The Real Delia: Unsung Muse of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop

Sandwiched between all the flavors of electronic music in my tune bank, the iconic theme music for the BBC’s Doctor Who TV series never fails to pop up on ye olde iPod shuffle…

With that killer bass riff, the eerily majestic melody line and the sci-fi whooshes puncuating the piece, the music’s sonic vision of the future seemed so bleak and mysterious. Yet as dark-sounding as it was, there was also something dashing and whimsical about it, like Dr. Who himself.

Composed by Ron Grainer (The Prisoner, The Omega Man) and realized by Delia Derbyshire for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1963, this was one of the first electronic themes created for a series. In my humble opinion, even after 40 years and several Dr. Who series reboots, it continues to be one of the most striking and recognizable electronic themes in TV history (another would be the gothic theremin melody from ABC’s Dark Shadows 1966-1971).

Active from 1958-1998, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop was originally commissioned to create sound effects for radio, but moved into soundscapes and music for television. But back in the 60s, there was no endless array of synthesizers and software sequencers that could easily produce new sounds. So the composers and audio technologists of the BBC Radiophonic workshop captured environmental sounds by hitting weird objects, speaking/breathing into mics, recording the strange noises of machinery. They composed music with tape loops and countless splices, stretching the tape, slowing it down, pitching it up. They found ingenious ways of manipulating open reel machines and playing with oscillators or circuits. They created so many unusual scores for BBC programing at the time, from educational programs to ID’s to dramatic series. It was music no one had ever heard before.

Among the members of the Radiophonic Workshop, it’s Delia Derbyshire in particular who’s been called the “unsung heroine of British electronic music” by the Guardian newspaper. Her genius for manipulating natural sound to make music has inspired a rabid cult following. The Dr. Who theme made her famous, but Delia composed astonishing scores for BBC television, theater and early electronic music performances. She was much admired for her enthusiasm, her intellect and her singular understanding of composition, mathematics and audio technology. Here is a video of Delia demonstrating some her technique:

In addition to her BBC work, there were extra-curricular collaborations with composers like Sir Peter Maxwell Davies or Roberto Gerhard, and passing creative dalliances with pop figures such as Anthony Newley, George Martin, and Harry Nilsson. She basically withdrew from music in the seventies, but in her later years, she began to get interested in electronic music again, when a younger generation of artists like Aphex Twin and The Chemical Brothers name-checked her as an influence.  As noted in her obituary in the Guardian, “The technology she had left behind was finally catching up with her vision.” She passed away in 2001.

Here is one of Delia’s compositions called “Time to Go”, hosted by radio station WFMU:

Now, Delian fans old and new have another opportunity to find out more about their musical heroine and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Director Kara Blake profiles Delia in a new documentary film called “The Delian Mode”, which was screened at the Unsound Festival in NY last month.

“The Delian Mode” goes on to screenings in Glasgow, Montreal and London. But for a more complete overview of the work of all of the BBC Radiophonic engineers and composers, the BBC produced a 2006 documentary about the Workshop’s heyday, which you can find in several parts on YouTube:

Jocelyn Gonzales

Hockey to Hockets? If you must XY, add a TS…

My introduction to a musical world beyond the Motown & rock’n’roll I heard all around me growing up in Detroit, and the pop hits from the BBC as filtered through the CBC from across the river in Canada, to where I am now was, judging by the length of this already overly lengthy sentence, a circuitous one.

Dad was all about Johnny Cash and Scottish bagpipe music (being a cop will do that to you), and Mom was all theater and movie music. Despite begging for music lessons at an early age (Dad wanted me to be a hockey player; he was on the Detroit Police team), I was at least given a Magnus chord organ and lessons on the guitar and banjo from my Dad’s drinking buddies at many an impromptu late night “soirée.” I took to that chord organ like mad. I was a 7 year-old Phantom of the Opera in my mind, going waay beyond the “On Top of Old Smokey” by-the-numbers type books that came with it. Even so, my most creative outlet was visual art, being the best “draw-er” in elementary school, mostly geometrical patterns (and I was great at Spirograph too!) and the gruesome gore I emulated from Famous Monsters of Filmland fan magazine. “Why don’t you ever draw anything nice?” It wasn’t until my parents divorce and my Mom married some Harvard-trained CPA ne’er-do-well when I was 11, that I found out “music lessons should be a part of every gentleman’s upbringing.” Yeah, right. BUT, if that was my way in, I went for it: piano and viola/violin lessons began, and a nerd was born.

Magnus chord organ

Around that time, the film “A Clockwork Orange,” originally released as Rated-X by the incipient rating system (along with “Midnight Cowboy” and “Last Tango in Paris” due to their adult themes) got reduced to an R-rating and re-released. The porn industry had made a joke of the X-rating by saying, “Well then, we’re XXX,” so it became meaningless. So, with an R-rating, “Clockwork” was able to air commercials on the TV. One day I heard it: the “glorious 9th Symphony by Ludwig Van” but, as we know, being “performed” by Wendy (née Walter) Carlos on the Moog synthesizer. However, I didn’t know what that strange sound was at the time. I shoveled snow like mad that weekend to make the $4.95 needed to purchase, what was to be, the very first LP that I ever bought for myself. Coming home, I was reading the back of it (who were these guys?) and couldn’t figure out which track I had heard on TV. I dropped that needle everywhere on the disc, but could not find it. What was up with all this classical stuff? I thought that was only used for goofing around in Warner Bros. cartoons! I noticed that one of the tracks looked a bit different in the middle, a darker color due to less activity in the grooves. I cued up that spot, and there it was: bum – – – bum – – – bum – bum – bum – bum – etc. It was the march section of the 9th’s choral movement (please pardon the WWII imagery).

It rocked my 11 year-old world

Carlos' 1970s studio

I took to reading and writing music right away, often well beyond my means of playing it (what else is new?) probably because I understood the visual representations of the patterns coming off the art I practically abandoned since hearing that first Moog. In fact, most of the music I naturally like also makes for fine visual art when it’s written down. A favorite joke of mine: Beethoven was so deaf. How deaf was he? He was so deaf he thought he was a painter.

At that point in the 70s there were a lot of “classical goes synth” type albums out but, despite some bits of 1960s Japanese anime, “Kimba the White Lion”, composer Isao Tomita’s takes on Debussy and Stravinsky, I was a dedicated Carlos fan (as was Glenn Gould). Aside from the Beethoven for Kubrick, the mostly baroque output of Carlos, beginning with “Switched-on Bach” in 1968, the attention to detail is still stunning, especially when you consider the means and the pre-planning that had to go into every track. Only was I to discover later that this was due to the use of “hocketing,” a medieval vocal technique where a single melodic line would be broken up amongst a number of voices. The best definition of a hocket I heard was from one of the curators at de Ysbreker while on tour in Amsterdam: “It is a monophonic way of suggesting polyphony.” That’s it! That’s why I like what I like. I like music that is made up of many interlocking parts, be it Bach, Steve Reich (“Music for 18 Musicians” was a 14th birthday present), Eno & Fripp, the Balinese Gamelan (three trips to study there), or now, in using looping software and hardware as compositional tools.

Here’s a gem I came across: a long out-of–print album by Wendy Carlos called “Secrets of Synthesis” recently re-released on East Side Digital. The MP3 here, using harpsichord sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti as realized on Carlos’ “The Well-Tempered Synthesizer,” are given as examples of how she applied this hocketing technique to, essentially, two-part material to get multi-layered and multi-timbral results, all on the 1970s rig shown above and two Ampex 8-tracks bouncing back and forth:

A long time ago at the Chelsea Hotel, producer, tenant activist and now author (!) Scott Griffin once told me, “You should never make pieces for solo instruments. Your music works best when it’s dense with layers.”

You know, I think he was right.

That time.

-Patrick Grant