Two Maverick Institutions: John Cage & the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (Nature)

The new issue of Nature, dated today, January 20, 2011, features a dual-book review I wrote. (That’s issue 469 of Nature, which has been around since the tail end of 1869.) The books are Special Sound: The Creation and Legacy of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (Oxford) by Louis Niebur and Begin Again: A Biography of John Cage (Knopf) by Kenneth Silverman. Unfortunately, the piece, titled “Music: Pioneers of Sound,” at is behind a subscriber paywall, but the gist of the review is as follows: both Cage and the BBC Radiophonic were maverick institutions in experimental music, both met their ends during the same decade, and both came to those ends (Cage in 1992, the Radiophonic in 1998) to some extent as an unfortunate consequence of their own expanding notoriety.

Yet despite their similarities, their paths rarely crossed. Cage was, for all his own open-mindedness, a figure in the living pantheon of the mid-century avant-garde, whereas the BBC Radiophonic was by its very charter determined to be populist — a goal more than achieved with its indelible theme song for Doctor Who.

Ironically, the books are the opposites of their subjects: Silverman’s is very much a general-reader survey of a great man’s life and career, whereas the BBC book is an academic inquiry enacted by a professor of musicology. That said, don’t let the latter’s occasional deep dive into tonal analysis scare you off; its real achievement is how Niebur charts the manner in which the Radiophonic navigated the cutthroat bureaucracy of the BBC. Fun fact: The BBC Radiophonic Workshop was not spun out of the BBC Music Department; the Radiophonic owes its existence to the shepherding of the Features and Drama departments. “Every good story needs a villain,” writes Niebur, “and here the Music department fills the role admirably.”

Between Silverman’s biography, the Kyle Gann book on 4’33” (No Such Thing a Silence, Yale), and the year-end Cage Against the Machine cause célèbre in England, 2010 was a pretty great year for his ongoing legacy. Oh, and my favorite sentence from Silverman’s fairly declarative telling of Cage’s life is this one: “Only five feet two inches tall, he was deemed the greatest living authority on the history of Alaska.” He’s describing the father of Cage’s one-time wife, the striking Xenia Kashevaroff.

And again, if you have subscription access, the piece is at

2 thoughts on “Two Maverick Institutions: John Cage & the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (Nature)

  1. Just saw your review – nice job tying the two books together. I haven’t read the Cage book yet, but I got “Special Sound” as soon as it came out. The first part of the book is great, where he sets the stage for the Workshop, from the experiments in Paris and Cologne to the sound effects of the Beckett radio plays. Also, I thought the explanations of some of the effects were done very well. The level of detail – equipment invoices, personnel minutiae, etc. – gets a little wearying at times. And I wish he ventured a little more outside the Workshop to better show its influence on the music world at large. That said, it’s not like there’s a host of other books on the Radiophonic Workshop, and I think Niebur did a good job overall with it.

  2. Thanks. I wish I’d thought about the converse way the academic institution got the popular coverage and vice-versa when I was working on the review. Yeah, it isn’t a very nuanced telling. It isn’t written as well as the Cage book, which is often an issue in academic books — but the research is just tremendous, especially, as I’ve mentioned, the bureaucratic stuff.

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