the early 1950s the world was gradually waking up to
the ‘musique concrète’ of Pierre Schaeffer,
and the tape manipulations and electronic music experiments
of Luciano Berio and Karlheinz Stockhausen. The celebrated
pioneer studios of electronic music share one common
denominator: the word radio. Schaeffer worked at the
Radiodiffusion Télévision Française
in Paris; Stockhausen worked at Radio Cologne and Berio
at Radio Audizioni Italiene in Milan. Significant developments
in sound recording and reproduction technology for radio
were a legacy of urgent wartime need for improved means
of communication and a precursor to a new peacetime
artistic obsession with the infinite musical possibilities
of the tape recorder. This was a time when tape
recorders were the size of a large fruit machine and
movable by crane, when home studios were unheard of
and budgets for this equipment could only be found in
national radio stations.
Europe, post war depression had inspired a cultural
revolution in the arts. In response to popular demand,
the BBC began to commission plays from fashionable playwrites
whose new style of writing demanded an added dimension
in sound and music: the birth of the surreal in radio
drama required a surreal ambience that could no longer
be achieved satisfactorily from orchestral instruments
was a term adopted by the BBC (perhaps borrowed from
Schaeffer’s "Essai Radiophoniques" in
the early 1950s) to identify the nature of this new
dimension in sound and music for radio drama. It referred
to the collective endeavours of music composers and
sound engineers who worked together with dramatic artists
to optimise the stimulation of the listener’s imagination.
Among them were three women, Daphne Oram, Delia Derbyshire
and Maddalena Fagandini who all worked under enormous
pressure to meet deadlines, in an environment where
the only rule was to satisfy the drama producer, with
no guidelines as to how that was to be achieved. In
the absence of digital ready-mades, they designed and
built their own filters, effects units, and synchronisers
including a special oscillator, the ‘Wobbulator’and
the ‘Crystal Palace’ a switching device that
was used to create a chorus effect, and they devised
their own unique composing techniques. Delia Derbyshire
holds the record for the longest tape loop which extended
beyond the studio walls and down the corridor.
used natural sounds, inspired by Schaeffer’s ‘musique
concrète’ and electronic music. It differed
from other studios in Europe, because of the specific
visual and psychological context imposed by the spoken
word which necessitated detailed craftsmanship in the
acousmatic placing of sounds. The drama of the piece
remained the underlying force and purpose of its existence.
Oram was employed as a BBC ‘music balancer’
during the war. She was a skilled musician and trained
engineer and by the early 1950s she had been promoted
to Music Studio Manager. She campaigned persistently
for equipment to be made available to develop new techniques
for sound design and electronic music.
1957 Ms. Oram was asked to compose music for a play
called ‘Amphytryon 38’. Using a bank of single
sine-wave oscillators, a Motosacoche tape recorder and
home-made filters, she composed the piece, the first
of its kind at the BBC, from entirely electronic sound
sources for her music. The piece received favourable
reviews and during that year she and her colleague Desmond
Briscoe, were inundated with demands for electronic
compositions for new radio plays.
Beckett’s "All That Fall" (1957) required
specific sound creations to enhance its surreal atmosphere.
Frederick Bradnum wrote "Private Dreams and Public
Nightmares", subtitled "A Radiophonic Poem’
which was the first play to include explicit instructions
for sound montage within the script. Giles Cooper wrote
"The Disagreeable Oyster", and "Under
the Loofah Tree", both comedies. It became apparent
that the increase in demand for the services of Briscoe
and Oram necessitated more space and equipment to do
the job. Within a year a budget had been found, and
room Nos 12 and 13 at Maida Vale were made available.
Daphne Oram was among the first studio managers of the
left a year later to form her own studio and continued
to compose for film, TV, and perform electronic works
also developed a career writing numerous articles and
lecturing on electronic and concrète musics.
She wrote a book, "An Individual Note" (Gaillard,
1971) in which she articulates a wealth of knowledge
of electronics, as well as music and philosophy. In
it she compares the human process of music composition
to the processes and stimuli contained in electronic
leaving the BBC, she received a Gulbenkian Foundation
grant to develop her ‘Oramics’. This was her
invention, where physical hand movements are imprinted
onto transparent film strips and passed across electronic
photo sensors from where they are converted into sound.
It is a system of graphical notation on which are imposed
the necessary components, such as pitch, duration, envelope
shape, timbre, for representing audio waveforms to generate
sound electronically. She thus became the first (and
only?) woman to design and build an entirely new sound
recording medium, which was used by, among others, Thea
Musgrave, Tristram Cary and Hugh Davies. Its practical
use was however superseded by the development of voltage
controlled technology in sound synthesis. Oramics became
redundant, but inspired later developments in computer
software, such as Inook Choi’s recent Interactive
Virtual Notational System.
the early 1990s, she was working on outdoor sound installations
in private gardens prior to retirement. She left behind
fifty years of pioneering activity at the frontline
of technological developments in sound recording and
Fagandini joined the Radiophonic Workshop in 1960.
She worked in sound for about 10 years, before becoming
a TV producer in 1965. The following is taken from an
interview with her on 23rd March, 2000. In her explanations
of how she created some of her unique sounds, she gives
interesting, entertaining insight into what it was like
working in the Radiophonic Workshop at that time and
into the inter- relationship between music and drama.
There was a tradition of using women as engineers and
technical people in radio. This happened during the
war when all the gentlemen went off to fight the war.
There was quite a cut back after the war when the surviving
gentlemen came back and wanted their jobs, of course,
naturally, but it was still thought that women had done
1950s was a time when radio really flowered like crazy.
It was wonderful being in radio at the time. You could
see things happening around you which had never been
considered before or since. Daphne Oram was a music
studio manager. Desmond Briscoe was a drama studio manager.
They got together and created sound for "All That
Fall" by Samuel Beckett. It was a series of noises,
beautifully constructed to fit what the drama was about.
Was it all music concrète?
Yes it was all done using natural sounds.
particularly loved doing spot effects, where you act
the effects yourself in the studio with the actors.
It works better live than on disk because you get the
perspective right. You walk up and down. I fought with
myself in a gravel pit at one point because there were
two guys fighting in front of a microphone going ‘ugh,
ugh, ugh,’ and I was scrabbling about in a gravel
pit because they were on a beach somewhere. I saw the
producer Michael Bakewell, laughing at me through the
glass. In a pause in recording I went in there and said,
"I’m sorry Michael, if I spot you laughing
at me again I’m going home." He didn’t.
Did you create you own effects?
You could see from the script what was
needed and it was up to you to produce it. There was
a Raymond Rakes restoration play in which there were
all sorts of doors. Everything had to creak in some
way. We had one of these big trolleys where you had
2 or 3 different doors on a box on wheels which you
could move around if it needed to be nearer the microphone.
I needed a really heavy creak . I said, "I’m
sorry Raymond I just can’t find another one. ‘
Raymond said - he was very experienced, "Try running
a pencil along the perforated sound panels along the
wall. It worked. You see, you can always find a creak,
but is it the right one?
another play, we were doing something about footsteps
in the snow. I wasn’t getting it right. Norman
Swallow, one of the actors, said, "I tell you a
way to do it dear. Get a large roll of cotton wool and
just squeeze and twist it close to the microphone. It
worked. It’s the right kind of crunch. Even if
in reality it might be slightly different it gives the
listener the sound, tells them what is happening.
music concrète you can use anything. You can
break glass, record the wind outside the window or cars
going by. I suddenly realised that what I had to do
was to choose as little as possible and try and see
what would come out of those sounds by changing speed
and filtering and so on. How to get a good attack, how
to soften it. You over-stretched the machinery, got
it to make noises you wouldn’t really want it to
do in normal broadcasting. We got the old valves to
whistle and screech.
Did you ever break equipment?
We had a really good old engineer called Dickie Bird.
He was always prepared to repair things if we really
overdid it. Occasionally he would put his fingers in
his ears and say, "I think that will work dear,
just turn the levels down a bit."
Bakewell came up with a production of Cocteau’s
‘Orphée’, which was his adaptation
of the film script. He took a risk and allowed us to
do all the music as well as the sound effects. This
too was all music concrète. Although we had begun
to play with oscillators we had just one sine wave per
oscillator so you had to really build up any note from
scratch. It was really quite tricky to get the mix right.
the music for parts of this production, I went and researched
all the Greek scales, I made a note of all of them and
played around with them. They were all a bit too recognisable
for me, except one which is very short, only four notes
and three intervals, a tone and two semitones, which
of course you can split apart by an octave or two. I
confined myself to just those four basic notes.
We got the Steinway concert grand from the concert hall.
I plucked the strings with the pedal down and just let
it die. You got all the harmonics resonating from all
directions because the other strings vibrate. Then you
could play with that ad infinitum, literally. Played
it mostly backwards, let it rise and then fade quickly
just before the extreme cut off.
it wasn’t me but the sounds themselves that were
suggesting what to do. You learn that the secret is
in the material itself and not a mathematical calculation
in your head. Its there somewhere for you to listen
and find it. It has its own rhythm. You push it around
at your peril. You have to let it happen, let it be.
Then you can play around with what you know about music
to help construct sound which makes musical sense to
rather shimmering piano strings sound was the music
for the princess. For the wind, we got Jenneth Worsley,
who has a good high soprano voice, to hold a note as
steady as she could. Then we played with feedback and
the tape going backwards and forwards until it just
started to float. It has gone into the BBC effects library,
and still gets used in many plays. She should have got
paid, I feel, but ‘staff, no fee,’ as usual.
through the mirror’ was breaking glass played backwards
plus some piano strings, from an old upright that was
in our little studio. I just crashed against it so it
was very jangling, and then brought to a sudden halt
on replay. We decided to do the part where he is torn
apart by recording separately each syllable of the author’s
name, ‘J E ...A N.... C O C.... T E A U....’
We played with pitch, feedback and tape echo so that
each sound dies away slowly. It was very rough, deliberately
because he was being torn to pieces and it worked.
What do you think was important about the radiophonic
It provided producers with the possibility of creating
sound pictures, which were not just a few effects and
a bit of conventional music off disk. The whole thing
became more elaborate.
Delia arrived, a lot more possibilities were presented.
She knew maths and was very organised from that point
of view. She began to use the oscillators in a more
structured sense because she could. She knew the harmonic
structures of certain sounds, she could put them together.
I moved when the Moog synthesiser came in. I got into
TV producing because I thought that the way things were
going it did require far greater musical training. However
wonderful some of the sounds were, it needed something
extra. They really started making excellent music.
Derbyshire joined in 1963. She was trained in both
music and mathematics, which she had read at Cambridge
university. She came to the BBC as a trainee studio
manager, and requested to spend her day off sitting
in on sessions at the Workshop studio. Her style was
not comic, brash or eerie, it was carefully structured,
contemplative and very musical. As Roy Curtis-Bramwell
mathematics of sound came naturally to her and she could
take a set of figures and build them into music in a
way quite different from anyone else....She stayed
on to contribute an enormous amount of very beautiful
- almost unearthly - and quite remarkable music."
(Briscoe and Curtis Bramwell: 1983, p.83.)
following is from an interview recorded on 24 February
I was always into the theory of sound even in the 6th
form. The physics teacher refused to teach us acoustics
but I studied it myself and did very well. It was always
a mixture of the mathematical side and music. Also,
Radio had been my love since childhood because I came
from just a humble background with relatively few books
and radio was my education. It was always my little
ambition to get into the BBC.
How did you get into the BBC?
The only way into the workshop was to be a trainee studio
manager. This is because the workshop was purely a service
department for drama. The BBC made it quite clear that
they didn’t employ composers and we weren’t
supposed to be doing music.
What were you doing?
It was music, it was abstract electronic sound, organised.
Desmond Briscoe said that when you joined in 1962 you
brought a whole new way of composing music into the
Did he really say that?. Well you can’t call it
music, they would say. I was against doing anything
that would put any musician out of work. I was more
interested in doing complex sounds and complex probabilities
and serendipities and synchronicities...
his book, Desmond said that it’s impossible to
make a beautiful electronic sound.... That was his attitude,
as a drama man.....Men are more into violence, action
sounds, frightening sounds. I was much more into reflective
sounds. Also I was doing intricate rhythm things - 11
and 13 time, in the early 60s. So he said that he changed
his mind when I worked at the workshop. Big things started
to happen in radio at that time - ‘The Golden Age
of the Radiophonic Workshop’ is the chapter heading.
Is it your approach to get inside the electronics of
equipment, find out how it all works first ...?
Yes, absolutely. I was teaching piano to a child in
Geneva, and the first thing I did was to show the child
what is happening inside, you press this, and the hammer
hits the string and it bounces off again and what happens
when you use the two pedals. As for synthesisers and
presets, its only recently that I picked up a few devices
very cheap, second-hand and I realised that what I thought
was a problem with synthesisers was in fact a problem
with people using them and that they’re much more
flexible than how people use them.
Did you ever use Daphne Oram’s Oramics equipment.
Well I did manage to get invited to see it. It a was
huge great mangle of all these tracks of film to be
hand-drawn. I think my attitude was that the ear is
a better judge of what it hears than the eye can be
in constructing a sound.
Was that what she trying to do, to override the ear
with visual image?
Oh yes, everything was done with waves and oscilloscopes
and scanning the oscilloscope waves. OK it may be perfectly
valid but I personally wouldn’t approach making
a sound from any visual parameters. I’d rather
do it from mathematical parameters and then rely on
the ear to change it. She had two lots of Gulbenkian
grants and she was very keen for composers to use it
but I don’t know if many did.
Was that because Voltage Controlled synthesis took over?
Well she argues that she invented Voltage Control herself
. That’s what she was doing, using an oscilloscope
What was it like all working in one room?
It started off rooms 13 and 14 knocked together. And
then when I came, they had just built room 12, which
became Delia’s room. There were 12 Jason
valve oscillators, with 8 electronic gating circuits,
built in-house. The accurate oscillator was a Muirhead,
which is used in research equipment. It was a switchable
one used mainly for tuning, whereas the Jason was just
swoopy, you know Dr. Who swoopy.
course now on the computer, one can tune in any sort
of scale by just pressing a button, but at the time
I used to work it all out with my log tables, like the
Pythagorean scale, the mean tone scale, adjust tuning
and I remember doing a whole lot of comparative tables
for Ron Grainer.
did the Dr Who theme music mostly on the Jason valve
oscillators. Ron Grainer brought me the score. He expected
to hire a band to play it, but when he heard what I
had done electronically, he’d never imagined it
would be so good. He offered me half of the royalties,
but the BBC wouldn’t allow it. I was just on an
assistant studio manager’s salary and that was
it.... and we got a free radio times. The boss wouldn’t
let anybody have any sort of credit.
How long did you work there?
‘62 - 73. A very short time, compared to those
who made a career out of it.
..That’s a career isn’t it?
Well I don’t know, I still haven’t worked
out why I left - self preservation I think.
Were you the only woman there ?
We had some girls on 3 month attachments who didn’t
stay. Elizabeth Parker came much later.
are good at sound and the reason is that they have the
ability to interpret what the producer wants, they can
read between the lines and get through to them (the
producers) as a person. Women are good at abstract stuff,
they have sensitivity and good communication. They have
the intricacy - for tape cutting, which is a very delicate
job you know....
producer once said to me, "You must be an ardent
feminist,"....I said "What!", I hadn’t
even thought in those words.
It seems there are certain sounds that a women wouldn’t
make... e.g. Dick Mills’, ‘Dr. Breakknock’s
stomach’ from the Goon Show.
Well honestly, if I wanted a big dramatic noise, I would
go and ask a bloke because it’s their field. I
never got into those big dramatic things at all. I used
to do programmes to look at sculpture by... .
So..going back to the equipment at the Radiophonic Workshop..
Room 11 was the tape room where groups of women reclaimed
tape, can you believe it. At that time, tape was regarded
as a fire hazard, so we used to get the fireman coming
round all the time to remove the tape. This (photograph
of studio) is the advanced stage of room 12 where
we had three remote-controlled, synchronised Phillips
tape recorders. This changed the whole of our work because
before that, not only did the machines not run at the
same speed as each other, but the rulers that we had
read differently. There was one wooden metre ruler and
a plastic 12 inch ruler and so if one was doing intricate
work, nothing would sync at all.
was a BTR2, the big machine for mastering on, and a
TR90 both EMI machines. Everything was 1/4-inch mono
the whole time I was there. There was a ferrograph,
with an internal speaker, that just went up to 7 1/2
ips, used for timing, pip loops, click tracks. There
was an RGD and a 7 1/2 ips reflectograph. It was all
ips and cps in those days, before Hertz.
We had one Leevers-Rich 8-track machine which was a
bit of a white elephant, It was an expensive variable
speed 8-track machine on one-inch tape but it wasn’t
very good sound quality. There was a Hammond organ and
an old upright piano.
Do you still play?
I took a great dislike to the piano, and took up the
spinnet. At the time I had a little flat near the workshop
and I got so addicted to the sound of the spinnet and
the way the high frequencies fill your mind, that I’d
walk home at lunchtime and just play Bach and Bach and
Bach. It was only a small room but you couldn’t
hear the telephone ring while playing the spinnet because
it totally absorbs the whole spectrum of the sound.
Also it doesn’t pass through walls or floors so
nobody else can hear it.
What are you plans for the future?
Several people wanted to do a compilation of my little
things, they appeal to different people. So I asked
the BBC how much it will be to license certain tracks
- half a minute long - and they just say "All tracks
are £500 each!" So,
I’ve put it all behind me. It’s the doing
of it that was the pleasure really. I can still hear
beautiful things in my mind, and I know how I can make
more beautiful things too, that’s the important
Derbyshire, composer arranger and pioneer of electronic
music, 5 May 1937-3 July 2001
A number of recordings by Delia Derbyshire and Maddalena
Fagandini are available on the Cadenza catalogue at
the National Sound Archive Listening Department, at
the British Library.
thanks to Chris Mobbs at the National Sound Archive
listening service, the British library and Delia Derbyshire
and Maddalena Fagandini for their time.
Hutton is the in-house sound engineer at the Irish Arts
Centre Hammersmith, works as a lecturer in sound engineering
and music technology at City of Westminster college
and plays saxophone in various experimental music projects.