Listen to an Archive of Recordings by Delia Derbyshire, the Electronic Music Pioneer & Composer of the Dr. Who Theme Song

Delia Der­byshire, com­pos­er of the Dr. Who theme song and musi­cal pio­neer, has not quite become a house­hold name, but read­ers of this site sure­ly know who she is, as well should every stu­dent of avant garde, elec­tron­ic, and exper­i­men­tal pop music. Along with oth­er often unsung female elec­tron­ic com­posers of the 60s and beyond—like fel­low BBC Radio­phon­ic Work­shop doyenne, Daphne Oram—Derbyshire brought the ear­ly elec­tron­ic tech­niques of musique con­crete and tape manip­u­la­tion to a wider audi­ence, who most­ly had no idea where the sounds they heard came from.

As part of the unit respon­si­ble for cre­at­ing the sounds of British tele­vi­sion, Derbyshire’s unusu­al instincts took her to places no com­pos­er had ever ven­tured before. In her sound work for a doc­u­men­tary called The World About Us, on the Tuareg peo­ple of the Sahara, she “used her voice for the sound of the [camels’] hooves,” writes her one­time col­league Bri­an Hodg­son at The Guardian, “cut up into an obbli­ga­to rhythm. And she added a thin, high elec­tron­ic sound using vir­tu­al­ly all the fil­ters and oscil­la­tors in the work­shop.” As Der­byshire recalls it:

My most beau­ti­ful sound at the time was a tat­ty BBC lamp­shade. It was the wrong colour, but it had a beau­ti­ful ring­ing sound to it. I hit the lamp­shade, record­ed that, fad­ed it up into the ring­ing part with­out the per­cus­sive start. I… recon­struct­ed the sound of the workshop’s famous 12 oscil­la­tors to give it a whoosh­ing sound. So the camels rode off into the sun­set with my voice in their hooves and a green lamp­shade on their backs.

What the col­or of the lamp­shade had to do with the sound, only Der­byshire could know for sure. But it clear­ly had a psy­cho­log­i­cal impact on the way she heard it. “I sup­pose in a way,” she said, “I was exper­i­ment­ing in psy­cho-acoustics.”

This was an immer­sive expe­ri­ence for her, and for every­one who heard the results, no mat­ter whether they could iden­ti­fy what it was they were hear­ing. Derbyshire’s sound design rev­o­lu­tion­ized the indus­try, but we can­not over­look her extracur­ric­u­lar work—experimental sound col­lages and musi­cal pieces made with sev­er­al close col­lab­o­ra­tors, includ­ing Hodg­son, which sound remark­ably ahead of their time.

In 1964, Der­byshire col­lab­o­rat­ed with poet and drama­tist Bar­ry Bermange on The Dreams, a work that showed her, Hodg­son writes, “at her ele­gant best.” The two put togeth­er a col­lage, with peo­ple describ­ing their dreams in snip­pets of cut-up mono­logues, backed by a puls­ing, throb­bing, buzzing, hum­ming omi­nous score. (Lis­ten to “Run­ning” fur­ther up.) In 1966, she worked with David Bowie’s favorite per­former Antho­ny New­ley on “Moogles Bloogles,” above, which Ubuweb calls “an unre­leased perv-pop clas­sic in the 1966 nov­el­ty vein.” She was not privy to what the song would become. “I’d writ­ten this beau­ti­ful inno­cent tune,” she said, “all sen­si­tive love and inno­cence, and he made it into a dirty old rain­coat song. But he was real­ly chuffed!”

In the late six­ties, Der­byshire joined Hodg­son and bass play­er David Vorhaus to form White Noise, an exper­i­men­tal elec­tron­ic pop project whose “Love With­out Sound” you can hear at the top of the post (behind scenes from Jean Cocteau’s Orphée.) In 1972, Der­byshire teamed with Hodg­son and Don Harp­er, all “moon­light­ing from day jobs” at the BBC, for an album called Elec­troson­ic, a “haunt­ing batch of spare elec­tron­ic tracks.” Just above, hear “Liq­uid Ener­gy (Bub­bling Rhythm)” from that col­lec­tion.

These tracks rep­re­sent just a frac­tion of the Der­byshire music avail­able at Ubuweb’s Delia Der­byshire library, includ­ing a com­pi­la­tion of Radio­phon­ic Work­shop sound­track pieces like “Envi­ron­men­tal Stud­ies,” above, from 1969, as well as an audio doc­u­men­tary on her work made in 2010. Soon after her ear­ly 70s musi­cal exper­i­ments, Der­byshire retired from music to work as a radio oper­a­tor and in an art gallery and book­shop, dis­gust­ed with the state of con­tem­po­rary sound. But in her last few years, she had the plea­sure of watch­ing a new gen­er­a­tion dis­cov­er her work. As Hodg­son writes in his touch­ing eulo­gy, “the tech­nol­o­gy she had left behind was final­ly catch­ing up to her vision.”

Hear more record­ing at Ubuweb’s Delia Der­byshire library.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Two Doc­u­men­taries Intro­duce Delia Der­byshire, the Pio­neer in Elec­tron­ic Music

The Fas­ci­nat­ing Sto­ry of How Delia Der­byshire Cre­at­ed the Orig­i­nal Doc­tor Who Theme

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

Watch “Bells of Atlantis,” an Exper­i­men­tal Film with Ear­ly Elec­tron­ic Music Fea­tur­ing Anaïs Nin (1952)

Meet Four Women Who Pio­neered Elec­tron­ic Music: Daphne Oram, Lau­rie Spiegel, Éliane Radigue & Pauline Oliv­eros

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

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