Delia Derbyshire is a pioneer of electronic music, one of the leading lights from the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop.
She first attempted to enter the music industry with Decca Records, where she was told that the company didn’t employ women. In 1960, she joined the BBC as a studio manager, but soon gravitated to the Radiophonic Workshop. According to her website, “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.’”
Working with early synths, tape loops and found sounds, Derbyshire created unique, groundbreaking music through the ’60s and early ’70s. Derbyshire had studied mathematics at Cambridge, bringing that sense of mathematical precision to her technically adroit use of sound. In her hands, anything could be musical, and it frequently was.
Derbyshire was fiercely individualistic. In a 1999 interview, she stated that “directors who came to see me work used to say ‘you must be an ardent feminist’—I think I was a post-feminist before feminism was invented!” But at the same time, as she blazed her own path as a female musician, she was nevertheless reliant on the structure of the social democrat state. Derbyshire’s work with the Radiophonic Orchestra embodied something really unique about post-war Britain, where avant-garde experimentalism was combined with a publicly funded ethos to form a very public form of art. It’s hard to imagine a similar commitment towards her new, exciting and very often disturbing forms of music given such a public forum by today’s neo-liberal governments.
She is, of course, most famous for her work on the Doctor Who theme song, where using valve she transformed Ron Grainer’s theme into something unbelievably unworldly. On first hearing it, Grainer asked her, “Did I really write this?” to which she replied, “Most of it.” In the end, her treatment of the theme was so radically different that she received co-writing credit. Her name can now be seen at the start of every new Doctor Who episode, with each new theme modeled after her own only, you know, worse.
There’s a wonderful piece of footage (video above) showing her playing tape loops together in time, which is quite extraordinary given the difficulty in calibrating the timing. She apparently loathed the creation of the synthesizer, preferring her electronic music handmade.
Derbyshire also was a part of the musical counterculture, working with the Beatles and Yoko Ono, organizing music festivals, as well as recording a cult classic album on Island Records with David Vorhaus as White Noise.
After spending much of the ’80s in obscurity, interest in Delia’s work increased over the course of the ’90s. Experimental electronic artists like Aphex Twin and the Chemical Brothers noted her influence on their work. Indeed, much her work still sounds amazingly current, perhaps still even more cutting-edge than those who followed her.
Sadly, Delia Derbyshire died in 2001 at age 64, but interest continues to grow in her work. In 2008, an archive of hundreds of unreleased songs was found in her attic, including one early experiment (above) from the ’60s that bears an uncanny resemblance to the beat-driven music of Warp Records artists like Aphex Twin. Manchester University is currently working on restoring the tapes. There are several CDs of her work available, including the “Pink Record” BBC Radiophonic Music album containing much of her famous work.
But her legacy is undoubtedly greater than those assembled recordings—it’s in the scrupulous dedication to being truly original in one’s methods of music making, an ethos that continues to inspire.
B-Sides: Grandmothers of Electronic Music, Part 1—Delia Derbyshire by Briar Levit