From the enterprising and unusual Trunk Records comes this pair of CDs celebrating and preserving the music of the late John Baker, covering his work as part of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (on The John Baker Tapes – Volume 1) and elsewhere (“Soundtracks / Library / Home Recordings / Electro Ads” on The John Baker Tapes – Volume 2).
Volume 1 promises a “vast spectrum” of sounds but given that Baker overused some of his sound sources – a twanged ruler and a blown bottle feature repeatedly – this is a little charitable. Nevertheless, Baker worked wonders with such limited raw material, using tape recorders to change the playback speed and therefore the pitch of the note, and cutting and rejoining lengths of recording tape to build up tight, syncopated pieces of music. The musical styles include cheery jingles, light jazz and light jazz with cheery jingles – don’t expect much in the way of abstract soundscapes, since much of this music was designed for documentaries and radio station branding purposes.
The tracks are very well documented, with summaries of where the music was used, an illuminating biography by John’s brother Richard and a few photographs.
Volume 2 contains a few more photos and an obituary from 1977 which omits details of Baker’s troubles – for those, the biography in Volume 1 is required reading. This second CD covers wider ground, and ranges from piano performances to “electro” pieces for advertising and library music purposes. It’s mostly pleasant listening, but instead of the sound of a ruler being twanged you can almost hear in places the sound of a barrel being scraped. However, that sort of misses the point of both these releases: they are primarily documentation, and the fact that a lot of the tracks are also enjoyable to listen to is really a bonus. The John Baker Tapes mark a time when creating upbeat electronic music for radio and commercials involved a high level of technique and dedication, a time before sampling and sequenced synthesiser lines, a time when electronic music was created with microphones, tape recorders and whatever could be coaxed into making a useful sound. These releases also provide a succinct epitaph (or two) to one musician’s life and work.
More information can be found on Trunk Records’ site. Volume 1 was released in July. Volume 2 is scheduled for release on 25th August.