The Importance of the Radiophonic Workshop to Electronic Music in the UK

Electronic music has infiltrated many music genres nowadays. From folk to classical via pop and dance music, music technology is now considered part of the mainstream musical cultures and markets. There was a time however when electronic music was an interest of the few, and considered rather experimental and otherworldly. And early developments of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop helped to integrate music technology into radio, TV and music.

Documentaries and interviews that have been conducted about the Radiophonic Workshop elude to it being made of up of a small team of audio engineers and composers. We are often given the impression that they worked quite autonomously, providing sound effects, soundtracks and television and radio programme theme tunes. And they used quite creative and novel methods and approaches to do so.

Let’s take the iconic Doctor Who theme tune for example. The score was composed by Ron Grainer and it was largely realised by Radiophonic workshop team member Delia Derbyshire, using very experimental musical techniques. She had no such thing as a multi-track mixing console or a sequencing software like we have today. She apparently used two or three reel to reel tape machines and synchronised them together to make the infamous melody. This is commendable enough, but then there each note was also carefully synthesised and she also used a lot of musique concrete measures ie. Found sounds. This theme tune has been largely left intact almost 50 years later.

The Radiophonic workshop team provided a number of ethereal, otherworldly and downright strange sound for the BBC from the 1960’s and some of the members such as Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram were experimental electronic composers in their own right. This somewhat obscure element in the corridors of Broadcasting House must have had an influence as it was transmitted through people television screens and radios. So electronic music became a creative and possibly inexpensive method of providing sound design – huge orchestras were not needed and one person could make a variety of outcomes with only a few found sounds as the sounds could be manipulated in manifold ways if you knew how.

There seems to have been an increase of interest and attention paid to the careers and achievements of Radiophonic staff who produced both technically innovative and creative music. Delia Derbyshire seems to receiving more acknowledgement for her work at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and she was making techno music in the 1960’s. And founder of the Radiophonic Workshop, Daphne Oram’s amazing Oramics machine was the centre of an exhibition about the development of electronic music at the Science Museum in London. These early examples of women in electronic music have become icons in the history of technological music and are still often cited as influences for many electronic music makers today.

Electronic Music Artist

Being an electronic music artist used to place one firmly in the Avant-garde, but nowadays more people are making electric music than ever before. From DJs to synthesizer geeks, Midi composers to indie rockers, playing electronic digital music is for all sorts of different people. The question is, is it for you?

I never really considered myself an electronic music artist until recently. I was just sort of an experimental musician. Some of the things that I messed with were electronic instruments, but I also used a lot of acoustic stuff. I was as likely to pick up a guitar as a keyboard, an accordion as a theremin. Still, as I progressed, I got more and more interested in digital music processing. You see, nowadays it is much easier to make interesting electric effects by simulating them than by actually recording them in the field. Electronic instruments have gotten so good and so sophisticated that you can get pretty much any sound you want out of one. Of course, it isn’t quite that simple. It requires quite a bit of know-how and programming savvy in some cases. Even so, most experimental musicians – if they stick with it for long enough – end up as electronic music artists.

Of course, the electronic music artist scene is much different depending on what part of it you are in. If you’re an indie musician, the target audience is usually hipsters in their late teens through late 30s. If you’re a DJ, you can play for pretty much anyone. Club music is in, and there are gigs anywhere from weddings to raves. If you are a more experimental musician, however, you really have to make a niche for yourself. Not every city has an electronic music artist scene and the ones that do are often sort of insular. By networking and getting to know people within your scene, you can make a living and start to meet with some commercial success.

Like any musician, an electronic music artist has to get his music heard in order to succeed. In some ways, this is easier for electronic musicians. Because a lot of your music is digitally produced, people don’t necessarily have to hear you live to get a feel for what you sound like. Your live shows will be much closer to your recordings than with other musicians. This has both its advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, you never hear about electronic music artists who are only good live. Most electronic musicians learn to put together a good recording. On the other hand, this makes it harder to make an impression on people during a live show. You have to do something really spectacular to make the right impression on people.

What We Are Doing – Women in Electronic Music

As a woman operating in the spheres of electronic music, it is rightly pointed out that we are in a minority – electronic music charts and magazines are dominated by male producers. And although I appreciate this being discussed and acknowledged in order to redress the balance of power, I also feel it just as interesting and vital to acknowledge and increase the visibility of what women are doing in these fields.

There are an increasing number of resources online that champion the achievements and careers of women in music technology. First that springs to mind to me is international networks and databases Female Pressure and Pink Noises. Female Pressure has a comprehensive list of female DJs, VJs, electronic female musicians and also producers and recording engineers throughout the world. So this is a great first port of call if you are female and active in these fields or if you are a journalist or promoter/booking agent looking for female talent. The mailing list has been a very valuable resource for my own music career as I have made friends, collaborations and come across opportunities that have increased my profile and audience internationally. So, respect to Suzanne aka Electric Indigo and Tara Rodgers aka Analog Tara for setting up Female Pressure and Pink Noises respectively.

There is also the pro-active efforts of Women in Electronic Music – a popular Facebook page whose followers are male also, an ever increasing Last FM playlist and also a blog called Her Beats. Here instigator Dana Dramowicz showcases new releases, interviews and other interesting activities and initiatives by contemporary female musicians in the electronic scenes. This is important for increasing the visibility and profiles of these often independent artists. Another is by the very competent electronic producer Sci Fi sol called best electronic music blog who is also keen to showcase women’s independent releases alongside the male produced music.

I have been encouraged by recent increase of interest and attention into the careers and achievement of pioneering electronic women, who have produced both technically innovative and creative music. Delia Derbyshire seems to receiving more acknowledgement for her work at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. And founder of the Radiophonic Workshop, Daphne Oram’s amazing Oramics machine is currently the centre of an exhibition at the Science Museum in London.

So we are doing a lot and there are many more women active in these fields than most of us would be aware of. But it is also is clear to me that there are not enough high profile women in electronic music event programming and press and in an electronic music blog. So I can only hope we who work hard and develop our electronic craft will become more visible and heard. I firmly believe that the more we hear of and see women surviving and thriving in the electronic music spheres the more women, especially young women, will think of these fields as a career option or at least a very fulfilling and rewarding passion and form of expression and participation in the world.