In the 1960s, composing electronic music the analog way meant working with magnetic tape. It was an exact art designed for perfectionists. The innovation of magnetic tape was that it allowed artists to manipulate natural and found sound once it had been recorded.
In this way, early electronic composers, like Delia Derbyshire, weren’t all that dissimilar from foley artists. As with foley, it was ultimately the job of these pioneers to hear the potential in a breath of wind, to envision the musicality of the neck of a wine bottle, or to hear the rhythm of the sound of clogs on cobblestone. The result: a process that was at once organic and alien, a distinctly human-made noise that was also implacably not of this earth.
Derbyshire, a working-class Cambridge-educated mathematician, was particularly gifted when it came to hearing a sound and knowing what to do with it. Most of her musical output came from her tenure at the Radiophonic Workshop, a sound effects unit of the BBC that started in 1958 to produce incidental sounds and new music for radio and, later, television.
During her eleven years at the Workshop, Derbyshire would create music and sound for almost two hundred radio and television programs, including the theme song for Doctor Who.
However, the BBC preferred to keep the members of the Workshop anonymous, Derbyshire’s genius was not recognized, as it should have been, at the time of her creative output. She was never credited as a composer and never saw financial residuals for her work. And yet, despite the best efforts of the BBC bureaucracy, the forces of time now rightfully recognize Derbyshire’s pioneering genius as an early and invaluable contribution to electronic music.