Meet Delia Derbyshire, the Dr. Who Composer Who Almost Turned The Beatles’ “Yesterday” Into Early Electronica

The March issue of UK monthly music magazine Q recently hit newsstands, featuring a Beatles 50th anniversary cover with an inset promising “Macca Speaks!”. Did we need another Paul McCartney interview, you may well ask? Is there anything Beatles-related left to tell? It seems there is. McCartney reveals that he once gave serious consideration to using an electronic backing for the 1965 recording of “Yesterday” instead of the string arrangement he ended up with. Now, in itself, this may not seem noteworthy except that, well, it was 1965… what did “electronic” even mean in music at the time?

To find out, we should get acquainted with Delia Derbyshire, composer and arranger at the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, who would have scored McCartney’s electronic “Yesterday.” Derbyshire is now best known as the composer of the classic 1963 theme to the original Dr. Who series (above), a fact we will return to. But first, let Q reader and record producer David Mellor explain why he thinks that when McCartney says electronic, he doesn’t mean synthesized music:

The reason I don't think that synthesizers would have been contemplated is that the Radiophonic Workshop only acquired their first synthesizer in 1965. Perhaps it was already available for use at the time of the recording of Yesterday in 1965, but the historical reports I can find don't give sufficient level of precision to confirm this. I would contend however that unless the Radiophonic Workshop immediately went synth-crazy as soon as the synthesizer was delivered, most work would have been accomplished using their existing techniques.

So what were the “existing techniques” before the use of synthesizers? McCartney himself alludes to them in saying that Derbyshire had a “hut in the bottom of her garden… full of tape machines and funny instruments.” What McCartney saw were the implements of radio sound effects and also of what was called musique concréte, an early form of electronic music developed by French composer Pierre Schaeffer, Egyptian composer Halim El-Dabh, and others (most notably Olivier Messiaen and Karlheinz Stockhausen). Musique concréte composers manipulated natural sounds with basic recording technologies---microphones, tape recorders, film cameras---to create complex electroacoustic arrangments through careful editing and effects like reverb, echo, and overdubbing. The excerpt below from the BBC’s 1979 documentary The New Sound of Music demonstrates.

It so happened that Delia Derbyshire had mastered these techniques, using them in her arrangement of Ron Grainer’s Dr. Who theme, composed entirely of musique concréte effects. The work of Derbyshire and her colleagues at the BBC sound effects unit captured the imaginations of thousands of science fiction fans and lovers of radio drama, including McCartney, who is quoted from his Q interview saying:

The Radiophonic Workshop, I loved all that, it fascinated me, and still does… there came a time when John (Lennon), because of his association with Yoko and the avant garde, became thought of as the one who turned us all on to that. But that early era was more mine.

Macca can take the credit, but the early era of experimental electronic music belonged to Delia Derbyshire. See her demonstrate her craft below, using tape machines to create a rhythm track.

Derbyshire did, of course, also embrace the use of synthesizers as they became more widely available. Branching out from her BBC work, she began to make music with another composer, Brian Hodgson, under the name Unit Delta Plus. The two soon joined with classical bass player David Vorhaus to form the experimental electronic band White Noise in 1968. The following year, the band released their now-classic album An Electric Storm, which used the tape manipulation techniques Derbyshire demonstrates above as well as the first British synthesizer, the EMS Synthi VCS3.  This record, notes Allmusic, is renowned “as one of the first albums to fuse pop and electronic music.” Check out the White Noise song “Love without Sound” below to get a taste of what they were about.

Whatever your interest in the place this song occupies within the wider history of electronic music, there’s no doubt that Derbyshire and company were simply making fantastic experimental pop. If they sound well ahead of their time, that’s because of the influence they've had on so many musicians since (why, Pitchfork even gives the White Noise album an 8.6!). After several more productive years, Derbyshire became disillusioned with the state of electronic music in the seventies and withdrew to work in a bookshop and art gallery, but with the mid-nineties revival of the sounds she helped create, she saw a resurgence of recognition as both a genre pioneer and a hero to female musicians and engineers. For an extended look at Derbyshire’s life and art, be sure to watch the documentary Sculptress of Sound, on YouTube in seven parts.

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Josh Jones is a writer, editor, and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness

Read, Hear, and See Tweeted Four Stories by Jennifer Egan, Author of A Visit from the Goon Squad

Though definitely a writer, and an acclaimed one at that, Jennifer Egan does not allow the traditionally written word to contain her. In 2010, her book A Visit from the Goon Squad turned readerly heads by presenting itself neither as a novel nor a short story collection. It also contained an entire — chapter? story? — section in the form of a Powerpoint presentation. If you find yourself on the fence about plunging into Egan's formally irreverent, Pulitzer Prize-winning work, you can sample its first section (not the Powerpoint one, you may feel relieved to hear) as "Found Objects," the way the New Yorker ran it in 2007. If the loose-ends music-industry worker protagonist's brush with kleptomania intrigues you, and if you value authorial interpretation, you can watch Egan herself read a bit of the section above. The New Yorker has also run two other pieces of Egan's Goon Squad-era writing on its fiction pages: "Safari" and "Ask Me if I Care." Then comes "Black Box."

Egan composed "Black Box" for Twitter, where it ran over ten nights on the New Yorker's NYerFiction account. But she didn't write it on Twitter, opting instead for longhand in a Japanese notebook printed with rectangular boxes. You can find all the tweets that comprise the story collected at Paste, and New Yorker subscribers can read the whole thing in a slightly more traditional form here. Egan spent a year on the story, which she describes as "a series of terse mental dispatches from a female spy of the future, working undercover by the Mediterranean Sea." I've seen many a literary academic go into raptures about the implications of Twitter, but here we have an artist executing a genuinely intriguing project with "the odd poetry that can happen in a hundred and forty characters." Certain generations of writers and thinkers make such a big deal about that 14o-character limit, but I notice that nobody under 35 blinks an eye at it. It's just the way we communicate now — Egan must understand this makes it one of the most important mediums for writers to take on. You can hear her discuss that and more with New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman on the magazine's podcast.

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los AngelesA Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.

Humans Fall for Optical Illusions, But Do Cats?

Peripheral Drift Illusion

Most "optical illusions" are not really optical. They have less to do with the way the eyes work than with the way the brain processes the information sent to it from the eyes. For this reason, many scientists prefer to call them visual illusions. So if visual illusions are a trick of the brain, and human brains differ from the brains of other animals, does that mean our visual illusions are uniquely human?

The answer would appear to be no, judging from the cute video below from YouTube. The kitten is falling for the "rotating snakes illusion" developed in 2003 by Japanese psychologist Akiyoshi Kitaoka. The rotating snakes (click here to view in a larger format) are an example of the "peripheral drift illusion," a phenomenon first described in 1999 by Jocelyn Faubert and Andrew Herbert of the University of Montreal. Cats are very adept at perceiving motion in their peripheral vision. It helps them elude predators and home in on their own prey. But this kitty is thrown for a loop by the illusory motion of the rotating snakes.

The peripheral drift illusion occurs when circularly repeating figures with regular sawtooth patterns of light and dark are viewed in the periphery. You'll find that if you move your eyes around the various circles, for example going from center point to center point, the circles in your peripheral vision will appear to be moving but the one you are focused on will not. If you stop moving your eyes, a moment later the circles will all appear to stop moving. In the abstract of their 1998 paper (open PDF), Faubert and Herbert write:

Illusory motion is perceived in a dark-to-light direction, but only when one's gaze is directed to different locations around the stimulus, a point outside the display is fixated and the observer blinks, or when the stimulus is sequentially displayed at different locations whilst the observer fixates one point. We propose that the illusion is produced by the interaction of three factors: (i) introducing transients as a result of eye movements or blinks; (ii) differing latencies in the processing of luminance; and (iii) spatiotemporal integration of the differing luminance signals in the periphery.

via Stephen Law

Leonard Bernstein Demystifies the Rock Revolution for Curious (if Square) Grown-Ups in 1967

Many of today's thirteen-year-olds surely have the Beatles on their iPods (or their iPhones or Androids, or whatever now ranks as the cutting-edge adolescent's listening device of choice). Yet they would have been born in 2000, forty years after the dissolution of the Beatles themselves. Their parents would probably have been born in the sixties, already the height of the band's creativity. The startling implication: these kids rock out to some of the very same songs their grandparents may well have loved. As P.J. O'Rourke once wrote upon spotting an aged hippie with a walker and a hearing aid at an Iraq War protest, sic transit generation gap. But back in 1967, when that gap yawned so chasmically wide as to render any communication across it seemingly impossible, the young Baby Boomers and their own Great Depression, Second World War-forged parents used the musical landscape to draw their battle lines. Who could broker a peace? Enter composer, pianist, and New York Philharmonic director Leonard Bernstein. Born in 1918 and hailed as one of the most accomplished and astute musical minds in American history, he could not only appreciate the techniques and innovations of the youth-driven pop-rock explosion of the sixties, he could get the ear of his middle-aged peers and explain to them just what they were missing.

The television broadcast Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution gave Bernstein a mass-communication platform on which perform this analysis, asking aloud the questions of (a) why this music so infuriates Americans over a certain age and (b) why he himself likes it so much. Decked out in a square-friendly suit and tie and appearing on the even square-friendlier CBS network, Bernstein plays clips of songs by the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Byrds, and the Association, breaking down the genuine musicological merits of each: their vocal expressions, their unexpected key changes, their countless sonic layers, their stripped-down melodic sense, and their lyrics' adeptness of implication ("one of our teenager's strongest weapons"). Bernstein also calls upon "Society's Child" singer-songwriter Janis Ian and Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson to perform live. Quite a few crew-cut, cardigan-clad, martini-sipping adults must have come away from Inside Pop with a new, if grudging, appreciation for the craft of these long-haired youngsters. But now, to address the concerns of the 21st century's bewildered grown-ups, who will go on television and explain dubstep?

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via Dangerous Minds

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los AngelesA Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.

The Nazis’ 10 Control-Freak Rules for Jazz Performers: A Strange List from World War II

Bass SaxophoneLike the rock and roll revolution of the 1950s, which shocked staid white audiences with translations of black rhythm and blues, the popularity of jazz caused all kinds of racial panic and social anxiety in the early part of the twentieth century. Long before the rise of European fascism, many American groups expressed extreme fear and agitation over the rise of minority cultural forms. But by World War II, jazz was intrinsically woven into the fabric of American majority culture, albeit often in versions scrubbed of blues undertones. This was not, of course, the case in Nazi occupied Europe, where jazz was suppressed; like most forms of modern art, it bore the stigma of impurity, innovation, passion... all qualities totalitarians frown on (even anti-fascist theorist Theodor Adorno had a serious beef with jazz).

And while it’s no great surprise that Nazis hated jazz---so much so that, as we noted yesterday, Stanley Kubrick almost made a film about the WWII-era European jazz underground---it seems they expressed their disapproval in a very oddly specific way, at least in the recollection of Czech writer and dissident Josef Skvorecky.

On the occasion of Skvorecky’s death, J.J. Gould pointed out in The Atlantic that the writer was himself one of the characters that so interested Kubrick. An aspiring tenor saxophone player living in Third Reich-occupied Czechoslovakia, Skvorecky had ample opportunity to experience the Nazis’ “control-freak hatred of jazz.” In the intro to his short novel The Bass Saxophone, he recounts from memory a set of ten bizarre regulations issued by a Gauleiter, a regional Nazi official, that bound local dance orchestras during the Czech occupation.

  1. Pieces in foxtrot rhythm (so-called swing) are not to exceed 20% of the repertoires of light orchestras and dance bands;
  2. In this so-called jazz type repertoire, preference is to be given to compositions in a major key and to lyrics expressing joy in life rather than Jewishly gloomy lyrics;
  3. As to tempo, preference is also to be given to brisk compositions over slow ones so-called blues); however, the pace must not exceed a certain degree of allegro, commensurate with the Aryan sense of discipline and moderation. On no account will Negroid excesses in tempo (so-called hot jazz) or in solo performances (so-called breaks) be tolerated;
  4. So-called jazz compositions may contain at most 10% syncopation; the remainder must consist of a natural legato movement devoid of the hysterical rhythmic reverses characteristic of the barbarian races and conductive to dark instincts alien to the German people (so-called riffs);
  5. Strictly prohibited is the use of instruments alien to the German spirit (so-called cowbells, flexatone, brushes, etc.) as well as all mutes which turn the noble sound of wind and brass instruments into a Jewish-Freemasonic yowl (so-called wa-wa, hat, etc.);
  6. Also prohibited are so-called drum breaks longer than half a bar in four-quarter beat (except in stylized military marches);
  7. The double bass must be played solely with the bow in so-called jazz compositions;
  8. Plucking of the strings is prohibited, since it is damaging to the instrument and detrimental to Aryan musicality; if a so-called pizzicato effect is absolutely desirable for the character of the composition, strict care must be taken lest the string be allowed to patter on the sordine, which is henceforth forbidden;
  9. Musicians are likewise forbidden to make vocal improvisations (so-called scat);
  10. All light orchestras and dance bands are advised to restrict the use of saxophones of all keys and to substitute for them the violin-cello, the viola or possibly a suitable folk instrument.

As The Atlantic notes, “being a Nazi, this public servant obviously didn't miss an opportunity to couch as many of these regulations as he could in racist or anti-Semitic terms.” This racialized fear and hatred was the source, after all, of the objection. It’s almost impossible for me to imagine what kind of music this set of restrictions could possibly produce, but it most certainly would not be anything people would want to dance to. And that was probably the point.

For more on Josef  Skvorecky’s life as a writer under Nazism and his escape from Czechoslovakia after the Soviet invasion, read his illuminating Paris Review interview.

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Josh Jones is a writer, editor, and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness

Enter Jeff Slatnick’s Wonderful World of New-Fangled and Resurrected Instruments

Jeff Slatnick has been the "guy in the store" over at Music Inn World Instruments for over 40 years, a landmark music store in the West Village of NYC. When you step into the Music Inn, you're stepping into "a museum, rich with music history from around the world." You'll encounter instruments from far-flung countries, instruments that died out centuries ago, and new-fangled instruments designed for the hustle and bustle of today's New York City. The short profile film above comes from NYorkers, a series of shorts dedicated to featuring "New Yorkers that you don't read about in headlines..."

via The Atlantic

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New Heat Map Reveals the Creation of Our Infant Universe

Planck Light

This map shows the oldest light in our universe, as detected by the Planck mission. Click on the map for a larger image.

By now the Big Bang theory is widely accepted scientifically. The idea is that the universe began to expand rapidly about 14 billion years ago from a dense, hot state and continues to expand to this day.

One of the most telling fingerprints left behind by the Big Bang is cosmic microwave background radiation. This thermal radiation was thought to be left over from the Big Bang itself. It fills the universe almost completely.

A new map of cosmic radiation questions some of the core concepts of the Big Bang. What if, this precise heat map suggests, the Universe experienced a long, pre-Bang phase? What if the Big Bang wasn’t the first burp of creation after all?

The European Space Agency’s Planck spacecraft measures between infra-red and radio waves, making it possible to see back in time to the first light ever produced.

Cosmologists released the new images of the early universe this week. What surprises them is that Planck detected stronger light signals on one half of the sky than the other and picked up a series of anomalies or “cold spots.” While this doesn’t challenge the Big Bang theory as a whole, it does heighten the mystery around the universe’s birth and development.

The data is still coming in. Like the Human Genome Project, Planck stands to generate double the amount of data it has produced so far.

Planck two

This full-sky map from the Planck mission shows matter between Earth and the edge of the observable universe. Regions with more mass show up as lighter areas while regions with less mass are darker. The grayed-out areas are where light from our own galaxy was too bright, blocking Planck's ability to map the more distant matter. Click the map for a larger image.

Some other surprises from the Planck spacecraft data:

• The universe is about 100 million years older and appears to be expanding much slower than previously thought

•  There is less dark energy and more matter in the universe than previous research showed.

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Kate Rix writes about digital media and education. Contact her and learn more about her work at .

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