Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram

black abstract drawing

Female pioneers of electronic music

Maike Dulk (opens in new window) (Europeana)

We listen to music made with electronic computerised instruments all the time these days. But in the 1960s, electronic music was new, and artists were experimenting with different ways to produce sound.

Let's find out about two pioneers in this field - Delia Derbyshire, who came up with the original Doctor Who theme, and Daphne Oram, who invented a machine to draw music with.

Delia Derbyshire

Delia Derbyshire had a gift for creating unique sounds and music with very basic means.

Starting with the sound of an object being tapped, a plucked string or a sine-wave-generator, and splicing, looping and mixing everything together using an array of tape recorders, she created something new and highly personal. The results were so unique that modern digital instruments cannot even mimic them.

After she graduated from Cambridge University with a BA in Mathematics and Music in 1959, she applied for a job with Decca records to be told that they didn’t hire women in their studios. She then briefly worked as a maths and music teacher, joined the BBC as a trainee assistant studio manager in 1960 and moved to the Radiophonic Workshop in Maida Vale in 1962.

A year later, Delia Derbyshire was handed a page by composer Ron Grainer with a bass line, and a few written notes like ‘clouds’, ‘wind’ and ‘bubbles’ but no indication of what the piece of music should sound like. He went on vacation for two weeks and when he returned, Delia presented her interpretation to him. His reaction was ‘Did I really write this?’

‘Most of it’, she replied. That music was the original Dr Who theme, used from 1963 to 1980. Despite Grainer’s plea, she was never credited: according to the BBC’s policy she wasn’t a composer, but a workshop assistant.

In the 11 years she spent with the Radiophonic Workshop, Delia created music for many other BBC programmes. Together with colleague Brian Hodgson - with whom Delia had previously set up electronic music organisation Unit Delta Plus - and musician David Vorhaus, she set up the Kaleidophon studio in Camden.

Kaleidophon produced music for theatre productions. In 1968, as the band White Noise, they created their debut album An Electric Storm. It was produced before synthesisers were available, using Radiophonic Workshop techniques: real-world sounds and basic electronic sources like tone generators. With tracks like 'Here come the fleas' (an absurd blend of song and comedy, stapled together with goofy cartoon noises) and 'The Visitation' (a rendition of a psychic encounter), it is possibly the most unusual album ever.

colour photograph of a grey tape machine with packets of tape in front
colour photograph of a machine on display in a museum

Daphne Oram

The BBC Radiophonic Workshop - where Delia Derbyshire worked - was set up in 1958, with composer and musician Daphne Oram as its first studio manager. Oram had worked for the BBC since 1942, and reportedly often stayed after hours, experimenting with tape recorders until late at night.

Developing an interest in sound manipulation and synthetic sound, she composed Still Point, a work for turntables, ‘double orchestra’ and five microphones - in the 1940s! It was rejected by the BBC but eventually performed for the first time in 2016 and had its BBC Proms premiere in 2018.

Electronic music and musique concrète (music constructed by mixing recorded sounds) were avant-garde in the 1950s and taken up by composers like Edgard Varèse and Karl-Heinz Stockhausen. Oram received commissions to compose music for several productions.

Still, the BBC’s overall reluctance to embrace new developments in music seems to have frustrated her. Less than a year after the Radiophonic Workshop started, Oram left to pursue her own ambitions. She set up her own Electronic Composition studio, developed a novel sound drawing technique (‘Oramics’) and built an Oramics machine - a ‘composing machine’.

colour photograph of a painting of brown waveforms with a label underneath

The basic idea was to control the sound by drawing shapes on clear 35mm film strips: one strip controlling pitch, other strips controlling things like volume, timbre or vibrato. It’s a remarkably direct way of creating sound. There’s still nothing quite like it (check out this example, another example, and a longer example), even with all the amazing possibilities offered by today’s digital audio workstations.

As well as producing music for theatre, film, and commercials, Daphne Oram continued to further develop Oramics well into the 1980s. She also lectured and wrote a book about electronic music and studio techniques.

close-up colour photograph of interior of Oramics Machine

Making electronic music more playful

Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire both used new technology to create their highly personal styles. They were also both frustrated by how mass adoption of that technology limited its expressive capabilities; Derbyshire arguably more so than Oram because she felt that synthesisers with their uniform bland sound were the antithesis of her musique concrète approach to creating music. When a huge EMS Synthi 100 was installed in the Workshop, she left. Derbyshire quit creating music altogether in 1975.

But there’s a growing interest in the work of pioneers like Derbyshire and Oram. After Delia passed away in 2001, a Derbyshire ‘techno dance track’ from the mid-1960s was found in her archive, prompting comments like ‘quite amazing’, ‘timeless’ and ‘This could be coming out next week on Warp Records’, turning her into a cult figure of sorts. Her archive of hundreds of open reel tapes was donated to Manchester University and has been made accessible.

colour photograph of a machine

The same goes for Oram. The original Oramics machine found after she passed away intrigued people so much it was displayed in the London Science Museum, prompting a software recreation for the iPad and inspiring other people to pick up where she left off.