Check out part 2 here.
1) DELIA DERBYSHIRE
First we pay tribute to ‘Sculptress of Sound’ Delia Derbyshire. The ‘woman behind the wobbulator’ once approached Decca Recording Studios in London, only for them to tell her unequivocally that they did not employ women in their recording studios. Despite various companies knocking her back, she continued to pursue her passion, and in 1960 she landed an opportunity with the BBC as a trainee assistant studio manager.
A senior studio executive, Desmond Briscoe, soon realised the tall, quiet, auburn-haired Delia was not only enthusiastic, but enormously creative and talented. He invited her to join their experimental and innovative Radiophonic Workshop in 1962, where she was to stay for over ten years.
One of her first assignments was to realise one of the first electronic signatures ever used on television: Ron Grainer's score for the new science fiction series, Dr. Who. Delia, and her engineer, Dick Mills, had to create each sound from scratch; they were on the cutting edge, though Delia had no way of knowing how influential her work at the Radiophonic Workshop would become.
You can watch the whole ‘Sculptress of Sound’ documentary here:
2) SUZANNE CIANI
An accomplished pianist, Suzanne composed scores for adverts—Coca-Cola and General Electric being among her clients—using a Buchla Analog Modular Synthesiser (which she bought with money earned working in Buchla's factory). Though best-loved for her original music and diverse soundscapes, her speciality was reproducing sound effects on the synthesiser that, prior to her work, engineers had difficulty recording properly.
The sound of a bottle of Coke being opened and poured, used in a series of radio and television commercials in the late 1970s, is one of Ciani's most widely recognized works. She soon found her sound effects to be in high demand. The pinball game ‘Xenon’ featured her voice and, in 1977, Ciani provided the sound effects for Meco's platinum-certified disco version of the Star Wars soundtrack.
In the early eighties, Ciani began to record New Age works which hybridised electronic and traditional instruments, and later she founded her own music label called Seventh Wave.
Watch her at work on the Xenon game (manipulating her voice and creating electronic sounds):
3) DAPHNE ORAM
Though Daphne Oram was offered a place at the Royal College of Music, she instead chose to take up a position as a Junior Studio Engineer at the BBC. Here she began to experiment with tape recorders and explore the possibilities of synthetic sound. Following a trip to RTF studios in the 1950s, Oram campaigned for the BBC to provide electronic music facilities for use in its programming. This led her to set up the famous Radiophonic Workshop. A year later she opened ‘Oramics Studios for Electronic Composition’ in a building once used for drying oat near Kent.
In February 1962, Daphne won a large grant to support development of her Oramics machine. Making use of a new technique—best described as ‘drawn sound—this device allowed composers to draw an ‘alphabet of symbols’ on 8mm film and feed it through a machine to produce sounds on magnetic tape. Similar to the way we currently draw beats and manipulate sounds in software, this was the dawn of a visual, hands-on approach to electronic music making.
Here’s a virtual version of the machine currently on display at the Science Museum, London. You can see the way its user changes the pitch, reverb, vibrato and speed with their finger:
4) ELIANE RADIGUE
Paris-born Eliane Radigue’s most valued works (the products of an ARP synthesiser, a microphone, and looped tape recordings) saw praise throughout her career for their purity and for their contribution to the realm of sonic works. Hailed “a true original”, her soundscapes communicate moving, spiritual qualities, as though they have the power to transport a listener deep into the heart of sound.
After working at various universities and electronic music studios, Radigue travelled to Tibet in 1975 to explore Buddhism. While this move temporarily halted her creative output, you can hear the effect of her time spent in such quiet, peaceful surroundings, through the restraint and discipline used in the long, meditative drones she has created since.
A pioneer and musical visionary since she first began producing her haunting electronic sounds in the 1960s, Eliane Radigue has created a singular, powerful and unique body of work.
5) CLARA ROCKMORE
A Theremin virtuoso and innovator, Clara Rockmore excelled in her violin lessons as a child. She travelled to Russia to attend the prestigious Imperial Conservatory of Saint Petersburg at only five years old (she remains, to this day, the youngest student ever to gain admittance to the institution).
In adulthood, however, Clara had to abandon the instrument; she had developed chronic bone difficulties as a result of childhood malnutrition. Contemplative about her creative future, she was led to the electronic Theremin, a new instrument, similar in sound to the violin; a sound she later described as “the saviour of her musical sanity”.
On noting the limits of the original Theremin design (having been accustomed to a violin’s more diverse qualities), Rockmore helped develop the instrument to fulfil her needs. She suggested several improvements to the instrument’s inventor, Léon Theremin—a faster volume antenna, wider musical range, and control over the instrument's tone—which he incorporated in later versions.
You can see and hear Clara’s skills in this modified Theremin performance recorded late in her career:
6) PAULINE OLIVEROS
Though she wrote her earliest music using traditional notation, Pauline Oliveros quickly began exploring tape and electronic music techniques. Influenced by her studies of Native American cultures and Eastern religions, her compositions introduced meditative and ritualistic practices while exploring deep, existential ideas.
Oliveros was a central figure in developing electronic art music, and a founding member of the San Francisco Tape Music Center. She has written books; imagined, nurtured and introduced new music theories; and examined new ways to focus attention on music. Most famous of all is her notion of ‘sonic awareness’ and ‘Deep Listening’. Oliveros herself coined the term 'Deep Listening' to describe the discipline of performing and recording in atmospheric, resonant and reverberant spaces such as caves, cathedrals and underground cisterns.
You can hear one of her works, entitled ‘Bye Bye Butterfly’ here:
7) LAURIE ANDERSON
In 1977, Laurie Anderson created a violin with magnetic tape on the bow (instead of the traditional horsehair) and a tape head in the bridge. Although she later got rid of the magnetic tape, and used the bow's contact to trigger audio samples, Anderson’s inventiveness, much like her voice-deepening vocal filter, is a recurring motif in her work.
Along with vocal filters, Anderson had her 'talking stick,' a long baton-like MIDI controller designed to reproduce sounds. She describes it like this:
“*[The Talking Stick is] a wireless instrument that can access and replicate any sound. It works on the principle of granular synthesis – the technique of breaking sound into tiny segments, called grains, and then playing them back in different ways. The computer rearranges the sound fragments into continuous strings or random clusters that are played back in overlapping sequences to create new textures.”
The half-sung, half-spoken piece ‘O Superman (For Massenet)’, which makes use of her Talking Stick, unexpectedly rose to #2 on the UK Singles Charts in 1981.
Check out part 2 here.
This article has been reproduced and edited with permission from Wombeatz, a Leeds-based organisation dedicated to the training and promotion of women in music technology. Visit the Wombeatz website for more information.
Contact the author
@esperscout and @fig_by_four