Radiophonic Ladies interview

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Jo Hutton interviewed Delia for an article entitled Radiophonic Ladies, recorded on 24 February 2000 and published on Sonic Arts Network.


Maddalena Fagandini: “When Delia arrived, a lot more possibilities were presented. She knew maths and was very organised from that point of view. She began to use the oscillators in a more structured sense because she could. She knew the harmonic structures of certain sounds, she could put them together. I moved when the Moog synthesiser came in. I got into TV producing because I thought that the way things were going [in the Radiophonic Workshop] it did require far greater musical training. However wonderful some of the sounds were, it needed something extra. They really started making excellent music.”

Delia Derbyshire joined in 1963. She was trained in both music and mathematics, which she had read at Cambridge university. She came to the BBC as a trainee studio manager, and requested to spend her day off sitting in on sessions at the Workshop studio. Her style was not comic, brash or eerie, it was carefully structured, contemplative and very musical. As Roy Curtis-Bramwell explains,

"The mathematics of sound came naturally to her and she could take a set of figures and build them into music in a way quite different from anyone else....She stayed on to contribute an enormous amount of very beautiful - almost unearthly - and quite remarkable music." (Briscoe and Curtis Bramwell: 1983, p.83.)

The following is from an interview recorded on 24 February 2000

DD: I was always into the theory of sound even in the 6th form. The physics teacher refused to teach us acoustics but I studied it myself and did very well. It was always a mixture of the mathematical side and music. Also, Radio had been my love since childhood because I came from just a humble background with relatively few books and radio was my education. It was always my little ambition to get into the BBC.

JH: How did you get into the BBC?

DD: The only way into the workshop was to be a trainee studio manager. This is because the workshop was purely a service department for drama. The BBC made it quite clear that they didn’t employ composers and we weren’t supposed to be doing music.

JH: What were you doing?

DD: It was music, it was abstract electronic sound, organised.

JH: Desmond Briscoe said that when you joined in 1962 you brought a whole new way of composing music into the workshop.

DD: Did he really say that?. Well you can’t call it music, they would say. I was against doing anything that would put any musician out of work. I was more interested in doing complex sounds and complex probabilities and serendipities and synchronicities...

In his book, Desmond said that it’s impossible to make a beautiful electronic sound.... That was his attitude, as a drama man.....Men are more into violence, action sounds, frightening sounds. I was much more into reflective sounds. Also I was doing intricate rhythm things - 11 and 13 time, in the early 60s. So he said that he changed his mind when I worked at the workshop. Big things started to happen in radio at that time - ‘The Golden Age of the Radiophonic Workshop’ is the chapter heading.

JH: Is it your approach to get inside the electronics of equipment, find out how it all works first ...?

DD: Yes, absolutely. I was teaching piano to a child in Geneva, and the first thing I did was to show the child what is happening inside, you press this, and the hammer hits the string and it bounces off again and what happens when you use the two pedals. As for synthesisers and presets, its only recently that I picked up a few devices very cheap, second-hand and I realised that what I thought was a problem with synthesisers was in fact a problem with people using them and that they’re much more flexible than how people use them.

JH: Did you ever use Daphne Oram’s Oramics equipment.

DD: Well I did manage to get invited to see it. It a was huge great mangle of all these tracks of film to be hand-drawn. I think my attitude was that the ear is a better judge of what it hears than the eye can be in constructing a sound.

JH: Was that what she trying to do, to override the ear with visual image?

DD: Oh yes, everything was done with waves and oscilloscopes and scanning the oscilloscope waves. OK it may be perfectly valid but I personally wouldn’t approach making a sound from any visual parameters. I’d rather do it from mathematical parameters and then rely on the ear to change it. She had two lots of Gulbenkian grants and she was very keen for composers to use it but I don’t know if many did.

JH: Was that because Voltage Controlled synthesis took over?

DD: Well she argues that she invented Voltage Control herself . That’s what she was doing, using an oscilloscope backwards.

JH: What was it like all working in one room?

DD: It started off rooms 13 and 14 knocked together. And then when I came, they had just built room 12, which became Delia’s room. There were 12 Jason valve oscillators, with 8 electronic gating circuits, built in-house. The accurate oscillator was a Muirhead, which is used in research equipment. It was a switchable one used mainly for tuning, whereas the Jason was just swoopy, you know Dr. Who swoopy.

Of course now on the computer, one can tune in any sort of scale by just pressing a button, but at the time I used to work it all out with my log tables, like the Pythagorean scale, the mean tone scale, adjust tuning and I remember doing a whole lot of comparative tables for Ron Grainer.

I did the Dr Who theme music mostly on the Jason valve oscillators. Ron Grainer brought me the score. He expected to hire a band to play it, but when he heard what I had done electronically, he’d never imagined it would be so good. He offered me half of the royalties, but the BBC wouldn’t allow it. I was just on an assistant studio manager’s salary and that was it.... and we got a free radio times. The boss wouldn’t let anybody have any sort of credit.

JH: How long did you work there?

DD: '62 - 73. A very short time, compared to those who made a career out of it.

JH: ..That’s a career isn’t it?

DD: Well I don’t know, I still haven’t worked out why I left - self preservation I think.

JH: Were you the only woman there ?

DD: We had some girls on 3 month attachments who didn’t stay. Elizabeth Parker came much later.

Women are good at sound and the reason is that they have the ability to interpret what the producer wants, they can read between the lines and get through to them (the producers) as a person. Women are good at abstract stuff, they have sensitivity and good communication. They have the intricacy - for tape cutting, which is a very delicate job you know....

A producer once said to me, "You must be an ardent feminist,"....I said "What!", I hadn’t even thought in those words.

JH: It seems there are certain sounds that a women wouldn’t make... e.g. Dick Mills’, ‘Dr. Breakknock’s stomach’ from the Goon Show.

DD: Well honestly, if I wanted a big dramatic noise, I would go and ask a bloke because it’s their field. I never got into those big dramatic things at all. I used to do programmes to look at sculpture by... .

JH: So..going back to the equipment at the Radiophonic Workshop..

DD: Room 11 was the tape room where groups of women reclaimed tape, can you believe it. At that time, tape was regarded as a fire hazard, so we used to get the fireman coming round all the time to remove the tape. This (photograph of studio) is the advanced stage of room 12 where we had three remote-controlled, synchronised Phillips tape recorders. This changed the whole of our work because before that, not only did the machines not run at the same speed as each other, but the rulers that we had read differently. There was one wooden metre ruler and a plastic 12 inch ruler and so if one was doing intricate work, nothing would sync at all.

There was a BTR2, the big machine for mastering on, and a TR90 both EMI machines. Everything was 1/4-inch mono the whole time I was there. There was a ferrograph, with an internal speaker, that just went up to 7 1/2 ips, used for timing, pip loops, click tracks. There was an RGD and a 7 1/2 ips reflectograph. It was all ips and cps in those days, before Hertz. We had one Leevers-Rich 8-track machine which was a bit of a white elephant, It was an expensive variable speed 8-track machine on one-inch tape but it wasn’t very good sound quality. There was a Hammond organ and an old upright piano.

JH: Do you still play?

DD: I took a great dislike to the piano, and took up the spinnet. At the time I had a little flat near the workshop and I got so addicted to the sound of the spinnet and the way the high frequencies fill your mind, that I’d walk home at lunchtime and just play Bach and Bach and Bach. It was only a small room but you couldn’t hear the telephone ring while playing the spinnet because it totally absorbs the whole spectrum of the sound. Also it doesn’t pass through walls or floors so nobody else can hear it.

JH: What are you plans for the future?

DD: Several people wanted to do a compilation of my little things, they appeal to different people. So I asked the BBC how much it will be to license certain tracks - half a minute long - and they just say "All tracks are £500 each!" So, I’ve put it all behind me. It’s the doing of it that was the pleasure really. I can still hear beautiful things in my mind, and I know how I can make more beautiful things too, that’s the important thing.


The article was published on the now defunct Sonic Arts Network and was also published in the now-deleted web magazine "pansiecola" in 2000 as, along with an Interview with Sonic Boom which mentions her twice in passing. The copy here was recovered from the Internet Archive Wayback Machine but even that site has now blocked access to it.

Jo Hutton gave a copy of the original tapes of the conversations to David Butler at the University of Manchester, including the bits she didn't use in the articles.[1]

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