Two Documentaries Introduce Delia Derbyshire, the Pioneer in Electronic Music

With her but­toned-up style, work with the UN, and name like a plucky char­ac­ter in a cer­tain Eng­lish wiz­ard series, Delia Der­byshire may not seem a like­ly pio­neer of exper­i­men­tal elec­tron­ic music. But her work in the six­ties and sev­en­ties indeed made her a fore­run­ner of so much con­tem­po­rary elec­tron­ic music that most every cur­rent leg­end in the business—from Aphex Twin and the Chem­i­cal Broth­ers to Paul Hart­noll of Orbital, who calls her work “quite amaz­ing” and “time­less”—cred­its her in some way or anoth­er. If you’ve nev­er heard of Der­byshire, you can learn about her life and work in the 2010 BBC Radio 4 doc­u­men­tary above, “Sculp­tress of Sound.”

As we recent­ly not­ed in an ear­li­er post, Der­byshire occu­pies a promi­nent place in the his­to­ry of women in the field. She has also worked with every­one from Doc­tor Who com­pos­er Ron Grain­er (who took sole cred­it for their work togeth­er) to Paul McCart­ney. Well almost. McCartney—a huge fan of Der­byshire’s work with the BBC’s Radio­phon­ic Workshop—considered col­lab­o­rat­ing with her on an ear­ly ver­sion of “Yes­ter­day,” then went with strings instead. But her near hit with the Bea­t­les showed just how far she had come since join­ing the BBC as a trainee stu­dio man­ag­er in 1960. The pre­vi­ous year, Dec­ca records reject­ed her appli­ca­tion, telling her point blank that they did not hire women for stu­dio work.

For con­trac­tu­al rea­sons, Der­byshire made many of her radio com­po­si­tions under pseu­do­nyms, and she may have been frus­trat­ed by her near-obscu­ri­ty. She did with­draw from music in the mid-sev­en­ties, not to reap­pear until a few years before her death in 2001. But per­haps her depar­ture had noth­ing to do with lack of fame. Der­byshire had the high­est of tech­ni­cal stan­dards and a math­e­mat­i­cal approach to mak­ing music. Once com­mer­cial syn­the­siz­ers became avail­able, she felt that mak­ing elec­tron­ic music had become too easy and her enthu­si­asm waned. The new music bored her, and instead of try­ing to hold on to her rel­e­vance, she made a grace­ful exit.

It’s only in recent years that Der­byshire has become rec­og­nized for the pio­neer she was. See her above pro­filed in a 2009 short doc­u­men­tary, “The Delian Mode,” by Kara Blake. Fea­tured are Der­byshire’s inno­v­a­tive tech­niques with manip­u­lat­ed tape machines and found sounds for her TV and film scores and her orig­i­nal com­po­si­tions under her own name and with influ­en­tial ear­ly elec­tro-pop band White Noise. The Guardian called Der­byshire’s way of mak­ing music “an ana­lyt­i­cal approach to synthesiz[ing] com­plex sounds from elec­tron­ic sources.” Her degree in math­e­mat­ics informed her way of work­ing, as did her con­cep­tion of her­self not pri­mar­i­ly as a com­pos­er, but also as a sci­en­tist. “I sup­pose in a way,” she said of her painstak­ing­ly-cre­at­ed scores, “I was exper­i­ment­ing in psy­cho-acoustics.” Many of her exper­i­ments sound as fresh today as they did at the time, ready to inspire sev­er­al more gen­er­a­tions of com­posers and musi­cians.

You can dip into an archive of Der­byshire’s music over at

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Sev­en Hours of Women Mak­ing Elec­tron­ic Music (1938- 2014)

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

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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