Bush House was the home of the BBC World Service for over 70 years. The neoclassical central London building was often described as a tower of Babel – at its height, 45 languages were broadcast from its studios. It was the scene of many historical moments. King George V addressed the Empire from the building in 1932 and General Charles de Gaulle used its facilities to call for resistance to Nazi occupation in 1940. The World Service left Bush House in July 2012.
Matthew Herbert, the creative director of the New Radiophonic Workshop, recorded a track by compiling sounds from the building and its machines. These are his thoughts about the piece:
I was asked by the BBC’s Today programme to make a piece of music out of, and about all the World Service broadcast technology and equipment that was being sold at auction. As it was displayed in the soon to be redeveloped Bush House, I suggested that we placed the sounds in the context of this important, but now empty building. With a shrinking window of opportunity before access was denied by the new owners, we scurried round, trying to record as much as we could of the fabric and detail of the building in an hour. Ideally it would have been a more systematic approach, carefully documenting each studio, control room, tape player and microphone but how things sound, inert or living is still an afterthought and we ran out of time.
I like the idea that the noises things make carry stories and ideas that we’re not always tuned in to. Someone listening back 100 years from now may be amazed at how unpleasantly loud the fridge was at the coffee stall in the lobby, or how rattly the plastic switches were on the cassette decks. These are all minute details of course but they help bring alive a memory of what Bush House once was and its place in the British establishment. It feels a bit like cheating history – trying to do a kind of sonic archaeological dig before the first layer of dust has settled.
The closure of Bush House also draws a line under what one aspect of the BBC used to be about: warrens of small rooms and big lumps of equipment hidden from the public. The new HQ on Portland Place is the opposite of Bush House, open and visible with technology taking up a much smaller footprint. In its original incarnation the Radiophonic Workshop was certainly highly representative of this first description. In its new location, as part of the virtual resource of The Space, the current iteration of the Radiophonic Workshop is seeking to acknowledge and document this shift in broadcasting from an impervious, imperious presence to a more democratic, fluid and open system. In this context, the piece of music for Bush House is a small footnote, an audio reminder of how far we have come in the last 100 years of listening.
Find out more about the New Radiophonic Workshop and learn about its first commission, the Sound of the Space, here. You can visit the New Radiophonic Workshop’s website by following this link. Herbert also spoke to the BBC’s Today programme.