Delia Derbyshire, and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop

January 31, 2017

by Tanisha Dsouza

Delia Derbyshire was born in 1939 in Coventry, England. After the Coventry Blitz in 1940 during World War 2, she was moved to Lancashire as a young child for her safety. In an interview she describes the bomb shelling by the German Airforce, and the ‘all clear’ signal as electronic music.(1) Her father was a sheet metal worker, and Coventry itself was an industrial town. Before and more so after the war it became a major producer of cars, bicycles, airplane engines, ammunition.

Nov 14, 1940, Coventry.

Coventry Cathedral after raid, 1940

Coventry after the Blitz of 1940

Through school Delia was a bright child, and went on to study mathematics at Cambridge. This is thought to heavily influence her music and scores- keeping detailed written scores on sheets of graph paper.(1)

 

Delia Derbyshire

Delia Derbyshire

In 1960 she joined BBC as a trainee assistant studio manager, and was appointed in 1962 to work at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, where she continued to work for 11 years. Amongst her work there, the best known is the theme tune for the television show ‘Doctor Who’, which she composed over a score written by Ron Graine.(2) However she never received any credit or royalties for her work. It was also not uncommon for the work produced in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop to not be known by the individual composers, but the Workshop itself.

Her piece, ‘Ziwzih-ziwzih oo-oo-oo’ made in 1971, is one of favourites from those I have come across so far. The incoherent speech, strangely automated voice and the beeping of what sounds to me like a video game machine are very chilling, almost uncomfortable to listen to. Research informs me that was created’ for an episode of “Out of the Unknown” based on Isaac Asimov’s short story Reason in which automata rebel against humans and worship God in an energy converter.’(3). The voice are the words ‘Praise to the Master/His Wisdom and His Reason/Praise to the Master/Forever and OO-OO-OO-OO/His Wis…/His Wis…/OO-OO-OO-OO/” reversed. It was realised by BBC Radiophonic Music in 1971, and is in my opinion a prime example of electronic music being used to create a mood, and create theme music. Other famous work includes Air (1971), Pot Au Feu (1968) and Depression (1971).

The Maida Vale studios, as seen from the north. The structure is essentially of steel, set in the ground and with an Edwardian stucco frontage. The Workshop occupied several rooms at the front, to the left of the entrance, as well as others in the centre of the building.

The Maida Vale studios, as seen from the north. The structure is essentially of steel, set in the ground and with an Edwardian stucco frontage. The Workshop occupied several rooms at the front, to the left of the entrance, as well as others in the centre of the building.

BBC Radiophonic Workshop

BBC Radiophonic Workshop

The BBC Radiophonic Workshop ran from 1958 to 1998, and was a sound effects unit for the BBC. The Workshop was based out of Maida Wale Studios in Delaware Road, London. They created theme music for radio and later television, and had some of the most advanced technology in the country at the time. It was created out of demand by studio managers for a new range of sounds to accompany new media. Many of these new sounds were created by tape manipulation, using the principles of music concrete. (4)

Daphne Oram                                                                Daphne Oram

Among the artists working there was Daphne Oram, who was also the co-founder of the Workshop. She was born in Wiltshire, Uk in 1925. Along with Delia Derbyshire, she was a pioneer in electronic music and music concrete, snd also a remarkable innovator. She left the Workshop soon after however due a to a prevalent sexist attitude- “They wanted my ideas, they didn’t want me.” (5)

Oram went on to start her own electronic musics studio, and designed an electronic instrument called the Oramics Machine to realise her idea of creating sound through drawings with the help of two colleagues. The machine worked by using a light dot to trace the waveform drawn on a glass slide. A sound generator would then create a tone, and by drawing further on a 35mm film strip the character of the tone such as pitch, echo could be adjusted. (6) The machine is now in too delicate to be played.

Oramics

Daphne Oram and the Oramics Machine

Like Oram, Delia Derbyshire left the Workshop in 1973. Speculative reasons are a sexist work environment at the Workshop and the introduction of the synthesisers. It was believed to have stopped have stopped making music till her work with English producer Sonic Boom. After her death, 267 tapes of music and a thousand sheets were found in her attic. They were digitised in 2007 but only published in 2010 due to copyright complications. (7)

The introduction of synthesisers brought with it a new generation of artists at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, as many like Delia did not accept the use of this new technology, and the sound.

Notes

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nXnmSgaeGAI
  2. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/music/what-to-listen-to/the-women-who-invented-electro-inside-the-bbc-radiophonic-worksh/
  3. http://wikidelia.net/wiki/Ziwzih_Ziwzih_OO-OO-OO
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BBC_Radiophonic_Workshop
  5. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/music/what-to-listen-to/the-women-who-invented-electro-inside-the-bbc-radiophonic-worksh/
  6. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7cyHFT2abXE
  7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delia_Derbyshire#Death)

Other sources

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