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Delia Derbyshire - electronic music pioneer

Posted by Eric Brightwell, March 6, 2009 07:33pm | Post a Comment
Delia Derbyshire

The Guardian once described Delia Derbyshire as “The unsung heroine of British electronic music,” seemingly implying that there are other heroines of British electronic music that are more widely… sung. I suppose there is Daphne Oram but the English never use less than three adjectives when one will suffice, so let’s just say that Delia Derbyshire is an unsung heroine of music. That she happens to have worked primarily in electronic music is secondary and that she was British shouldn't be held against her. She was a wizard and pioneer who, instead of guarding her magical abililties, eagerly shared her techniques and discoveries, but was stifled by the BBC’s draconian demands that their artists work and die in anonymity.


Delia was born in Coventry on May 5th, 1937. As a girl, she learned piano and violin and attended Barr's Hill School. She later attended college at Girton in Cambridge. After initially pursuing studies in math, she switched courses to music before graduation. After graduation, she began to look for work in the music field, quickly butting up against the deeply entrenched sexism of the field. In fact, in 1959, upon applying for a job at Decca, she was flatly told that their policy was to not hire women to work in the studios. The United Nations proved more diplomatic than the folks at Decca, and she worked there for a short while. Then she returned to England and found employment at the London-based music publisher, Boosey & Hawkes. She didn’t stay long.
In 1960, she was hired as a trainee studio manager at the BBC, working with the Radiophonic Workshop, then just a few years old. It was an organization charged with producing experimental incidental music and sound effects for the BBC Third Programme’s radio plays in cases where the normal orchestral score was deemed inappropriate. Her predecessors had included Harry Desmond Briscoe and Daphne Oram, two noted pioneers of electronic music and musique concrète.
Derbyshire came on board following Oram’s departure, as part of a group of young artists that also included Brian Hodgson and John Baker. Many of her initial pieces were collaborations with artist/playwright Barry Bermange. One such piece was 1964’s The Dreams, a sound collage of people describing their dreams with Derbyshire's electronic sounds.


Gradually, the Radiophonic Workshop began producing more music and sound effects for television than radio. One year earlier, in 1963, Derbyshire performed her mostly widely-heard work when given the score for Ron Grainer’s theme to a new science-fiction series, Doctor Who. Incorporating filters, tape loops and valve oscillators, she fashioned one of the most memorable pieces of electronic music ever, and one that's especially dear to Whovians. Grainer was so impressed he sought to give Derbyshire co-author credit but the BBC prevented it. Although officially uncredited, the popularity of the theme resulted in her employers giving her many other assignments and she ultimately produced over 200 pieces including noteworthy scores for Great Zoos of the World and Cyprian Queen. The BBC was, however, by no means entirely supportive of her work, rejecting many of her compositions, claiming they were too bizarre, “too lascivious for 11 year olds” and “too sophisticated for the BBC2 audience.”


As a result of the BBC’s restrictions, Derbyshire began to work outside their confines in 1965. Her initial collaborations included working with Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Roberto Gerhard (on Anger of Achilles) and Ianni Christou. In 1966, her music was combined with light shows at a festival at Bagnor’s Watermill Theater, perhaps the earliest electronic show even in England. She also recorded a demo, “Moogies Bloogies” with the under-appreciated Anthony Newley, although it was never released. Derbyshire, Hodgson and Peter Zinovieff formed Unit Delta Plus, later exhibiting their music at Zinovieff's Putney townhouse. One such exhibition, The Million Volt Light and Sound Rave, (at The Roadhouse in Chalk Farm) included the only public performance of The Beatles' "Carnival of Light.” Derbyshire also provided music for Yoko Ono's "Wrapping Event," in which Ono tied herself to the lion statues (which she’d wrapped in white cloth) on Trafalgar Square.


Unit Delta Plus proved short-lived and broke up after a performance at the Royal College of Art in 1967. Derbyshire next worked with Guy Woolfenden, contributing to the score for Peter Hall's production of Macbeth and, in 1968, his film, Work is a Four Letter Word. Derbyshire again worked with Hodgson in setting up the Kaleidophon studio in Camden Town with fellow electronic musician, David Vorhaus. Along with Vorhaus and Hodgson she formed White Noise and released, through Island, An Electric Storm. When Hodgson and Derbyshire left, White Noise became a solo venture for Vorhaus. Meanwhile, Derbyshire and Hodgson (using the pseudonyms “Li De la Russe,” and “Nikki St. George,” respectively) provided music for The Tomorrow People and Timeslip over at the BBC’s rivals, ITV. If you're like me, you loved The Tomorrow People and it's great theme. On the other hand, if you're like my stepbrother, David, you claimed the sight of a melting, alien Adolf Hitler was the stuff of nightmares and were a big wuss.


In 1973, Hodgson left the BBC and created Electophon with John Lewis. They were later joined by Derbyshire and recorded several albums, as well as the soundtrack to The Legend of Hell House. In 1974, she composed the music for Anthony Roland's award-winning film of Pamela Boone's photography, Circle of Light and the Dutch short, Een van die Dagen. Derbyshire’s complete discography has yet to be fully compiled, but her credits also include the music for the Brighton Festival, the City of London Festival, the RSC Stratford, Greenwich Theatre, Hampstead Theatre and an ICI-sponsored fashion show.


By the early ‘70s, frustrated with music and battling alcoholism and depression, Derbyshire retired from composition and instead found work in art galleries, bookstores, museums and as a radio operator. After many years, she re-entered the music world in 2001, working with Spaceman 3’s Sonic Boom on MESMA (Multisensory Electronic Sounds Music & Art), an organization aimed at advancing electronic music. At the time she said, "Working with people like Sonic Boom on pure electronic music has re-invigorated me. He is from a later generation but has always had an affinity with the music of the ‘60s. One of our first points of contact -- the visionary work of Peter Zinovieff, has touched us both, and has been an inspiration. Now without the constraints of doing 'applied music', my mind can fly free and pick-up where I left off."


Unfortunately for fans, no long after enthusiastically returning to music, Delia Derbyshire died on July 3rd, 2001, in Northampton. Her private collection was bequeathed to Mark Ayres who, in collaboration with Manchester University, is working on fully digitizing her entire catalog of work. As of now, it appears here and there, on Doctor Who, Vol. 1: The Early Years, Doctor Who, Vol. 2: New Beginnings and BBC Radiophonic Music. In 2002, a play about her, Blue Veils and Golden Sands, aired on Radio 4. Two years later, at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre, another play about her, Standing Wave -- Delia Derbyshire in the '60s, proved that this unsung heroine still has her fans, and may someday soon find adequate recognition for her pioneering work.

Relevant Tags

Whovians (1), Women's History Month (32), Musique Concrete (3), Experimental Music (7), Electronici Music (1), Bbc (15), 1970s (41), White Noise (1), 1960s (43), David Vorhaus (1), Doctor Who (4), Ron Grainer (1), Peter Zinovieff (1), Daphne Oram (2), Brian Hodgson (1)