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Delia Derbyshire & the BBC Radiophonic Workshop

Delia Derbyshire Last Saturday (May 5th) would have been the 76th birthday of the pioneering electronic musician Delia Derbyshire, a name that may be unfamiliar if you are not my side of 40, British or a bit of a geek.

There is however at least one of her tunes that you will recognise, as Delia was responsible for generating the futuristic bleeps, whooshes and synthetic sounds that combined to make the original Dr. Who Theme, which despite being made 50 years ago in 1963, is well worth a quick listen now, to remind yourself how good it still sounds…

Although credited to Ron Grainer, who wrote the basic melody, it was Delia who after three weeks of hard work recording noises and splicing together bits of magnetic tape, created the sounds and atmosphere that continue to make the tune as memorable today as it was then…

Delia (who sadly died in 2001 of alcoholism related problems, just as renewed interest in her work was beginning to pick up) was a key member of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, a name synonymous with the sonic and musical experimentation of the 1960’s and 70’s.

Formed in 1958 the Workshop’s original brief was to provide incidental sounds for radio and TV shows although this was quickly expanded and the team (which included Daphne Oram, Brian Hodgson and Paddy Kingsland) was soon creating theme tunes and other impressively futuristic sounds not only for The Doctor but also for The Goon Show, Quatermass & the Pit, Blakes 7 and The Hitchhikers Guide to name just a few.

BBC Radiophonic Workshop - early 1960sEach of the members was also a composer in their own right and Delia wrote and recorded many original compositions, one of her most well known (and strangest) of which is Ziwzih Ziwzih OO-OO-OO-OO from 1967. If you think it sounds odd today, imagine what it sounded like back when everyone looked like this….

Delia was also involved in two offshoot groups in the mid 1960’s: the brilliantly named Unit Delta Plus (with Peter Zinovieff, inventor of the first British portable synthesizer the EMS VCS 3) and Kaleidophon (with David Vorhaus), neither of which had great musical success at the time, but both of which have since been the subject of much reassessment by musicians who see in their experimental electronic recordings, the beginnings of today’s digital soundscapes…

There a number of videos on YouTube about Delia & the Radiophonic Workshop, and the ones below I think are the most interesting. It’s fascinating to watch how sounds were created by speeding up and slowing down tapes, playing them backwards and then chopping everything up and making loops…. It must have taken hours and hours to do what any self respecting sampler can do in seconds today…

(I’ve no idea what the ghostly chap in the background is all about…)

There’s also an excellent 1 hour audio mix here put together by Soundhog, which through a mix of spoken word and music, gives a pretty good oversight of what they got up to over in their Maida Vale studio…

As a final aside and if you’re interested in this kind of music like me, I’ve also come across this BBC TV programme from 1979. Called The New Sound of Music and presented by Michael Rodd, it’s a wonder of optimism, science and massively complex technology. I especially enjoyed seeing David Vorhaus in the last section (Part 4) who at about 7.40 mins seemingly invents Goa Trance at least 15 years before anyone knew what to call it…

Truly Impressive…

One final excellent BBC TV programme of related interest can also be found here… (noted more for my records than anything else)

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