By the mid 1960s the first primitive synthesisers were showing up in the Workshop in the form of the EMS VCS3. This device made the creation of sci-fi sound effects quick and easy and became a signature sound of progressive rock groups such as “Hawkwind” and “Floyd”. But Derbyshire was not an enthusiast for this new technology and not without good reason. Although the mathematician, Fourier had theoretically proved that synthesis could recreate any instrument timbre and sound, this promise was not realised by electronic synthesiser technology which invariably ended up generating a rasping sawtooth buzz or something reminiscent of a cat chewing a bee. Derbyshire and other avante-garde electronic music composers such as Louis and Bebe Barron were not seduced by these brash and bland sounds nor the ‘paint by numbers’ approach that the synthesiser promised for music composition. The Radiophonic Worksop’s golden age of music concrete was coming to an end and was dealt a final devastating blow in 1970 when it took delivery of an EMS Synthi 100 modular system—a formidable piece of kit with a bewildering sea of knobs and blinking lights—the EMS Synthi 100 would not have looked out of place at NASA mission control or the helm the Starship Enterprise. This monolithic synth was delivered to the BBC by lorry and was so huge that part of a wall had to be knocked down between the corridor and studio 10 at Maida Vale to install it. This bewilderingly complex and tempremental machine rapidly ushered in a brave new world of technologically driven cheap sound effects and plastic compositions, sweeping away the fine art of Musique Concrète and all who practised it. There was an exodus of Radiophonic staff at this time, including John Baker, Brian Hodgson and Delia Derbyshire. They refused to bow and chant “ziwzih ziwzih oo-oo-oo” to this silicon god; they did the sensible thing, fled the BBC leaving the technological madness behind them.
There is a huge amount of involvement and time required on the part of the artist when recording sounds on magnetic tape and then meticulously sculpting them to form a piece of music. The difficulties and limitations of the medium must help focus the mind on adopting a more minimalistic approach to composition, there simply isn’t time to mess around. There were programming schedule deadlines to meet too and Derbyshire, by her own admission did struggle with them. Her progress of a composition would proceed ever more slowly as a deadline loomed closer as she reached higher and higher to grasp the pinnacles of perfection. And this shows in her most sublime work—it only contains what is necessary or appropriate to convey an emotion or an idea. It’s fine art and fine art demands the process of deliberate consideration only supplied by human involvement not the a ‘paint by numbers’ approach or ‘out of the box’ solution that is all too often marketed and advertised by mass produced electronic effects and synthesiser manufacturers. There’s much to be learnt from taking a look at the approach of artists such as Derbyshire and others such as the Barrons who followed their own paths working with so-called primitive minimal equipment that they often constructed themselves. Delia Derbyshire pushed the boundaries of what could achieved with tape as a medium for creating electronic music, utilising it in weird and wonderful ways to open-up undiscovered sonic territory—she recorded sounds of the future and out of the unknown.
Thank you to Ray White for the archive images from various sources including the BBC Radiophonic Workhop. More fascinating, geeky information about the inner machinery of the Radiophonic Workshop can be found on The White Files. Picture of Jason AG10 signal generator courtesy of ScienceMuseumDotOrg. You can find out more about Delia Derbyshire on the ‘Delia Derbyshire Day’ website.