A Leak in the Universe (1955)


‘A Leak in the Universe’ is a BBC production of a play by I.A. Richards, detailing a magician’s encounter with real magic. Gerhard’s score, composed for viola, percussion, piano, and accordion, was set between the scenes of the play and totalled around 10 minutes in duration. Composed and recorded in three weeks, Gerhard subsequently booked time at the BBC to further manipulate the magnetic tape. These tape manipulations add an ethereal nature to the sound of the play; much like the magicians experience with a magic box, the music is familiar yet not of this world.

Gerhard’s tape manipulations largely focus on changing the speed and direction of playback, as well as superimposing different iterations of material. For example, one cue takes the recording and plays it back at twice the speed, superimposing it on top of the same cue played in reverse. Another increases the speed of playback gradually, creating a long glissando, over the sound of a reversed cymbal hit. These techniques not only demonstrate Gerhard’s awareness of the established techniques of musique concrète, but foreshadow his later fondness for manipulating his instrumental and orchestral recordings as material for sound composition.

The reception to Gerhard’s soundtrack was mixed amongst surveyed listeners. The music was described as “dismal noise, hideously discordant and unpleasant” by some, and “expressive, witty and appropriate” by others. The sound effects themselves, as “imaginative and well handled” by many, but also as “tiresome and exaggerated”. This mixed reception is reflective of the time period, when audiences were largely unfamiliar with the sounds of electronic music, and musique concretè has not received much attention in Britain.

457Audio recording of Roberto Gerhard’s ‘Violin Concerto’ and his soundtrack to the radio play ‘A Leak in the Universe’