Engineering electronic music, from oddity to ubiquity

Sumit Paul-Choudhury, online editor

There aren’t many lampshades on display in a museum because of their contribution to musical history. But there is one showcased at London’s Science Museum at the moment: though unremarkable in aspect, it once belonged to the pioneering electronic musician Delia Derbyshire, who used a tape-recorded snippet of the resonant sound it made when struck as an ingredient in her proto-techno.

Sampling is run-of-the-mill stuff today, but it was all but unheard of when Derbyshire was working at the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop back in the 1960s – as were many of the other music-making techniques she and her colleagues pioneered. “People now know what to do with it, but back then it was out of this world,” says Merel van der Vaart, curator of the Oramics to Electronica exhibition now running at the Science Museum.

Her words are well chosen: the Workshop started out by scoring arty radio dramas, but in the words of Workshop member Dick Mills, achieved little more than to produce “sound that nobody liked for plays that nobody understood”. Their output was deemed more suitable for science fiction and supernatural programmes, and was designed to get the tea-time audience hiding behind their sofas rather than tapping their toes. Their most famous product: Doctor Who’s eerie theme tune.

Over the next few decades, however, the Workshop’s eldritch sounds became more widely accepted (and, it must be said, more conventionally tuneful). A 50th anniversary gig at London’s cavernous Roundhouse in 2009 drew an audience driven more by nostalgia than novelty. (Delia’s lampshade, making a special guest appearance, received one of the biggest cheers of the night.) And the techniques pioneered by the Workshop and other early sonic experimentalists – sampling, sequencing and remixing – have become standard production techniques today.

Oramics to

Electronica aims to illustrate how electronic music has gone from oddity to ubiquity over the past fifty years through a small but carefully chosen selection of artefacts, beginning with the ground-breaking Oramics Machine and ending up at Björk’s “iPad album” Biophilia.

Many of the oldest exhibits are barely recognisable as musical devices at all: the Radiophonic Workshop and its peers were as much laboratories as studios, frequently staffed by electronic engineers who modified the tools of their trade to fulfil their musical aspirations.

For example, the exhibition includes one of the first programmable musical sequencers ever devised: an adapted electromagnetic switch from a telephone exchange. Elsewhere, a bobbin for spooling magnetic tape bears the hand-written caution: “DO NOT FIDDLE WITH THIS”. Van der Vaart’s favourite object is a toolbox containing meticulously arranged pliers, wire-cutters and the like. “Somebody used that to make music,” she marvels.

The urge to tinker persists, as other items in the collection reveal: an egg-slicer fitted with contact microphones to record the tiny steel-guitarish sounds of its razor-sharp wires sits next to a “circuit-bent” Speak & Spell – a child’s vocabulary-building toy hacked to make sounds its manufacturer never dreamt of. And the exhibition also notes efforts to make machines capable of generating new music more or less autonomously – whether through software programs such as Brian Eno’s floppy-disc based Generative Music 1, which sounds different every time it’s played, or hardware like the Triadex Muse, co-designed by artificial intelligence maven Marvin Minsky.

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Engineering electronic music, from oddity to ubiquity