Delia Ann Derbyshire – A Tribute

Delia Derbyshire at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop

Eleven years and a month ago, Delia Ann Derbyshire died at the age of 64

Delia Ann Derbyshire started out as a working class girl in bombed-out Coventry, soon to grow into a brilliant mathematician in Cambridge – where only one in ten students were female at the time. But it was her decision to specialise in modern music in 1959 which changed her life – and that of millions of people throughout the world up to this day.

Delia Ann Derbyshire joined the BBC’s sound studios and, in 1962, the famous Radiophonic Workshop. Some of you may know where this is going already. Using state of the art electronic equipment – one of the first ever created for the radio – she assisted in producing some of the most memorable radio themes of the era. But the one she will always be remembered for was her co-operation with Ron Grainer in 1963, on a theme tune to a new television show about a time-traveller and his grand daughter.

Ron Grainer provided the notes and rough comments, but it was Delia’s mastery of electronic instruments which made this music what it is today. To understand her achievement, you must cast yourselves back to 1963 and see what other music was around at the time. This was long before the samplers and synthesisers became widely available. This was four years before Sgt Pepper’s, three years before Pet Sounds. The Beatles were playing guitars and singing about holding your hand. Dylan was still acoustic. Cliff Richard was going on a Summer Holiday. The Beach Boys were Surfin’ in USA.

Delia’s sound was so far ahead of her time, it shot straight through the 60’s and landed in the middle of the 70’s. It’s the sound of Kraftwerk, of Mike Oldfield, of Jean Michel Jarre. And it was achieved using technologies which mere mostly analogue: cutting and splicing, white noise generators, oscillators, analogue sampling. The bass riff was a single ‘pluck’ recorded on tape and played on different speeds. The TARDIS sound was made by scratching keys on piano wire!

Delia went on to create more electronic and concrete music in the 70’s, most of it too hermetic for the general public to appreciate at the time – although it probably would have been considered cutting edge today.

She worked with Yoko Ono, Paul McCartney and Guy Woolfenden. Since the middle of 1970’s she stopped producing, however. Why? I have not dug into her personal life enough to answer that question. Perhaps she got fed up with lack of recognition? A BBC documentary suggests she disliked the way electronic music progressed with the advent of digital synthesisers. The Wikipedia claims in the late nineties she started to work on an album again, but her life was cut short before she managed to release any of it.

A remarkable woman, a remarkable human being. She would have become just one of the many unsung heroines of early electronic music, but because of that Doctor Who theme, she had become truly immortal.

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