The music of the spheres


Every day at 2pm during the exhibition of Peter Blake’s illustrations for Under Milk Wood at the National Museum, Cardiff, the usual hush of the gallery was filled with “The sounds of the spheres”. Instead of the classic Richard Burton recordings of the work, the gallery chose a 1988 production by pop music producer George Martin to soundtrack Blake’s vibrant, affectionate and dazzling works.

On Sunday 24th January 1954 the final recordings of the BBC’s first production of Under Milk Wood were made at Broadcasting House  having accommodated Richard Burton’s hectic acting schedule. The director Douglas Cleverdon had already gone to Laugharne to record children reading “Gwennie kiss the boys” and the song “Johnnie Crack and Flossie Snail” as well as location sounds. Technically the recording used what might now be regarded as crude techniques – reel to reel analogue tape and manual editing (that is a razor blade and sticky tape!). That this production is still one of the defining recordings of the work is perhaps due to the fact that “though technically straightforward, the original 1954 broadcast of Under Milk Wood still seemed most wonderful. It was a different world”.

Walford Davies’ introduction to this version soundly places the work in the context of a heard experience: “our reading is richer if it also hears (his emphasis) the work, as a “play for voices’.”  The original recording took place at a time when radio was still an important medium and for Dylan Thomas “this, to me, unbelievable lack of wires” was key to the delivery of his words. Radio also was – and still is – “by its very nature synchronic, in the strict sense of everything coinciding in time but not in place”. [ibid] This allows the writer and production director limitless – except by the technology – capabilities.

There was little music in the BBC 1954 production. The record producer George Martin for his 1988 ‘celebrity recording’ as Davies describes it, was able to envisage sound worlds quite impossible to create 35 years earlier. Digital recording, where sound is directly recorded as data, omitting the analogue stage of covering sound into waveforms, was the new boy on the block. Equipment allowed recording of 32 separate tracks, all synchronous but not mixed together until the end. Stereo recordings meant that individual voices and sounds could be ‘moved’, placed in context to each and the listener. This is a clearer, more direct, and potentially more dramatic way of delivering a reading. Already the doyen of the industry (producing most of the Beatles’ output for example) George Martin wanted a recording that stretched the technology as well as his directorial skills and imagination. This presented issues, for example with sound effects. In 1988 there were extensive ‘libraries’ of stock sounds eg children’s voices, clocks, bells, waves but these were all analogue recordings that would jar in an all digital one. So even the simplest thing – the silence of Laugharne – had to be specially recorded using digital recorders. The children of Laugharne got another outing.

As well as  all-Welsh actor voices – with the exception of Alan Bennett reading the ‘Tourist Guide’ – Martin wanted music. This meant actors who could sing, or at least work with music, for example a masterly Freddie Jones as Captain Cat, and singers who could represent the very best of traditional Welsh music and act, such as Mary Hopkin. Sir Geraint Evans could of course easily carry Eli Jenkins’ morning prayer with the music of Troyes’ Chant, but could he act as well? Well, as an opera star of great distinction, of course he could.

Other key musical voices were Bonnie Tyler singing Polly Garter’s “I loved a man” with music by Elton John, and the ever popular Tom Jones with a rollicking pop number in “Waldo’s song”.

There is an introductory musical soundscape too and music used as ‘under beds’, heightening the drama at a few significant points. Although Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads (1940) is considered one of the first concept albums, consisting of semi-autobiographical songs about the hardships of American migrant labourers during the 1930s, it is only in the late 1960s that producers/directors/musicians developed the idea of a record album – or two in this case – being a continuous narrative. Martin’s Under Milk Wood was a musical interpretation of a radio drama, or play for voices, or a concept album. Whatever.

The critical test of Martin’s production is twofold for me: does it achieve Dylan’s desire to be a ‘wire-less’ transmission of his characters, their story and ideas; does the directorial intervention add to the listener’s enjoyment and appreciation of the work?

To be tested after 35 years, particularly in the context of Peter Blake’s visualisation of the same work – and to which similar tests might be applied I feel – is a hard one. I selected 12 tracks, mostly musical, and linked them for a radio – yes radio – piece which you can now hear online as a podcast (see note about voice quality). In my view the recording has aged well: well, perhaps not the europop writing of “Waldo’s song” so very well, but Tom Jones of course carries it off. Does it develop, deepen, enhance the words of Dylan Thomas? Undeniably. For me, Freddie Jones and Mary Hopkin are the definitive rendering of his love song. As for the actors: peerless even compared with the BBC original.

It is then perhaps no surprise that every day for the duration of its exhibition, National Gallery Wales has given us this George Martin version of Under Milk Wood in preference to others. An inspired choice.

My track selection:

1 Main Theme: Under Milk Wood – A Play For Voices

2 First voice Anthony Hopkins:  “To begin at the beginning” ___ to “sleeping now”

3  Captain Cat to “Oh my dead dears” 2:14

4 Guide Book: Alan Bennett

5 Song: Johnnie Crack And Flossie Snail

6 “The sound of the spheres” and Second voice: to “primrose grows”. 0:39

7 Song: Polly Garter, Bonnie Tyler – ‘I Loved A Man’ edit 2:19

8 Now when Farmers Boys edit to “Donkey Down” 2:04

9 Song: Rosie Probert And Captain Cat – “Love Duet”

10 Song: Morning Prayer Eli Jenkins

11 Song: Waldo’s song edit 2:54

12 Song: ‘But I Always Think As We Tumble In To Bed…’

Hear podcast of my radio piece at: