peter Keen and Brian Whibley who cobbled together contraptions in shed or garage workshops. Other archetypes discernible in the pages of Tape Leaders are the formally trained composer who - in the absence of institutional encouragement or funding - is forced to go it alone (Janet Beat, Cyril Clouts)
and the artistic polymath drawn to electronics as an accompaniment to their visual or performance work (Ken Gray, who prefers to think of himself as a "communications engineer", or the choreographer and dancer Ernest Berk, who was also a naturist and all-round free living and free thinking chap).
Styled as an encyclopedia, Tape Leaders doesn't go in much for evocation of sonix, but the book bulges with fascinating details and the illustrative material is fabulous: groovy looking flyers and posters for electronic music events and multi-media arts festivals, diagrams of equipment set-ups, adverts for brands of tape, and as you might expect lots of black-and-white photos of middle-aged experimenters with well-combed hair, ties and button shirts with the sleeves rolled up posed next to banks of wires, dials, and reel-to-reels. Helliwell has fun with the guidebook format: a rating system evaluates each composer in terms of Commitment Factor, Obscurity Quotient, and Recording Availability. The latter is rather often "Poor". That tantalising effect is one of the only downsides with this delightful book. So often the reader's desire is piqued hopelessly by the knowledge that these works - many written for arty film shorts, theatrical plays or avant-garde ballets - exist in the world but that it's pretty unlikely you'll ever get to hear them. Those pangs are mitigated slightly by the 15-track CD that accompanies Tape Leaders which includes impossibly obscure work by the likes of Peter Grogono, Donald Henshilwood, David Piper, and the aforementioned Berk.
Tape Leaders will be available shortly from Sound On Sound either as a 220-page book + 15 track CD, or as an eBook App with embedded audio.
Ian Helliwell's documentary about the DIY electronic composer F.C. Judd.
A film featuring a score by Ernest Berk.
Ian Helliwell's reinterpretation of a track by one of his heroes F.C. Judd.
My article on the "outsider electronics" of Daphne Oram and F.C. Judd for Frieze.