New Feature: Do women dream of electric sheep? Delia Derbyshire and the women of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop

Delia Derbyshire has enjoyed a resurgence of recognition in the past decade and has taken her well-deserved place as one of the founders of modern electronic music. But she was hardly the only woman to work at the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop. Michelle Drury takes us on a journey through the history of the Workshop and pays tribute to the women who passed through the Maida Vale studios

(NB: Since this article was written and submitted, the BBC has since announched that they will be reviving the Radiophonic Workshop. You can find out more about this new development here)

A woman works hard at a couple of record decks, creates a few loops. Later her music is played to millions of TV and radio listeners. The dream of a future superstar DJ? No, this woman is a past figure and the music isn’t dance but sounds for BBC programmes made by the members of the Radiophonic Workshop.

When the BBC created the Radiophonic Workshop in 1958, its job was to create “special sound” i.e. sound effects or incidental music for BBC radio and TV productions. The prime movers in persuading the BBC to set up its own sound unit in the 1950s were Desmond Briscoe and Daphne Oram who were both studio managers for the BBC as well as musicians. They weren’t interested in making ordinary music for programmes, they were interested in the possibilities tape manipulation and electronic sound offered. In essence the early products of the workshop were close to musique concrete (translation: music concrete) where any sound could be taken, e.g. the sound made by a key scraped down piano wire, and then manipulated in many ways, by adding echo, passing through filters, playing at a different speed or backwards, splicing with another sound. The original sounds could be made into something quite different, in the key’s case the sound of the TARDIS taking off. The Radiophonic Workshop’s compositions provided an atmosphere even a skilled actor reading a script couldn’t.

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Image entitled ‘Sound effects that made radio history’ shows two members of the radiophonic workshop at work creating sound effects. A bucket of water appears to be being deployed, amongst other things. Image by brizzle born and bread. It is used thanks to a flickr creative commons licence

UPDATE: click here to read about Delia Derbyshire Day 2013!