Electronic Music in Britain in the 1950s and 60s: James Mooney and Monty Adkins in Conversation

In February 2015, a concert of tape music works by Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram was staged as part of the Electric Spring Festival at University of Huddersfield. The concert was preceded by a public conversation between the curator of the concert, Dr James Mooney, and one of the festival’s artistic directors, Prof Monty Adkins. A complete recording of this pre-concert discussion is now available via SoundCloud: click here.


The conversation addressed the context of electronic music in Britain in the 1950s and 60s and included discussion of Hugh Davies, his self-built instruments and – in particular – his International Electronic Music Catalog. The tools and techniques of electronic music production in the 50s and 60s were discussed, as was the institutional context of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, where both Derbyshire and Oram worked.

While simultaneously extolling the challenges and contingencies of archival research, Mooney and Adkins discussed the work of some of the key figures in British electronic music history. Oram’s philosophy of electronic music, as expounded in her book An Individual Note: Of Music, Sound and Electronics, was briefly explored, as was her creation of the novel Oramics synthesizer, currently on display at the Science Museum, London (some slides from the exhibition were shown during the talk). Among Derbyshire’s activities to be discussed were her project with David Vorhaus, White Noise, and her work with Brian Hodgson and Peter Zinovieff under the name of Unit Delta Plus. Others working in electronic music in Britain in the 1950s and 60s, such as Roberto Gerhard and Tristram Cary, were also mentioned.

Opening the conversation to questions from the floor revealed a wider range of topics for discussion. What would Delia Derbyshire have made of present-day electronic music making technologies had she been around to see them? Is it, by comparison, ‘too easy’ to make electronic music these days? Addressing these questions led to a broader discussion of how the advent of electronic technologies radically shifted compositional horizons post 1945. Other topics addressed during audience discussions included gender politics, Oram’s secretiveness around the development of the Oramics machine, and the emergence of the British free improvisation scene out of electronic music activities of the 1950s and 60s.

From the conversation and ensuing discussion there emerged a picture of a peculiarly British approach to electronic music: individuals working without institutional support, whose creations – both in terms of music-making machines and compositions – bore little resemblance to their continental European counterparts.


  • Pre-concert discussion on SoundCloud: click here.
  • An article about the concert itself, on this website: click here.
  • Archive materials on the Electric Spring website: click here.

Conference Presentation on Hugh Davies’s Self-Built Instruments

I recently presented a paper at the International Festival for Innovations in Music Production and Composition (iFIMPaC), which took place at Leeds College of Music on 12-13 March 2015.


In the paper – which was rather verbosely entitled ‘Hugh Davies’s Self-Built Instruments and their relation to Present-Day Electronic and Digital Instrument-Building Practices: Towards Common Themes’ – I discussed Davies’s instrument-building practice and introduced a few of his self-built instruments. (Davies built well over 100 instruments in his life-time; only a few of these were discussed here.)

I then went on to talk about some more recent practice, including the work of Lee Patterson, Luke Fowler, and others, that has been influenced by Davies’s instrument-building, briefly explaining the nature of the influence. I also  discussed – somewhat more speculatively – some possible connections between Davies’s instrument-building practice and the present-day practice of live-coding (which involves using computer programming languages in a live performance, to generate or manipulate music or visuals in real-time).

A version of the presentation that has been converted into an essay can be downloaded as a PDF by clicking here ( login may be required). Alternatively, an online version of the presentation itself – comprising PowerPoint slides and a recorded narration – can be viewed here.

Comments are welcome, and can be provided – with thanks in advance – using the Contact link.

(Thank you to Stephen Pearse for the image.)

Article Published in Organised Sound

Dr James Mooney – principal investigator on the Hugh Davies project – has recently published a journal article on ‘Hugh Davies’s Electronic Music Documentation 1961–1968.’ The article appears in the international, peer-reviewed journal Organised Sound, and (apart from Davies’s own writings) is the first detailed study of Davies’s work to be published.

The article focuses on how Davies, via his research and documentation in the 1960s, provided a radical new vision of electronic music as a truly international, interdisciplinary activity. It begins with a discussion of several texts on electronic music that were published between 1952 and 1962—before Davies carried out his research, that is. These publications tended only to discuss electronic music activities in a small handful of Western European and North American countries (France, Germany, the United States, and their close neighbours). They also tended to treat electronic music as the preserve of an elite group of avant-garde composers, with little or no discussion of the use of electronic music techniques in other musical or creative disciplines.

Davies’s work, by complete contrast, charted the development of electronic music in at least 39 different countries, as well as documenting the use of electronic music techniques in other musical, artistic, and technical disciplines, including sculpture, painting, poetry, synthesizers, and computers, as well as popular music and jazz. Hugh Davies, in other words, showed electronic music to be a far broader phenomenon—in terms of its international reach and interdisciplinary scope—than had ever been previously recognised.

The article also discusses Davies’s motivation for representing electronic music in this way, which has to do with his belief in international, interdisciplinary exchange as the bringers of aesthetic and artistic diversification. The article’s abstract (and the full article, for Organised Sound subscribers) is available via the publisher’s website at: The full article, minus typesetting and correct pagination, is also freely available via the White Rose Research Online repository:

Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire @ Electric Spring Festival, 18 Feb 2015

Last night, along with Monty Adkins and Pierre-Alexandre Tremblay of the University of Huddersfield, we put on a concert of electronic music works from the 1960s by Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire, as part of the Electric Spring festival (

Beforehand, I gave a pre-concert talk in the form of a conversation with Monty Adkins. For an hour we discussed electronic music in the 1960s, including Hugh Davies’s work as well as Oram’s and Derbyshire’s. (The talk was recorded, and the recording is available on SoundCloud; see this article for further details.)


Daphne Oram was Hugh Davies’s mentor and life-long friend. As for Delia Derbyshire, I’m not sure how well Davies knew her, but I know they exchanged letters…

The evening’s programme began with Roberto Gerhard’s DNA in Reflection (Audiomobile No. 2), which accompanies a film by Hans Boye and Anand Sorhabai. This was followed by four pieces each by Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire. The pieces – all of them created between 1960 and 1968 – are all monophonic, and really came alive when diffused on the University’s 48-channel sound system. The full programme, with programme notes, is posted below.

We performed to what looked like a near-capacity audience, and the concert seemed to be very well received. Here are some testimonials from social media:

“Fabulous concert of music by Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram at University of Huddersfield thanks to Monty Adkins, James Mooney and Pierre Alexandre Tremblay.” … “Fabulous concert! Really enjoyed it, James! Thanks for curating.”

There’s not always much to see at electronic music concerts – apart from the Gerhard piece all of the works performed are sound only. Nonetheless, here are a couple of photos, one taken during rehearsals, and one of the audience.

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Here’s a couple of thoughts for sound-diffusion enthusiasts: I didn’t like diffusing mono material when I first tried it. With only one channel duplicated over multiple loudspeakers, the tiniest of fader movements can cause enormous and aggressive shifts in imaging, since what you’re doing is effectively panning in real-time. But, with a bit of practice, it’s possible to achieve some very interesting effects using individual loudspeakers, in a way that wouldn’t really be possible with stereo material. If you’re into sound diffusion, I’d encourage you to try diffusing some mono pieces.


  • An article on the pre-concert discussion, with a link to a recording of it on SoundCloud: click here.
  • Archive materials on the Electric Spring website: click here.

Programme and Notes

  • Roberto Gerhard – DNA in Reflection (Audiomobile no. 2)
  • Derbyshire – Dr Who Theme (2:21)
  • Oram – Contrasts Essonic (8:20)
  • Derbyshire – Blue Veils and Golden Sands (3:33)
  • Oram – Pulse Persephone (4:07)
  • Oram – Rockets in Ursa Major (4:57)
  • Derbyshire – The Delian Mode (5:38)
  • Oram – Four Aspects (8:07)
  • Derbyshire – Towards Tomorrow (1:12)

DNA in Reflection (Audiomobile no. 2) was created in 1963 to a film by Hans Boye and Anand Sorhabai, two doctoral students at the Molecular Research Laboratory, Cambridge. Gerhard referred to the work as an ‘aleatoric soundtrack’ in that the music and image were not tightly synchronised by complimented each other.

Dr Who Theme (2:21) – composed by Ron Grainer, realised by Delia Derbyshire & Dick Mills at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop

This piece hardly needs any introduction. Composed by Ron Grainer, it was realised by Delia Derbyshire and Dick Mills at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, using basic tone and noise generators. The piece, like all of the pieces in this concert, was assembled using analogue tape cutting techniques—cutting up segments of tape for each note and sticking them together using white adhesive splicing tape. In this case three monophonic magnetic tape machines were used: one for the bass line, one for the melody, and one for the sweeping, hissing, white-noise sounds. The three tape machines operated independently of each other, with no synchronisation: in order to play back the track, it was necessary to manually start all three tape machines at exactly the same time, hoping for the best that the three tracks would stay in sync.  During the process of putting the tapes together, according to Dick Mills, one note was found to be out of time. In order to identify this so that it could be corrected, it was necessary to unwind the three reels of tape along the lengthy corridors of the Radiophonic Workshop’s Maida Vale studio (formerly an ice rink) and search for the one tell-tale piece of white splicing tape that was out of alignment with the others. This particular version of the Dr Who theme was released as a single, and a slightly adapted version of it was used on air from November 1963—the very first episode—up to 1967.

Contrasts Essonic (8:20) – composed and realised by Daphne Oram

This is the first concert piece based on Oramics drawn sound, that is, the first piece created using Oram’s pioneering ‘Oramics’ machine (see below). The version presented here is the ‘tape only’ version, i.e. it does not include any element of live, instrumental performance. The piece, however, also exists as a version with piano (in collaboration with Ivor Walsworth). The sounds of the Oramics synthesizer can easily be identified as the whistling, floaty-sounding pitched sounds that first occur about four minutes into the piece. Contrasts Essonic was first performed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, in 1969.

Blue Veils and Golden Sands (3:33) – composed and realised by Delia Derbyshire

This piece was originally composed for a 1968 ‘World About Us’ documentary entitled ‘The Last Caravans’, about the nomadic Berbers / Tuareg and their camels in the Sahara Desert. The principal sound sources were a recording of Derbyshire’s voice and the ringing, when struck, of an old green aluminium lamp shade. As Derbyshire said, ‘the camels rode off into the sunset with my voice in their hooves and green lamp shades on their backs.’ The piece was later used as incidental music in the Dr Who serial ‘Inferno’, broadcast in 1970.

Pulse Persephone (4:07) – composed and realised by Daphne Oram

One of Oram’s most renowned compositions, Pulse Persephone was completed and performed at the ‘Treasures of the Commonwealth’ exhibition at Burlington House, London, 1965. Oram constructed this piece from individual sounds from various countries in the commonwealth, including steel pan and African drums and flutes which were laid over a deep pulsing bass sound. The piece was later used for a ballet, ‘Alpha Omega.’

Rockets in Ursa Major (4:57) – composed and realised by Daphne Oram

This piece was composed as incidental music for a play by Fred Hoyle, performed at the Mermaid Theatre, London, in 1962. In contrast with France and Germany, where the experimental electronic music activities of the late 1940s and 1950s were officially endorsed by state radio and television stations, there was no such institutional support for electronic music activities In Great Britain. Hence, much early electronic music was ‘applied’—composed as incidental music for films, plays, and TV and radio programmes.

The Delian Mode (5:38) – composed and realised by Delia Derbyshire

Derbyshire generally composed music of a contemplative, ethereal atmosphere with interwoven layers of sustained tones, and sparse textures combined with precise temporal placement of looped rhythmic patterns. She called her own compositional style ‘music to watch sculpture by,’ and The Delian Mode, composed at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, fits that description rather well. Although it stands perfectly well as a composition in its own right, it was used—along with Blue Veils and Golden Sands—as incidental music in the Dr Who serial ‘Inferno.’ The piece also provides the title of a 2009 documentary, directed by Kara Blake, that explores Derbyshire’s life and work.

Four Aspects (8:07) – composed and realised by Daphne Oram

This is Daphne Oram’s first electronic concert piece, performed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1960. The piece has a simple ABA code form, and is a study in electronic tone colour, from pure tones to abundant complexity. The compositional techniques used are generally simple, and the harmonies heard are built on the lower frequencies of the harmonic series, resulting in much tonic/dominant chording. In 1960 electronic music was not readily accepted, particularly in conservative Great Britain, and this piece was specifically designed to provide a simple bridge with conventional, instrumental music.

Towards Tomorrow (1:12) – composed and realised by Delia Derbyshire

We started with a theme tune and we finish with a theme tune. This was written for a TV series with the same title that was first broadcast on 7th December 1967. It is described by one online commentator as ‘a perfect subversion of a classic brave-new-world dynamism phrase. The “tomorrow” I imagine here is the antithesis of that which the BBC in the 1960s made much play of promoting to its audience; instead, it could easily be some kind of dystopia, a state of decay…’

Composer Biographies

Daphne Oram (1925 – 2003), English composer, technician and inventor, was born in Devizes, Wiltshire. Educated at Sherborne School for Girls, she turned down a place at the Royal College of Music in order to work at the BBC as a music balancer for classical musical broadcasts. A pioneer in integrating music and technology, she began to experiment with sound manipulation in 1944. In 1957 she established a radiophonic unit at the BBC and was one of the directors of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop when it opened in 1958. Later that year she left the BBC and set up her own studio in Kent. Her experiments in converting graphic information into sound led to the development of her Oramics system, a photoelectric digital/analogue composition machine that gives the composer control of subtle nuances in all parameters (including amplitude, envelope shaping, rhythm, timbre control, microtonal pitch and vibrato), which are drawn onto ten parallel tracks of 35mm film. Oram saw music technology’s access to an immediate and complete sound world as a liberatory force, particularly for women. In 1990 she wrote about the home computer: ‘How exciting for women to be present at its birth pangs, ready to help it evolve to maturity in the world of arts. To evolve as a true and practical instrument for conveying women’s inner thoughts, just as the novel did nearly two centuries ago.’

Delia Derbyshire (1937–2001), English composer and sound engineer, was born in Coventry. She studied mathematics and music at Girton College, Cambridge University (1958), alongside Jonathan Harvey, with whom she visited the Xenakis-designed Philips Pavilion at the Brussels Exposition Universelle in 1958. She came to the BBC in 1960 as a trainee Studio Manager, and began work at the Radiophonic Workshop in 1962, where she remained for eleven years. She quickly developed a reputation as one of the Radiophonic Workshop’s most prolific and inventive creators, composing some 210 piece for various radio and television dramas and features. She composed music for TV and radio jingles, including Tomorrow’s World, Discovery and Omnibus, and is most well known for her electronic realisation of Ron Grainer’s music score for the Dr Who theme tune. She left the BBC in 1973 and put aside composition for many years, until the late 1990s when she joined electronic musician Peter Kember (also known as Sonic Boom) on a number of project until her death in 2001. She has a strong posthumous reputation as a pioneer in electronic music-making and is credited by many contemporary popular artists, including Aphex Twin and the Chemical Brothers.