Delia Derbyshire: Early Electro ArtistFebruary 11, 2009
Delia Derbyshire was born in Coventry, England, in 1937. Educated at Coventry Grammar School and Girton College, Cambridge, where she was awarded a degree in mathematics and music.
In 1959, on approaching Decca records, Delia was told that the company DID NOT employ women in their recording studios, so she went to work for the UN in Geneva before returning to London to work for music publishers Boosey & Hawkes.
Derbyshire was born in Coventry, UK. Educated at Barr’s Hill School, Derbyshire then completed a degree in mathematics and music at Girton College, Cambridge.In 1959 she applied for a position at Decca Records only to be told that the company did not employ women in their recording studios.Instead she took a position at the UN in Geneva, soon returning to London to work for music publishers Boosey & Hawkes.
Some of her most acclaimed work was done in the 1960s in collaboration with the British artist and playwright Barry Bermange, for the Third Programme (the radio station which later evolved into BBC Radio 3). Besides the Doctor Who theme, Derbyshire also composed and produced scores, incidental pieces and themes for nearly 200 BBC Radio and BBC TV programmes. A selection of some of her best 1960s electronic music creations for the BBC can be found on the album BBC Radiophonic Music (BBC Records), which was re-released on CD in 2002. Several of the smaller pieces that Derbyshire created at the Radiophonic Workshop were used for many years as incidental music by the BBC and other broadcasters, including the ABC
In 1963, Ron Grainer was asked to compose the theme tune to the Doctor Who series that began late in that year. As part of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, Derbyshire developed his written notes into the version that was then used on the original show.
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Ron Grainer was so amazed by her rendition of his notes that he attempted to get her a co-composer credit, but this was prevented by BBC bureaucracy, who preferred to keep the members of the Workshop anonymous. Derbyshire’s interpretation of Grainer’s theme used electronic oscillators and magnetic audio tape editing (including tape loops and reverse tape effects) to create an eerie and unearthly sound that was quite unlike anything that had been heard before. Derbyshire’s original Doctor Who theme is one of the first television themes to be created and produced by entirely electronic means.
In 1960 Delia joined the BBC as a trainee studio manager. She excelled in this field, but when it became apparent that the fledgling Radiophonic Workshop was under the same operational umbrella, she asked for an attachment there – an unheard of request, but one which was, nonetheless,granted. Delia remained ‘temporarily attached’ for years, regularly deputising for the Head, and influencing many of her trainee colleagues.
This excerpt from an interview, originally conducted in December 1999, first appeared in Surface magazine in May 2000.
What was your route into music? Did you study music at school?
Delia Derbyshire: No, but I studied piano to performer level outside school. I went to Cambridge University to read mathematics, which was quite something for a working-class girl from Coventry, because Cambridge was at the time, and probably still is, the best place for mathematics in the country, if not the world. Tell that to the Americans! I managed to persuade the authorities to allow me to change to music, much against their judgement. After my degree I went to the careers office. I said I was interested in sound, music and acoustics, to which they recommended a career in either deaf aids or depth sounding. So I applied for a job at Decca Records. The boss was at Lords watching cricket the day I had my appointment, but his deputy told me they didn’t employ women in the recording studio.
This is the guy who turned down The Beatles, no doubt.
No doubt. I knew the BBC had a Research Department, and I knew that there was such a thing as the Radiophonic Workshop, that was credited with doing fantastic sounds for broadcast programs. People weren’t generally allowed to work at the Workshop for more than three months at a time. They thought it would send people crazy.
To begin with Delia thought she had found her own private paradise where she could combine her interests in the theory and perception of sound; modes and tunings, and the communication of moods using purely electronic sources. Within a matter of months she had created her recording of Ron Grainer’s Doctor Who theme, one of the most famous and instantly recognisable TV themes ever. On first hearing it Grainer was tickled pink: “Did I really write this?” he asked. “Most of it,” replied Derbyshire.
Talking about limited resources, I think one thing that appeals to us both about Peter Zinovieff‘s EMS VCS3 machine is that it’s really quite a limited selection of resources, but it’s got infinite possibilities of interconnection and patching.
Peter Zinovieff was doing the most interesting things. He didn’t claim to be a musician, he didn’t claim to be a composer. But imagine one of these beautiful London townhouses… the drawing room on the first floor was totally crammed with telephone relay equipment, where he was working on his random sequencers.
And I thought, golly, this is the way things should go. And, I think, it was my belief in Peter that encouraged Victoria [Zinovieff] to really believe in him. Because he was Russian aristocracy, and the circle in which he mingled regarded him as a dilettante. That was a beautifully interesting time, everything was mechanical. This was before voltage control. So we worked together for a couple of years.
Yes, as Unit Delta Plus?
You set up the organisation to bring electronic music more to the fore in advertising and TV and film music?
We wanted to bring it to the public, yes.
How about these ‘happenings’ you were involved with? I know there was an event in 1966 at the Chalk Farm Roundhouse called Rave or Rave On, and Paul McCartney was top of the bill…
Oh yes, there were two of the Beatles there, Paul and George. It was basically a concert of pre-recorded electronic music.
Thus began what is still referred to as the Golden Age of the Radiophonic Workshop. Initially set up as a service department for Radio Drama, it had always been run by someone with a drama background. Derbyshire was the first person there with any higher music qualifications, but as she wasn’t supposed to be doing music, much of her early work remained anonymous under the umbrella credit ‘special sound by BBC Radiophonic Workshop’.
Before long the Workshop’s TV output had overtaken work produced specifically for radio broadcast. Derbyshire was called upon to do music for drama and documentary programmes set in the distant past, the unseen future or deep in the human psyche – in fact any area where an orchestra would be out of place. Science, arts and educational programmes also benefited from her abstract style. Her work with Barry Bermange on the four Inventions for Radio is perhaps the best illustration of Delia’s intuitive way with soundscaping.
Derbyshire soon gained a reputation for successfully tackling the impossible. When asked to “make some TV title music using only animal sounds” – much thought and ingenuity resulted in Great Zoos of the World. Delia always managed to soften her purist mathematical approach with a sensitive interpretative touch – ‘very sexy’ said Michael Bakewell on first hearing her electronic music for Cyprian Queen.
Derbyshire also worked with the composers Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Roberto Gerhard (on his 1965 Prix Italia winning ‘Anger of Achilles’), and Ianni Christou, doing sound treatments of their orchestral music. She was also assistant to Luciano Berio at the 1962 Dartington summer school.
On being told at the Workshop that her music was ‘too lascivious for 11 year olds’ and ‘too sophisticated for the BBC2 audience’, Delia found other fields where the directors were less inhibited – film, theatre, ‘happenings’ and original electronic music events, as well as pop music and avant garde psychedelia. To do this she encouraged the establishment of Unit Delta Plus, Kaleidophon and Electrophon, private electronic music studios where she worked with Peter Zinovieff [composer and inventor], David Vorhaus and Brian Hodgson.
Delia’s works from the 60s and 70s continue to be used on radio and TV some 30 years later, and her music has given her legendary status with releases in Sweden and Japan. She is also constantly mentioned, credited and covered by bands from Add n to (x) and Sonic Boom to Aphex Twin and The Chemical Brothers.
A recent Guardian article called her ‘the unsung heroine of British electronic music’, probably because of the way her infectious enthusiasm subtly cross-pollinated the minds of many creative people. She had exploratory encounters with Paul McCartney, Karlheinz Stockhausen, George Martin, Pink Floyd, Brian Jones, Anthony Newley, Ringo Starr and Harry Nilsson.
A complete list of her works has yet to be compiled, but amongst other things she has mentioned doing: Special works and soundtracks for the Brighton Festival, the City of London Festival, Yoko Ono’s “Wrapping Event”, the award winning “Circle of Light”, music for Peter Hall’s “Work is a 4 Letter Word” starring Cilla Black, The White Noise LP “An Electric Storm”, special sound and music for plays at the RSC Stratford, Greenwich Theatre, Hampstead Theatre and the Chalk Farm Roundhouse.
Derbyshire was also involved in several of the earliest electronic music events in England, including shows at the Watermill Theatre, Nr Newbury, the Chalk Farm Roundhouse [with Paul McCartney], The Royal Festival Hall and the first electronic music fashion show!
Work from Delia’s engagement at the BBC has also been published on numerous Radiophonic Workshop and Doctor Who LPs and CDs.
By the mid 1970s Derbyshire was disillusioned by the apparent future of electronic music and withdrew from the medium. In the musical dark ages to follow, she worked in a bookshop, an art gallery and a museum. In the mid 90s she noticed a change in the air and became aware of a return to the musical values she held so dear.
Delia passed away in Northampton, England, on July 3rd 2001.
Shortly before Delia died, she wrote the following: “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.”