Saturday, 11 December 2010

June Coft-Dobs

Whilst I realise that the poll for the "most innovative artist at the Radiophonic Workshop" is just a bit of fun, I am sure I am not alone in noticing the absence of June Coft-Dobs in this list, and being a little disappointed that once again she has been overshadowed by her fellow luminaries. Her earliest work with the Radiophonic Workshop, which involved the adaptation of the most primitive of technology, was remarkable, and yet even now poorly documented.

For instance, whilst the "hole-punch" approach of programming player pianos by the likes of Conlon Nancarrow is widely known, it was June Coft-Dobs who applied the idea (probably conceived independently, since she was on record as hating the sound of the piano - indeed, it was she who dismantled the Workshop's sole piano, leaving just a frame) to paper plates, creating millions of tiny pinpricks on the surface. The plates were then played using a conventional gramophone, the needle coping as best it could with what was effectively a continual streams of "ones" (pinpricks) and "zeros" (absence of pinpricks). This prototypical digital technology can be most spectacularly heard on her 30 second composition "Shifting Plates (Party Time 3)", which you will find on the 1974 BBC Radiophonic Workshop LP 'New Horizons'.

Her most notorious experiment, however - and the one which ultimately saw her fade from the history of the Radiophonic Workshop - stemmed from her fascination with the optical tonewheel system used in electro-mechanical organs. Her awkwardly named Coftcophany Organ consisted of seven desk lamps shining through the rotating teeth of an array of seven McCulloch Model 33 chainsaws (already vintage equipment by this point), all operating on different voltages, and thus rotating at different speeds.

Sadly the BBC's health and safety policy was ill-equipped to deal with Coft-Dob's maverick imagination and the paucity of her own understanding of the power requirements of industrial appliances led to several (estimates of the number varies) chainsaws vibrating unpredictably and breaking free of their hastily contrived harnesses. Thankfully no fatalities resulted, but Coft-Dobs sustained a messy injury and it was clear, once she was released from hospital the following week, that her tape-splicing days were over. She died, a broken woman, 60 years later in the Bahamas.


  1. You didn't mention her soundtrack for the 1965 low budget Brit sci fi film 'The Day The World Turned To Night'. Fascinating stuff, employing swanee whistles, euphoniums, autoharps and 22 tone serialism.

  2. har har..

    thinking about it, maddalena fagandini really ought to be in that list too...

  3. What a lovely passionate post. Here here!