IN the 1970s lots of children hid behind the couch on a Saturday night because of one woman – Delia Derbyshire.
She created the eerie theme tune to Doctor Who while working at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, a mad sceintist’s lab/recording studio where engineers tinkered with proto-synthesizers and reams of analogue tape to create strange music and sound effects for BBC TV and radio.
During lockdown, Melville video producer Will Axten decided to create his own version of the workshop, after five of his well-funded creative projects were cancelled in the space of a week.
“I knew I needed something to insulate myself from the outside world,” Axten says.
“I needed an exciting ‘covid-proof’ creative project to sink my teeth into. I decided on a home ‘bunker’ with lots of electronic equipment.
“Little did I realise the idea would grow into a literal laboratory of equipment, voraciously amassed over the past two years.”
Part event space, part music studio, and used for educational tours and as an electronic workshop, the Signals Sound Laboratory has proved extremely popular, recently holding a sound installation and residency at York Arts Festival and the Ellenbrook Arts Centre.
The technical genius in the Signals lab is East Fremantle’s Gaëtan Shurrer, who has worked with international artists like Jeff Wayne (War of the Worlds), Trevor Horn, M People, and Sasha and Digweed.
“Gaëtan makes the magical possible,” Axten says.
“And we also have ‘Casper’ the friendly electrical engineer, who visits us weekly to fix equipment and trial new wiring configurations.
“I started in the analogue technology world and use that experience to source and repurpose old equipment. It is a true partnership between the three of us.”
A video producer and filmmaker for 30 years, Axten says he is still inspired by his electronica hero Delia Derbyshire, a Cambridge maths and music graduate who couldn’t get a job at record label Decca in 1959 because she was a woman.
Derbyshire ended up at the BBC where she worked in its Radiophonic Workshop until 1973, before disappearing into obscurity and music folklore.
“Her approach to sound design was totally unique and intuitive, and was made even more special by the test equipment she had access to at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop,” Axten says.
“My eyes have been opened to the historical links between scientific equipment and musical instruments, and the potential to exploit this symbiotic circuitry for artistic enjoyment.
“I’ve absorbed everything I can find on Delia Derbyshire, and if there are any young Delia’s out there, please get in touch with us, as we’d be very happy to have you as a collaborator in the lab.”
Axten says he hopes to expand the lab to become self-sustaining with a multi-use membership space, including an electrical workshop, laboratory and live streaming film set.
Meanwhile, the Signals Sound Laboratory will have a three-month residency at the Old Customs House in Fremantle, with a launch party next Saturday (May 28). The launch includes live electronica from Solar Cell Kid, Thermalfish, Ergonomic Sound and Agent Lark, a stage show with “audiovisual astronomy and underwater submergence”, and partygoers can have a play with the equipment in the lab upstairs.
To arrange a visit to Signals Sound Laboratory during its residency, or if you have a space you think would make a good permanent home, email will@ signalssoundlab.com (groups, schools and individual art enthusiasts welcome).
by STEPHEN POLLOCK