When the warm, warbly, slightly-out-of-tune sounds of the early Moog synthesizer met the delicate figures of Bach’s concertos, suites, preludes, fugues, and airs in Wendy Carlos’ 1968 Switched-on Bach, the result reinvigorated popular interest in classical music and helped launch the careers of seventies Moog synthesists like composer of instrumental hit “Popcorn,” Gershon Kingsley; occultist and composer of TV themes and jingles, Mort Garson; and pioneering disco producer Giorgio Moroder. These were not the kind of musicians, nor the kind of music, of which Carlos approved. She was mortified to have her album marketed as a novelty record or, later, as instrumental pop.
The reclusive Carlos’ interpretations of Beethoven and moody originals defined the sound of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and The Shining. This soundtrack work may be one of the few things Carlos has in common with legendary BBC Radiophonic Workshop composer and creator of the eerie Doctor Who theme, Delia Derbyshire. But where Carlos’ film scores evoke an ominous, otherworldly grandeur, Derbyshire’s soundtracks, made for radio and television, use more primitive electronic techniques to conjure weirder, and in some ways creepier, atmospheres.
The 1971 compilation album BBC Radiophonic Music, for example, contains music from three of the Workshop’s most prominent composers—Derbyshire, John Baker, and David Cain—and features one of her most famous themes, “Ziwzih Ziwzih Oo-Oo-Oo,” which critic Robin Carmody described as “her most terrifying moment, tumbling into a nightmare, the sound of childhood at its most chilling.” The work she did for the Radiophonic Workshop was not intended to be particularly musical at all. Workshop employees were instead expected to be technicians of sound, employing new audio technologies for purely dramatic effect.
“The only way into the workshop was to be a trainee studio manager,” Derbyshire remarked in a 2000 interview. “This is because the workshop was purely a service department for drama. The BBC made it quite clear that they didn’t employ composers and we weren’t supposed to be doing music.” Nonetheless, she applied her tape loops, oscillators, and other musique concrete techniques to at least one classical piece, Bach’s “Air on a G String.” The resulting interpretation sounds entirely different from Carlos’ electric Bach. It is, Carmody writes, “an ice-cold nocturnal rewrite… the stuff of a seven-year-old child’s most unforgettable nightmares.” The piece does not seem to have been made for a BBC production. Derbyshire herself dismissed the recording as “rubbish,” though she admitted “it has a fair number of admirers.”
Soon after its release, in a 1:44 snippet on the compilation album, Derbyshire left the Workshop to pursue her own musical direction. She composed music for the stage and screen, then became disillusioned with the music industry altogether. The availability of the analog synthesizers popularized by Carlos’ record had rendered her way of making music obsolete. But as the many recent tributes to Derbyshire’s legacy testify, her work has been as influential as that of the early analog synth composers, on everyone from the Beatles to contemporary experimental artists. Derbyshire’s playful weirdness has been oft-imitated over the decades, but no one has ever interpreted Bach quite like this before or since.