Music professor's book creates 'Special Sound'

10/6/2010 - By: Mary Hunton

There is nothing quite like being able to combine two of your greatest loves into something you can put on display, and that is exactly what Louis Niebur, assistant professor in the music department, has managed to do.

Recently published by the Oxford University Press, Niebur’s book, “Special Sound: The Creation and Legacy of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop,” was inspired by two of Niebur’s passions.

“It’s my twin loves of electronic dance music and not really believing the stories that I’ve heard about where that stuff came from,” Niebur said, “and a love of nerdy science fiction from my childhood.”

“Special Sound” follows the history of the development of electronic music in a studio called the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Niebur follows the history of the Radiophonic Workshop from the 1950s to the '80s, regards their conflicts within the BBC Music department, and addresses the influence their music, called “special sound” or “incidental music,” has had on modern music.

“Their music sounded like nothing else,” Niebur said. “It’s not music, it’s not sound effects. It’s this other strange thing in the middle.”

Because BBC’s music department controlled what music was aired on the radio, the Radiophonic Workshop worked through the drama department to get its stuff out there. The Radiophonic Workshop created electronic sounds and tunes for popular science fiction programs of its age, such as The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and Doctor Who.

“The Radiophonic Workshop had become famous for doing the theme tunes for hundreds of radio shows and TV shows,” Niebur said. “It had a kind of household familiarity within the UK as the studio that produced hooky, sci-fi music.”

“Special Sound” began as Niebur’s Ph.D. dissertation. When he joined the faculty at the University of Nevada, Reno, he was given a junior faculty research grant to research the second half of the book. Though both portions of the work involved archival work, he also got to speak with the writers of electronic music themselves.

“I got to interview a lot of composers and actually hear from their brains what they thought of what they were doing,” Niebur said.

Through doing the research for the second half of his book, though, Niebur ended up rewriting the entire thing. Overall, it took him three years to complete “Special Sound.”

“I thought it was going to be really easy because I had half of it written, but as I went back and reread what I’d written, a lot of my larger ideas had changed,” Niebur said. “I felt like I had a more nuanced understanding of what was going on.”

The book was published as the second book in a new series of music and media. One advantage that this book has is an interactive website where readers can go online to listen to the music and video clips Niebur refers to.

“Most music books, you just have to read about it,” Niebur said, “but this is really nice because these sounds are really what make it interesting.”

“Special Sound” is available at the University’s Knowledge Center, as well as online at Amazon.

“It’s an academic book published by an academic publisher, but it’s written in a way I think people can read,” Niebur said. “It’s the kind of thing that could have broad appeal among the nerd community.”


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