> | | > Delia Derbyshire is Alive and Well and Living inside our Heads

Delia Derbyshire is Alive and Well and Living inside our Heads

Posted on Thursday, 17 January 2013 | No Comments

23rd November 1963 is historically fascinating for numerous reasons. It is the day after the assasination of John F Kennedy, a seismic moment whose shockwaves were just beginning to be felt around the world. In six days time, I Want to Hold Your Hand by The Beatles is about to take a British pop sensation to the world stage. It is also the day a cult, much-loved television programme  called Doctor Who first airs.

What I'm most interested in 23rd November 1963 for is the two minutes of music that opened that broadcast - two minutes possibly more influential that even the afore-mentioned Beatles, two minutes that represented one of the most audacious breakouts of the avant-garde into mass culture of all time.

The theme tune for Doctor Who, composed by Ron Grainer, was transformed into a daring, truly alien work by the technological brilliance of arranger Delia Derbyshire. As part of the BBC's Radiophonic Workshop, their in-house sound effect and music department, she pioneered techniques of utilising white noise, cutting tape, oscillator wave tones and otherwise pushing the boundaries of sound production, opening the doors for generations of musicians, producers and engineers after her to continue her legacy. Not only had she perfectly evoke the themes of time-travel and science-fiction of the show she had been assigned to work on: in the track's wo minutes, she broke new ground and made sounds that had never been heard before for. And millions of households around the country were to be exposed to this cutting edge genius.


For the incredible audience it reached, the sheer amount of new techniques packed into its short duration and for the enduring power of the piece, the theme has become Delia Derbyshire's greatest legacy. (It's interesting to note, as a side point, how later versions of the same theme would always sound more dated.) Listening to the recent Tim Hecker & Daniel Lopatin collaboration Instrumental Tourist before writing this - two artists commonly regarding as being the apex of current drone/electronic composition - only underscored how even now, her work then remains the sound of tomorrow. Technology and methodology may have progressed, but the waves of sound produced still have their roots in music from fifty years ago.

It is, however, far from being her only significant work. There's her stunning work on Sea, where the provides a subtle, sinister ambient backdrop to interview edited by Barry Bermage far before Brian Eno started to not write any tunes. There's also the giddily bizzare White Noise album An Electric Storm on which she was a collaborator, where sixites psychedelia and mores met the dark laboratory sounds Derbyshire was continuing to evolve, resulting in a hybrid sound that's equal parts whimsy and nightmare. There's plenty more to dig around in the archives of the net, from the offical-ish http://www.delia-derbyshire.org/ to the fans running http://fuckyeahdeliaderbyshire.tumblr.com/.

Such is the lasting legacy of Delia Derbyshire's work that there are artists, bands, labels, even sub-genres dedicated to replicating and continuing her vision. The oddball, pastoral-via-horror-movie electronic nostalgia of the artists on the Ghost Box label  - just listen to Belbury Poly or The Focus Group to hear her sounds spun into new shapes. Acclaimed acts from Broadcast right up to Radiohead (just check out those edits at the start of Like Spinning Plates!) have used her influence to create stunning, advanced pop music.

Although disillusionment led her to largely cease musical activity from the mid '70s until her passing away in 2001, today her influence and fanbase continues to grow and grow. She's been the subject of one documentary already, Sculptress of Sound, and recently a short film about her life, work and influence called The Delian Mode has emerged as well. Indeed, my spur to writing this piece is a screening of that film, alongside live performance from artists inspired by her work taking place at The Star and Shadow Cinema in Newcastle on Sunday 20th January. It's just one more sign of the continuing, all-pervading influence of her achivements.

Delia Derbyshire was a hero of British sound, someone whose remarkable creative leaps hit millions of listeners and viewers and inspired almost all electronic music that has followed in her wake. She may not be a household name, but everyday we hear traces and echoes of her work as the sound of a future we're still trying to catch up with.

Leave a Reply

Powered by Blogger.