B-sides: Grandmothers of electronic music, Part 1--Delia Derbyshire


I love electronic music—a genre that had its mainstream heyday in the 90s with a small resurgence in the form of electro-clash in the early naughts. Throughout my years listening, I’ve gathered quite a collection with my favorites including: Aphex Twin, Plaid, µ-Ziq, Boards of Canada, Bogdan Raczynski, Venetian Snares, Squarepusher and on. Guess how many of those musicians are women? Zero. Sure. I like Mira Calix and Ellen Allien…but they are rare in their field.

So when a friend posted a mash-up on his Facebook page featuring one of the early innovators in electronic music, who happened to also be a woman, I was intrigued. Delia Derbyshire was a music-maker ahead of her time. Born in 1937, she went to Cambridge, getting degrees in both Mathematics and Music. After being turned down for a position at Decca records because they did not employ women in their recording studios, she eventually landed a position at another studio in London—Boosey & Hawkes. Delia’s move in 1960 to the BBC as a trainee studio manager signaled the beginning of a fruitful partnership with the organization.

It was at the BBC that Delia was given the space and freedom she needed to experiment with sound—creating moods and soundscapes through strictly electronic means. It wasn’t long before she’d recorded the famous theme to Ron Grainer’s Doctor Who. According to Delia’s official website, on first hearing it Grainer was tickled pink: “Did I really write this?” he asked. “Most of it,” replied Derbyshire. So began the what some call the Golden Age of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop.

From Delia’s website.

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.

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.

Late in the 1970s, Delia backed away from the electronic music after feeling disillusioned at the direction it was heading in. It wasn’t until the mid 90s that she noticed a change in the genre and joined back in. Shortly before she died in 2001, she wrote: “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.”

I still love Aphex Twin and the rest, but it’s amazing to know that without her, there would really be no them.


Go to Delia’s website to check out the scope of her work. From experimental sounds, to moods to beats that make you wanna move—her work is so of its era, but so timeless as well…Enjoy!

Come back to B-sides next week for ‘Grandmothers of Electronic Music, Part 2: Wendy Carlos’!

Before Apple’s music editing program, Garageband, there was Delia.

by Briar Levit
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4 Comments Have Been Posted

great stuff!

Nice one! I love Delia... Really happy to see something about her here. For those interested in learning about other women in electronic music, you are more than welcome to stop by a group I created on Last.fm - Women in Electronic Music (WEM) http://www.last.fm/group/Women+in+Electronic+Music - I have over 100 female electronic artists connected to the group, and there is even a group tag radio where you can listen and discover new music with no effort whatsoever ;) http://www.last.fm/tag/wemradio
You'll be surprised to see how many interesting, talented women there are in the electronic music field.
By the way, it's Ellen Allien not Ellen Alien :)
Hope to meet some of you over at WEM!

Yes! I listened to your

Yes! I listened to your LastFM channel when you mentioned on the Ellen Allien post I made a while back (please excuse the typo, which I'm now fixing above). It's great. Thanks!

dr. who theme

omg the doctor who theme (in the 70's on 4 nights a week at 6pm in australia) used to scare the bejesus out of me! wow, thanks for introducing me to Delia!

Delia Derbyshires Audiological Chronology

> Go to Delia's website to check out the scope of her work

You ain't seen nothing yet. Try http://delia-derbyshire.net where you will find a more exhaustive list of her works.

As if that weren't enough, check out the the box of papers found in her attic, at http://delia-derbyshire.net/papers



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