Asylum Diary (1959)


‘Asylum Diary’ is a radio play, based on the book ‘Notes from the Asylum’ by award-winning author Christine Lavant. Published posthumously, the book details Lavant’s experiences when, at the age of 20, she was voluntarily admitted as a patient to a state mental hospital in Klagenfurt following her attempted suicide. The play details her experiences over her six week stay, constructing apocalyptic fantasies from the deeply cynical and implicitly violent behaviour of the institutions patients, nurses and doctors.

For ‘Asylum Diary’, Roberto Gerhard opted to focus on purely electronic materials. He created a unique range of vivid sound images, ranging from background sounds that sought to convey the particular mood or atmosphere of the text to specific sound-images that communicate the more fantastical elements of the radio play. One such cue, presented in his radio feature ‘Audiomobiles’, is a recurring sound-image used to depict the protagonist’s “vision of flying horses with golden manes”, which provides some idea as to the kinds of imagery Gerhard attempts to capture sonically. Gerhard’s cues utilise both electronic sounds (oscillators, white noise) and recorded instrumental sounds, treated with a wide range of effects, including changes to speed and direction, filters, feedback, delay, and distortion, often transforming the sound material beyond the point of recognisability. A large amount of the composing took place in Gerhard’s private studio in his Cambridge residence, with four days booked at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in April and May for the final assembly of materials.

Despite originally agreeing to create 50 minutes of material, Gerhard delivered substantially less music in total, although the craft evident in his final materials for ‘Asylum Diary’ is undeniable. In total, he created over 40 unique cues, totalling around 25 minutes, which took significantly longer than initially anticipated. In a letter to the BBC, Gerhard describes the labour-intensive nature of creating this music: “The making of each sound-image may involve any number of retakes until the final version is arrived at: the time factor may oscillate from hours to whole days, according to the complexity of the texture one is trying to build up. I spent the best part of six weeks exclusively on this job, more precisely: five weeks solid, Sundays included, with never less than six hours a day and often up to 10 hours.”

‘Asylum Diary’ was Gerhard’s most significant work of electronic music in his career thus far, and it played a significant role in both providing him the space to experiment with electronic sound, providing new insights into the kinds of sounds possible, and in planning a large scale assembly of “applied music” in the electronic medium. It was through Gerhard’s work on ‘Asylum Diary’ that Gerhard formulated his notion that “electronic sounds were better suited for the fantastic than traditional music”, an idea that would drive his use of the electronic medium in his work to follow.

020Audio recording of Roberto Gerhard’s sound cues for ‘Asylum Diary’
070Electronic sound assemblages by Roberto Gerhard. Includes processed recording of the sculpture.
083Audio recording of an assembly of Roberto Gerhard’s electronic sound cues for ‘Asylum Diary’
181Electronic sound assemblages by Roberto Gerhard that relate to ‘Asylum Diary’
291Audio recording of a fragment of the radio broadcast of Roberto Gerhard’s ‘Asylum Diary’ with voice
369Audio recording of a fragment of Roberto Gerhard’s ‘Asylum Diary’. Recording consists of the beginning of the radiophonic feature, with voice.
390Electronic sound assemblages by Roberto Gerhard, as well as sound cues from Roberto Gerhard’s soundtrack to ‘Asylum Diary’
603Electronic sound assemblages by Roberto Gerhard, as well as monologue excerpts from radio plays ‘Asylum Diary’ and ‘L’Etranger’ with music cues by Roberto Gerhard