shelectronica: remembering the women behind the BBC radiophonic workshop
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and we’ve seen an array of events springing up across the country to commemorate this, most recently this past weekend’s ‘Doctor Who’-themed Proms. Amid all the celebrations it’s easy to forget that, were it not for the efforts of pioneer Daphne Oram, the Workshop might never have existed. Despite being regarded as a beacon of standards in the 1950s, the BBC did not think the developing movement of electronic music in Europe merited any attention, deeming it fad. With hundreds of musicians and an orchestra they thought they did not need ’synthetic music’. Oram, who worked in classical music, had to spend her own evenings setting up the Workshop despite the opposition from the BBC, campaigning relentlessly with her colleague Desmond Briscoe from the radio drama department for the provision of funds and equipment.
In 1959, having finally been able to persuade the BBC of the Workshop’s worth, Oram left the organisation after just one year to work independently on her own music. It was in fact Delia Derbyshire whose name would become synonymous with the Workshop; responsible for the genesis of the ‘Doctor Who’ theme tune she became the Workshop’s brightest star. Other sci-fi soundtracks, for example, ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy’, as well as sounds for programmes with low music budgets were also borne out of the Workshop, all of it done with spliced tape using musique concrète techniques.
This year’s anniversary of the Workshop, which officially closed its doors in 1998, has seen a surge of interest in both women. The discovery of over 250 lost tapes of Derbyshire’s work and the Southbank Centre’s celebration of Daphne Oram, with some recently discovered works by Oram performed for the first time, has resulted in a wave of articles, radio programmes and concerts. Radio 4’s ‘Woman’s Hour’ rang me several times to pick my brains about how Delia in particular inspired me, and what it was like being a woman in circuitry at the moment.
My interest in the Workshop is natural as I create my own circuits, sounds and effects boxes. What I’m doing is not new, it has a history, so the history not only deserves a nod but we need to touch base from time to time so as not to lose direction and maintain authenticity. Like the ladies of the Radiophonic Workshop, I work in radio art, with the Resonancefm Radio Orchestra amongst others. Despite half a century having gone by, the quality of sound still generates disbelief (”is that music?”) and scorn (”learn to play an instrument!”). Yet what other sounds befit a live speech by Lembit Öpik in the Camden Roundhouse as part of their Space Soon events? It has to be electronics because they are the very sounds of advancing science itself, fusing the latest technology with modern creativity for its own soundtrack.
Much of the equipment used by the BBC Workshop came from the military, from found objects and materials. Now with military research calling for smaller and smaller circuitry, a 1lb secondhand keyboard of ubiquitous design can do the work of an entire studio from the 1950s. With some circuit bending on the same keyboard, we can create sounds that not only mirror those of the Workshop, but go much further. Thanks to a free workshop set up by Chris Weaver from Resonancefm, I’ve learned to circuit bend existing instruments and solder new circuits. Much of the fun is to play with randomness and noise generators. As we move into an era of the possibility of thinking machines, what better than a computer that makes its own music in a seemingly random way, to mark this latest scientific frontier?
We women in circuitry will find it hard to match the innovation and tenacity of Oram, though. When she was finally given two rooms at BBC Maida Vale in which to base the Workshop, Oram stuck a defiant note to the doors, quoting Francis Bacon’s 1626 utopian novel ‘The New Atlantis’.
It is a delight to find yourself part of a legacy like this. For example, feeling shy about having sampled my own cat because it might be deemed too ‘girly’ by the male-heavy electronics community, it was fabulous to later hear Oram sampling her own cats and playing with the possibility of sound and arrangement.
Current speculation on the legacy of the Workshop makes interesting reading, suggesting that female electronics performers are the fruits of Oram’s labours. What they miss, though, is the cornerstone of innovation that the Workshop represented, and the fact that the sounds and techniques were entirely created on found/recycled materials left over from other BBC departments. Computer programmes and effects now are now ubiquitous, yet few women are really taking control of the sound they make from its very generation. I remember discussing a term I’d come up with for the feminine in electronics as shelectronica with performance artist and Throbbing Gristle co-founder Cosi Fanni Tutti. “I’ve read your thoughts on this,” she said, “and I agree, men also make this kind of electronic sound which you categorise as shelectronica.”
Even now, the sometimes abrasive effects of sound art and electronics is something of a rebellion from conventional music, especially as music becomes more and more commercial. There is also a tomboyish rebellion in following this path in sound. Certainly for me there was. At 18 I wasn’t allowed to join a local mechanics course by my parents, who said I’d break my nails on the course and it wasn’t for girls. So now I’m doing another type of mechanics and I can even remember a comment from one of the performers of the vocal piece I wrote for my GCSE Music portfolio: “It’s like nothing I’ve ever heard,” they said, and I was satisfied.