Mixing mathematics and sound was Delia Derbyshire’s goal. This petite Englishwoman with librarian looks and otherworldly auditory abilities achieved her goal. A true musical genius, Delia, “The Sculptress of Sound”, was the brains and the loop master of the original Dr Who theme while working at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. She was not given a co-composer credit due to the BBC bureaucracy, which then preferred to keep the members of the workshop anonymous.
The sounds she crafted in the ’60s could be fresh now in 2018. A studio assistant at the ol’ Beeb remarked to her while she was toiling on the soundtrack: “The recording studio is no place for a woman.” She still persevered despite this lack of encouragement, and didn’t even seem all that put off by not receiving credit for the theme. Her ability to manipulate sounds was her niche. Growing up in the war torn city of Coventry, England, she stated that the war sounds outside her family’s flat stayed with her. Being able delve into her past emotions, taking a removed, academic look at what must have been traumatic memories, is what helped to shape her sound. Unusual objects such as lamp shades and wine bottles were also used to design the music, giving it a visceral edge unlike anything being produced at the time.
Her cerebral vision spawned early dance music. She also crafted what she called “sound collages”. Precocious and adventurous even as a child, her music was deemed too lascivious or too sophisticated for the BBC. This didn’t halt her from pursuing other avenues, such as electronic music festivals and fashion shows, that were more inclined to get excited about her erudite style.
Also referred to as the “Godmother Of British Electronic Music”, her career inspired untold numbers of musicians – such as Aphex Twin, Orbital and Kraftwerk – and her music has been sampled by the likes of Pink Floyd and led to happenstance exploratory meetings with Paul McCartney and his idol sound maker Karlheinz Stockhausen (whose image appeared on the cover of Sgt Pepper). A purveyor of electronic music, Sir Paul even wanted this musical pioneer to remake “Yesterday” and his pursuit of this dream led to several borderline stalking episodes.
“I even found out where Miss Derbyshire lived, and went round to visit her,” McCartney told Q magazine. “We even went into the hut at the bottom of her garden. It was full of tape machines and funny instruments. My plan in meeting her was to do an electronic backing for my song ‘Yesterday’.”
After 13 years of working at the Radiophonic Workshop, she became disenchanted with the way the electronic music movement was going in the late ’60s and ’70s so she job jumped, always rushing into something creative like working at a book store or a gallery. The ’90s found her coming back to the scene where she influenced Sonic Boom and Aphex Twin.
Delia believed that the way the ear / brain perceives sound should have dominance over any basic mathematical theory, but as with most things in life it is important to know the rules in order to advantageously bend or break them.
I’ve dubbed her sound collages as “music for the paranoid”
She took quickly to manipulating moods and atmospheric qualities. She is responsible for that underwater haziness you hear running through much of the EDM of the past 30 years, and her themes had a dynamic and ominous quality. I was blown away by the haunting, almost druggy, interpretation of her sound collage poem “Falling”. She sounds stoned as she speaks about floating, falling, nothingness. The male voice speaks about gathering speed downwards. Ominous sounds floating like incense smoke in the background lay the foundation for these sound collages.
In her nightmarish and pretty piece “The Sea” she rambles eerily about being drowned. “I disappear down there into the sea.” “The water seemed to be rather gooey and I didn’t like it.” I think she could have definitely rocked the soundtrack in a Hitchcock movie.
These collages are mesmerizing and widescreen, conjuring a sense of place where you lose yourself in a cerebral, celestial experience like diving into a pool moody white noise.
Toward the end of her life, she became more eccentric and began to obsessively hide her music tapes in cereal boxes or she would bring them to a thrift shop where she would put another person’s name on the cover this is a completely awesome anti-marketing move, btw). The tapes were eventually recovered and remastered.
In 2014, the tapes were put on display at John Rylands Deansgate Library in Manchester. This was a concerted effort to give Delia the cred she deserved and to get her name out of the cereal box.
“An important step forward in terms of finally turning Delia, who helped to revolutionize BBC soundtracks by creating electronic music through recording everyday sounds and cutting, splicing and distorting tapes, into the household name she deserves to be.”
Major props for the tiny sound warrior with the pretty voice and paranoid mind. EDM lovers and Whovians everywhere tip your hat to the “Sculptress of Sound”.
In 1967 Derbyshire, through her work as a member of electronic outfit Unit Delta Plus, shared a bill with The Beatles at a happening at The Roundhouse in North London. The Beatles created a 14-minute track called “Carnival of Light” for the Million Volt Light and Sound Rave that has never been officially released.