Delia Derbyshire, Doctor Who and the forgotten heroines of electronics



From an early age, Delia Derbyshire understood the power of abstract sound. As the Luftwaffe bombarded her hometown of Coventry, killing hundreds and wiping out the landscape, she learned to listen. The air raid siren came first, “and you don’t know how strong it is.” Then everything clear. As she would later describe, “the all-clear is electronic music. Maybe I have a very strange mind.

Today, Derbyshire is remembered primarily as one of the earliest electronic composers. Born in 1937, her work in the 1960s for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop was a form of sound magic: concrete music techniquesthe manipulation of “found” sounds. (She once recorded the bashing of a metal lampshade to evoke a feeling of desert warmth.) It was painstaking work, splicing spools of ribbon with razors to create tunes, idents and tunes. TV themed sound effects. Best known is his 1963 arrangement of Doctor Who themed tune, for which she constructed “a bubble of swoops and sweeps”, a sonic suggestion of the threat and the immensity of space. It took him 40 days.

The technology was often rudimentary, but it freed up Derbyshire to work outside of traditional classical music. She and her colleagues at the BBC were seen as technicians, not artists, and she was frustrated with sexism (a Cambridge graduate in music and math, she aspired to work for the Decca label, but she was told that she did not employ women). Shortly before his death in 2001, part of his dues were recovered through a collaboration with record producer Peter Kember. His name was included in the Doctor Who credits for the first time in 2013.

This weekend, the BBC recognizes its debt again with Delia Derbyshire: Myths and Legendary Tapes, a dramatic documentary for the Arena series written, directed by and starring Caroline Catz. The film is part of the BBC’s lineup to mark Coventry as the UK’s City of Culture in 2021.

Delia Derbyshire in the BBC radio workshop, 1965 © BBC

In March, Catz’s portrait won the Adam Yauch Hörnblowér Award for Original Film Making at the SXSW Film Festival. It illustrates the busy life of Derbyshire with a mix of dramatization, interviews and fantastic footage. Catz spent 10 years doing this and describes the work as “a sculptural biography – almost a fan artwork”. Cosey Fanni Tutti, the avant-garde musician and performance artist formerly of Throbbing Gristle, provides the soundtrack.

Catz paid particular attention to biographical details, from the recreation of Derbyshire words as recalled by friends, to the plum tones and chic costumes of her subject. “All we had were these very touching fragments of her life,” she says. “I was interested in the spaces between these fragments. I wanted to fill these gaps with the best evidence I could find.

The fragments were mainly two archives: 267 reels of quarter-inch magnetic tape from Derbyshire, now in the John Rylands Library at the University of Manchester, and the Derbyshire notebooks, paintings and childhood memorabilia. Catz describes an overwhelming sense of responsibility: “Boxes – we’ll all end up with our things in boxes. What will people think of each of us? “

Tutti, meanwhile, uses concrete music to integrate “the essence of Delia” into the score. “I had never done an original soundtrack before,” she says. “I don’t know how Hollywood soundtracks work, I’m independent and experimental, and that’s what Caroline wanted. She had already dealt with a woman like that.

Caroline Catz, writer, director and star of 'Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and the Legendary Tapes'

Caroline Catz, writer, director and star of ‘Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and the Legendary Tapes’

It was a complex process. Tutti repeated the lampshade bashing and strolled around Coventry, recording sounds near concrete structures, even ambient noise at bus stops. “I wanted the sound to come from Delia’s life. It sounds so simple, but there has been so much work. “

Coincidentally, another new film puts women working in electronic music in the mid-20th century center stage – Derbyshire among them. The documentary Sisters with transistors Also draws on archives, and like Catz, director Lisa Rovner uses unconventional storytelling techniques. Her film does not have a heroine, but nine.

“Many minds were simultaneously excited,” says Rovner. “I realized these were the sounds of liberation. Electronics have made it possible for women to make music without having to be taken seriously by the male establishment.

Clara Rockmore playing the theremin, in a photograph taken by Lotte Jacobi in 1936

Musician Clara Rockmore, who died in 1998, playing the theremin, in a photo taken by American portrait photographer Lotte Jacobi in 1936 © Getty

Narrator Laurie Anderson introduces us to Extraordinary Creative Forces, from Clara Rockmore, the resplendent Lithuanian theremin musician in a silver turban, sculpting the melody in the air with her hands, to Laurie Spiegel, the American composer, explaining Music Mouse, his 1980s algorithmic composition software written for Apple Macintosh computers – a prototype GarageBand.

Rovner’s subjects were scattered across Europe and the United States and isolated in a pre-Internet era. Most had classical training. Many were reacting to the rumors of conflict in Europe, Vietnam or the appalling silence of the Cold War. They created their own terminology, often because their work was not classified as music. Bebe Barron soundtrack for the 1956 film Forbidden planet has been credited as “sound tones”; Éliane Radigue in France used “sound proposals”.

Most were foreigners. Many have found space to work only at night. Derbyshire stalked the empty hallways of the BBC at the same time as its American contemporary, Maryanne Amacher, set up microphones in a lonely Boston harbor. There are so many of these women that we wonder how many more have lost their sight.

Catz and Rovner both struggled to secure funding early on. “For years I introduced the idea of ​​Delia to people and it was too niche,” says Catz. “So we made a short film, and the BBC commission relied on that.”

Daphne Oram, Derbyshire predecessor to the BBC who co-founded the radio workshop

Daphne Oram, Derbyshire predecessor to the BBC who co-founded the Radio Workshop

Derbyshire’s legacy has grown in recent years, with a charitable trust and events in its name. The dreaded Daphne Oram, the Derbyshire predecessor to the BBC who co-founded the Radio Workshop and is one of the subjects of Rovner’s film, lends her name to awards for women in music.

Nevertheless, women’s contributions to electronics are constantly overlooked. When I interviewed Portuguese techno artist ØTTA, a classically trained musician in her early 30s, she described a struggle to be taken seriously in a male world. I speak to Tutti, who has worked in the music industry since the late 1960s and documented his own marginalization in his 2017 memoir. Art Sex Music. Is she surprised?

“I find that upsetting,” she said. “Everything that women my age, before and after me, have done to try to make it better, and it still hasn’t worked. The fact that Delia has gone through it all and always came out with such great music is an astounding achievement. I wanted better now.

“Delia Derbyshire: Myths and Legendary Tapes” is on BBC4 at 9pm on May 16 and iPlayer thereafter. ‘Sisters with Transistors’ is activated digital platforms now


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