There are any number of importance influences in the history of electronic music- but Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire hold special places in the pantheon. Daphne Oram was the driving force behind the creation of The BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1957, a white hot crucible of electronic music innovation throughout the 1960s, which has been a huge influence on any number of artists in any number of genres. Delia Derbyshire meanwhile was the sound magus from the Workshop who turned a prosaic score by Ron Grainer into a thing of truly warped beauty – the Dr Who theme.
Daphne Oram became a sound engineer in 1942, having turned down a place at the Royal College of Music. She must have been an extraordinary women in so many dimensions to live the life she did. Like so many others, she grabbed the opportunity created by wartime to take roles that men might have otherwise. As the BBC puts it: “Secretly, she enjoyed the war.” But like any of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, its not the opportunity that counts, but what you do with it. Mastery comes from many thousands of hours of practice.
As war raged, she began to indulge her hobby after hours, in the workplace. Always a night-owl, and having initially failed to persuade her bosses to create an electronic studio, she would stay late and move the BBC’s first tape recorders together to build a studio. When morning came, she would disassemble it.
Oram even invented her own “sequencer” which took loops she drew on discs and turned them into music loops, called Oramics. Geek Out!
Delia Derbyshire joined the Workshop in 1960, cutting up tape loops, making musical instruments out of green metal lampshades, and so on. Again from the perspective of Outliers, success can be predicated on not getting a chance in the mainstream. So while Derbyshire was shut out of some opportunities, others were still there to be grabbed.
On being told at the Workshop that her music was ‘too lascivious for 11 year olds’ and ‘too sophisticated for the BBC2 audience’, Delia found other fields where the directors were less inhibited – film, theatre, ‘happenings’ and original electronic music events, as well as pop music and avant garde psychedelia.
Here are some “lost tapes” by Derbyshire.
I love electronic music. But I am no practitioner, let alone an expert. So lets enlist one. Here is Paul Hartnoll of Orbital, discussing a recently found tape loop.
“That could be coming out next week on [left-field dance label] Warp Records.”
Check out the sample. Its the glitchy and scratchy show…
At this point you’re probably wondering: “why is monkchips going on about this today”? The answer is that Daphne and Delia are heroes of mine, and I believe incredible role models. Today has been designated as Ada Lovelace Day – to celebrate female tech leaders. Who was Lovelace? Only the first person, let alone woman, to write a computer program, innit? Suw Charman wanted a day to celebrate women in tech, and this is it.
RedMonk likes to avoid the buy side and the sell side and focus on the “make-side” – the makers and doers, the practitioners. Well the BBC Radiophonic Workshop was basically a hackers’ paradise. If you wanted a synthesizer you built one – it didn’t come as standard on a mobile phone – which is why I hope you will take some time to learn more about these formidable and influential characters.