Fibre-optic Flowers: The Music of Delia Derbyshire

Winter: a sea of grey waits outside my window like an overlooked friend in for the weekend- familiar and comforting. As I stare into its bleak abyss, I hear life hustling floors below: screeching brakes, police sirens, the crashing wave of moving tires, moving feet, and moving minds. Then, ringing. A high pitched, tinkling, electronic toy noise from a device that adulthood justifies owning. Yes, I can hear you now- and so can others. For it is this pocket sized apparatus that is swift becoming the world’s most popular musical instrument. In New Zealand, for example, Jol Muholland and the staff at Vodafone orchestrated a song and light show to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture through text alert sounds in 1000 cell phones. American composers Jim Stephenson (Cell Phone Concerto) and Golan Levin (Dialtones Telesymphony) have both composed large-scale concert performances spotlighting the range and depth of the cell phone as an instrument of art. In Michigan, Professor Georg Essel gathers an ensemble of iPhone users to “make weird, interesting, new, and unusual things” through loops and manipulations of sound. Hell, even T-Pain has an application for the everyman auto-tune fanatic. But electronic art is not new and sounds manipulated by machine certainly not at the forefront of innovation. If countless runs of Jimmy Stewart bumbling down Bedford Falls have taught me anything, it’s that this is the time of year for reflection. In a cataclysm of old and new, for the electro-audiophile, one name rises as the ghost of Christmas past, present, and yet to come: Delia Derbyshire.

Born in Coventry, Delia Derbyshire was an English composer best known for her contributions to the BBC. A gifted student, she attended Cambridge to study mathematics, but changed her degree for study in music. After college she had applied to work at Decca Records, but was inevitably turned down because the label did not employ women. She worked a stint for music publishers Boosey & Hawkes, before joining the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. The Workshop was “born out of the desire to create new sounds” with high production value for programs with small budgets. Composers, sound engineers, and technicians took natural sounds and treated them electronically through a handful of devices in the studio. This included 12 oscillators, a stripped out piano, floor standing tape recorders, and machines created by Radiophonic’s own Dave Young; most notable of which was the Wobbulator (made piecemeal from found objects like a Dictaphone, tins, and a Perspex box.) It was here that Delia cut her teeth writing incidental and theme music for BBC radio and television. She used “anything she could get her hands on – a colander, a set of house keys, broken guitar strings, even her own voice – [anything] could become an instrument in one of [her] soundscapes. One of her favorite objects to use was an old, green, metal lampshade, which she loved because of the clear, ringing sound it made when hit.”

Delia was a meticulous composer and found getting her ideas out problematic. “She worked very hard to achieve the effect that she wanted,” explains former partner Clive Blackburn, “she was a perfectionist and it was very hard to get her to stop work on a piece when she thought that it could still be improved, even though it sounded absolutely fine to other people.” Brian Hodgson, a frequent collaborator, said that he “often had to copy tapes or hide them before Delia attempted to wipe them and start over again.” Once she had worked through her precision, Delia “used the analyses to build [her pieces] from the ground up.” They were a knit quilt of spacey, comic orchestration and radical new ideas- beautifully innocent yet stark and terrifying at the same time. It is this quality of Delia’s composition that lends her work its sense of timelessness and longevity.

The piece in which Delia is most commonly associated is her theme to the longest running sci-fi show in television history, Doctor Who. The original theme was composed by Ron Grainer in 1963, but it was Delia’s developments that brought it to fruition. In this theme, Delia employs reverse tape effects, oscillators, and filters to create an unearthly and eerie sound for space travel- one of the first themes to be produced entirely by electronic means. The theme was “constructed by recording individual notes [of a piano string] from electronic sources one by one onto magnetic tape, cutting the tape with a razor blade to get individual notes on little pieces of tape a few centimeters long, and sticking all the pieces back together one by one to make the melody. This was a laborious process which took weeks.” After all, this piece was composed in the days before the Moog synthesizer and sampling. Her theme to Doctor Who has remained a hallmark of the show through the years and a national treasure. Its driving rhythm and simple melody are standouts in the art of electronic collage.

The Radiophonic Workshop wasn’t always supportive of Delia’s creations, however. Her work was often rejected; and once cast off for being “too lascivious” to youngsters. The advent of the Moog only harkened her frustrations- Delia preferring the nuances of recorded natural sounds to those emulated in synth. She wanted to make soundscapes not tunes. Disillusioned, Delia set up a number of studios in the late 60s; including Unit Delta Plus, an organization with fellow composers Brian Hodgson and Peter Zinovieff. Unit Delta Plus created electronic work for film, theatre, and advertising. There, Delia produced a score for Peter Hall’s Royal Shakespeare Company production of Macbeth. She also worked with rock stars Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Yoko Ono, and Pink Floyd. It was during this period that Delia orchestrated sonic happenings- pairings of music and electronic art performances. Here, she describes one such festival:

“We had an evening of electronic music and light effects. The music was indoors, in a theatre setting, with a screen on which were projected light shows done by lecturers from the Hornsey College of Art. It was billed as the first concert of British electronic music; that was a bit presumptuous! John Betjeman was there… he sat in the front row and went to sleep… it was quite a social occasion.”

For all her effort in venturing into uncharted musical terrain, the work she produced was never exalted. She built worlds as a tinkering technician, but was thought anachronistic in an era scheming for the six million dollar man. Delia left the Radiophonic Workshop in 1973 and took a series of bizarre jobs soon after- including one as a radio operator laying a national gas main.

Delia never cared much for the synthesized iterations of her famed Doctor Who theme. Towards the end of her life, however, synthesizers had made progress to the point “at which she thought that she might be able to do some work with them.” Says Delia, “working with people like Sonic Boom [Peter Kember] has reinvigorated me…now without the constraints of doing ‘applied music,’ my mind can fly free and pick-up where I left off.” Unfortunately, Delia died in 2001 at the age of 64 from renal failure while recovering from breast cancer. Still, her vision continues. Delia’s unique use of sound layering, rhythmic loops, and chaotic melody inspired bands like Portishead, Aphex Twin, Orbital, and the Chemical Brothers. Her part in establishing the BBC Radiophonic Workshop has led to a rich history of electroacoustic music in England and abroad- especially her work in its performance. Aside from influencing popular artists, Derbyshire has influenced breakthrough methods of electronic arts production. The Birmingham Electro Acoustic Sound Theatre (BEAST) is “one of the leading international systems for the presentation of electroacoustic music. Relatively unique as a large-scale touring loudspeaker orchestra, BEAST is now capable of mounting systems within excess of 100 discrete channels,” and serves as a leading system in its field for over 25 years. This past September, Coventry hosted A Thing About Machines, an arts festival dedicated to Delia which showcases work that uses, reinterprets, reviews, or renews technology of the past 100 years. Sharing its name with the popular Twilight Zone episode, the event featured turntablists, composers, visual artists, and filmmakers. In 2008, 267 tapes of Delia’s recordings were discovered in her attic. Her website has recently announced that it is offering eight mp3s of this rare and unreleased material for free.

“Nothing becomes as old as quickly as a new sound” says BBC Radiophonic composer Milton Babbitt. True; the new sounds of today’s fast moving age are quaint, but old fashioned- after all, BBC sound engineer Dick Mills composed his Adagio with phone ringing years before this hoopla of cell phone orchestration began. Much like Doctor Whos’ TARDIS flying through time and space, Delia’s work spans the ages, in part due to what Peter Kember calls, “her ultimate resource- a limitless imagination.” With the wealth of tech applications that allow the everyday phone owner to compose electronic music, paint, or film, the sky’s the limit for those with artistic temperaments and daring to be Derbyshire. There is limitless potential in the winter of one year and promise in the next. With the reinvigoration of BBC’s Doctor Who in 2010, starring Matt Smith as its eleventh iteration of the doctor, the memory of Delia Derbyshire is not lost. She leaves behind a grand artistic legacy that has inspired us to be tolerant and understanding of our otherness. Much is promised in the wake of Delia’s noise as it echoes through the darkness.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s