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 UBU.com.