The BBC Radiophonic Workshop, one of the sound effects units of the BBC, was created in 1958 to produce effects and new music for radio, and was closed in March 1998, although much of its traditional work had already been outsourced by 1995. It was based in the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios in Delaware Road, London, growing outwards from the then-legendary Room 13. The innovative music and techniques used by the Workshop made it one of the most significant influences on electronic music today.
Delia Ann Derbyshire (5 May 1937Â â€“ 3 July 2001) was an English musician and composer of electronic music and musique concrÃ¨te. She is best known for her electronic realisation of Ron Grainer’s theme music to the British science fiction television series Doctor Who and for her work with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.
In 1959, on approaching Decca records, Delia was told that the company DID NOT employ women in their recording studios, so she went to work for the UN in Geneva before returning to London to work for music publishers Boosey & Hawkes.
Derbyshire was born in Coventry, UK. Educated at Barrâ€™s Hill School, Derbyshire then completed a degree in mathematics and music at Girton College, Cambridge.In 1959 she applied for a position at Decca Records only to be told that the company did not employ women in their recording studios.Instead she took a position at the UN in Geneva, soon returning to London to work for music publishers Boosey & Hawkes.
Some of her most acclaimed work was done in the 1960s in collaboration with the British artist and playwright Barry Bermange, for the Third Programme (the radio station which later evolved into BBC Radio 3).Besides the Doctor Who theme, Derbyshire also composed and produced scores, incidental pieces and themes for nearly 200 BBC Radio and BBC TV programmes. A selection of some of her best 1960s electronic music creations for the BBC can be found on the album BBC Radiophonic Music (BBC Records), which was re-released on CD in 2002. Several of the smaller pieces that Derbyshire created at the Radiophonic Workshop were used for many years as incidental music by the BBC and other broadcasters, including the ABC.
One set of recordings made for the Third Programme labeled “Dreams” was made in collaboration with Barry Bermange (who originally recorded the narrations). Bermange put together The Dreams (1964), a collage of people describing their dreams, set to a background of electronic sound. Dreams is a collection of spliced/reassembled interviews with people describing their dreams, particularly recurring elements. The program of sounds and voices attempts to represent, in five movements, some sensations of dreaming: running away, falling, landscape, underwater, and colour.
The original 1963 recording of the Doctor Who theme music is widely regarded as a significant and innovative piece of electronic music, recorded well before the availability of commercial synthesisers. Delia Derbyshire of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop used musique concrÃ¨te techniques to realise a score written by composer Ron Grainer. Each and every note was individually created by cutting, splicing, speeding up and slowing down segments of analogue tape containing recordings of a single plucked string, white noise, and the simple harmonic waveforms of test-tone oscillators which were used for calibrating equipment and rooms, not creating music. The swooping melody and pulsating bass rhythm was created by manually adjusting the pitch of oscillator banks to a carefully timed pattern. The rhythmic hissing sounds, “bubbles” and “clouds”, were created by cutting tape recordings of filtered white noise.
Once each sound had been created, it was modified. Some sounds were created at all the required pitches direct from the oscillators, others had to be repitched later by adjusting the tape playback speed and re-recording the sound onto another tape player. This process continued until every sound was available at all the required pitches. To create dynamics, the notes were re-recorded at slightly different levels.
Each individual note was then trimmed to length by cutting the tape, and stuck together in the right order. This was done for each “line” in the music â€“ the main plucked bass, the bass slides (an organ-like tone emphasising the grace notes), the hisses, the swoops, the melody, a second melody line (a high organ-like tone used for emphasis), and the bubbles and clouds. Most of these individual bits of tape making up lines of music, complete with edits every inch, still survive.
This done, the music had to be “mixed”. There were no multitrack tape machines, so rudimentary multitrack techniques were invented: each length of tape was placed on a separate tape machine and all the machines were started simultaneously and the outputs mixed together. If the machines didn’t stay in sync, they started again, maybe cutting tapes slightly here and there to help. In fact, a number of “submixes” were made to ease the process â€“ a combined bass track, combined melody track, bubble track, and hisses.
Grainer was amazed at the resulting piece of music and when he heard it, famously asked, “Did I write that?”. Derbyshire modestly replied “Most of it”. Unfortunately, the BBCâ€”who wanted to keep members of the Workshop anonymousâ€”prevented Grainer from getting Derbyshire a co-composer credit and a share of the royalties.
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