Bass machine with Camera Obscura, DJ, gentleman, Whovian, thrift store manager, geek for music, geek for sci-fi, geek for sitcoms, Petrocelli of the home studio, expert in the art of procrastination, waistcoat-sporting aficionado of the pocket watch, longstanding supporter of the Harry Wraggs and King of Partick. You can follow Camera Obscura on Twitter here and Patrick on Twitter here.
I always buy the new Doctor Who soundtrack releases, very much including the newly released Doctor Who: Series 7. It’s my favourite television show, and has been for a very long time. I’m not old enough to have seen the programme’s earliest broadcasts, but back in 1963, when the opening theme first rang out from British televisions on a cold Saturday night in November, it was the first time most viewers had heard electronic music. The arranger Delia Derbyshire broke some serious ground with her imagining of the original Doctor Who theme (composed by Ron Grainer) — it was, literally, the sound of the future. A small department of boffins called the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, buried deep in the corridors of Maida Vale (home of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and the studios where most of the John Peel Radio Sessions were recorded) were responsible for making Doctor Who‘s groundbreaking soundtracks and special sound effects. They set a high standard, creating a new kind of music and sound through innovations in synthesisers, tape manipulation and electronics. The Workshop provided the soundtrack for most of the programme’s original lifespan.
Fast forward to 2005: after an elongated break from television (the show was canceled in 1989, apart from a brief one-off TV movie in 1996), Doctor Who re-launched. It came with a new, contemporary look, a new actor in the title role, and a new production team that had grown up with the original series. It also came with a new composer and a very different style of soundtrack. Film and TV composer Murray Gold was responsible for re-shaping the sound of Doctor Who, and rather than return to the old electronics or the ’80s-era MIDI compositions, a rather genius decision was made to do full orchestral scores, performed by the BBC National Concert Orchestra of Wales, that recall the classic Hollywood blockbuster. As in John Williams’ Star Wars score, the Doctor Who score features recurring themes and melodies for different characters and places. It was a bold and ambitious move.
Both as a musician and as a music fan, orchestral work isn’t really my area of expertise. I know some obvious classical pieces, but I’m fairly removed from the perceived stuffy world of the classical musician. Murray Gold and Ben Foster (who conducts the BBC National Concert Orchestra of Wales) don’t come across as the average composer and conductor, though – Foster, for example, has worked with a lot with pop concert orchestras. They are, however, basically creating some great modern classical music.
If you take away the pictures on the screen, this music still works in its own right. It is beautiful, melodic, thrilling, emotive. It can also be creepy, brooding and suspenseful; then again, it can have a deep sadness, or be exciting, fast, furious, pacey and glorious. A cheeky humour exists in it too. It’s indicative of the Doctor Who production team’s ambition that they treat these orchestral soundtracks with the same level of attention that would be given to major studio film. It’s a statement of intent: they’re aiming high, and all the parts of the machine are working to achieve something special, albeit on a budget that is a far cry from Hollywood.
When you listen back to the first couple of years of the modern soundtracks, the music is still amazing, but they sound a bit like a good recording of an orchestra playing live. But by the third year, they really hit their stride. A bit more money and time in the studio allowed for more thorough mixing and production and suddenly you are listening to a symphonic soundtrack and not just an orchestra.
A programme in which each story is set in a totally different place and time offers a massive opportunity for musical variation. Over the course of series 7, we were taken to various settings: With “Crimson Horror,” we find ourselves in Victorian England, with building flaring brass and sweeping strings that whip up into a frenzy; in “The Angels Take Manhattan,” we’re in ’30s New York, with lots of low, broody brass, and percussive vibes/xylophone; on “Gunslingers,” jaw harp and banjo take us way out west, and Ennio Morricone-esque twangs, bells and low choral vocals re-create the aural wonder of the spaghetti western. Cleverly, there are recurring themes for the titular doctor and his main companions. “Oswin Oswald” yields the first airing of a new theme for the character of Clara (who joined the show this year). Like Doctor Who’s theme, it’s threaded throughout the series, unifying all the disparate musical styles across the astonishing 74 different pieces on this album.
Modern orchestral music has many and varied influences, from classical composers, soundtracks, contemporary and classic pop, but it also interacts with sounds we anticipate in the future – like the electronic clicks, clacks, squelches and bleeps that were part and parcel of the soundtrack to the original Doctor Who series. As the series has continued, a little more electronic influence has crept into Gold’s score; he always kept some of the original sounds that had existed in the theme music, and is utilising more electronic sounds and synth work alongside the orchestra. The Doctor Who score has been given its own concerts as part of the prestigious BBC “Proms” season, selling out London’s prestigious Royal Albert Hall quicker than many rock concerts and being recorded for broadcast on prime-time TV. This music is inspiring a whole new audience not just to listen to orchestral music but to see it performed live. If you, like me, are more likely to be found at the opening night of a sci-fi movie than the opening night of an opera, give this a shot. It may just open your ears to a whole new world… or galaxy.