"New Vistas Of Sound": The Ongoing Legacy Of The BBC Radiophonic Workshop


Written by Oscar Henson
23 Tuesday 23rd May 2017

You may not have heard of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, but you’ll most definitely be familiar with its output.

Formed in 1958, the unit was built to cater for the increasingly far-out sonic needs of the BBC as it moved into a new, technologically-driven age – and to this day its pioneering approach to electronic music composition continues to captivate and inspire.

The Radiophonic Workshop was first commissioned as a studio for creating experimental, futuristic soundscapes for the BBC’s in-house TV and radio productions, utilising shiny new technologies such as tape manipulation and analogue synthesis to create surreal, unfamiliar sonic worlds. If ever a programme required a discordant clang, alien bleep or dread-filled atmospheric loop, the crew were at hand to meet the brief: banging pans, whacking bells and tweaking oscillators to create new, alien effects using innovative and painstaking production techniques.

An iconic and instantantly recognisable example is the original Doctor Who theme – realised in 1963 by the workshop's most cherished member, Delia Derbyshire. In typical Radiophonic style, the piece’s otherworldly sounds were created using a variety of DIY sound-sources (keys scraping against piano strings; the reversed clangs of pots and pans) which were then meticulously manipulated and sequenced using edited and stitched-together pieces of audio tape. Without the help of sequencers or multitrack recorders, each individual sound had to be recorded to individual lengths of tape and then meticulously pieced together to form continuous loops of music, which could then be played and recorded in unison to form the completed piece of music.

Initially the Workshop’s experiments were considered strange and jarring, provoking regular letters of outrage in newspaper opinion pages. But as the years went on they came to be regarded as an integral and well-loved quirk of the BBC’s unique and often surreal production style. 

Today, the workshop’s sound and techniques retain a retro-futurist appeal that remains hugely influential in the electronic music community. Aphex Twin, Luke Vibert and Mark Pritchard have all cited the workshop as a major influence on their own music and the development of electronic music on the whole: an interesting legacy for a project that was at the time regarded solely as a commercial, pragmatic operation, and never as an artistic endeavour in its own right. The workshop’s founding members were always referred to as assistants, not composers, and tragically never received proper composer credits for their work. But as time goes on, their creations have become recognised for what they are: innovative, boundary pushing examples of early electronic music – at their best worthy of equal praise to the ground-breaking musique concrete of composers like Schaffer, Stockhausen and Parmegiani.

It is therefore welcome news to hear that four of the founding members of the original Radiophonic Workshop are due to release their first album of original material since 1985, entitled Burials In Several Earths.

Made up of five evocative synth improvisations, the album draws on the techniques and sonics of their original works whilst exploring ‘fresh new vistas of sound’.

According to the Workshop: "The improvisation was done blind - with no preconceptions nor any real start point. We wanted to see what happened if we allowed people to react together with their machines in a very unplanned and spontaneous way.”


Burials In Several Earths is released 19 May by Room 13 and is available to pre-order.

The group will play in surround sound at London's Science Museum IMAX Theatre on 16 June.


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