Hear Legendary BBC Composer Delia Derbyshire’s Electronic Version of Bach’s “Air on a G String”

When the warm, war­bly, slight­ly-out-of-tune sounds of the ear­ly Moog syn­the­siz­er met the del­i­cate fig­ures of Bach’s con­cer­tos, suites, pre­ludes, fugues, and airs in Wendy Car­los’ 1968 Switched-on Bach, the result rein­vig­o­rat­ed pop­u­lar inter­est in clas­si­cal music and helped launch the careers of sev­en­ties Moog syn­the­sists like com­pos­er of instru­men­tal hit “Pop­corn,” Ger­shon Kings­ley; occultist and com­pos­er of TV themes and jin­gles, Mort Gar­son; and pio­neer­ing dis­co pro­duc­er Gior­gio Moroder. These were not the kind of musi­cians, nor the kind of music, of which Car­los approved. She was mor­ti­fied to have her album mar­ket­ed as a nov­el­ty record or, lat­er, as instru­men­tal pop.

The reclu­sive Car­los’ inter­pre­ta­tions of Beethoven and moody orig­i­nals defined the sound of Stan­ley Kubrick’s A Clock­work Orange and The Shin­ing. This sound­track work may be one of the few things Car­los has in com­mon with leg­endary BBC Radio­phon­ic Work­shop com­pos­er and cre­ator of the eerie Doc­tor Who theme, Delia Der­byshire. But where Car­los’ film scores evoke an omi­nous, oth­er­world­ly grandeur, Derbyshire’s sound­tracks, made for radio and tele­vi­sion, use more prim­i­tive elec­tron­ic tech­niques to con­jure weird­er, and in some ways creepi­er, atmos­pheres.

The 1971 com­pi­la­tion album BBC Radio­phon­ic Music, for exam­ple, con­tains music from three of the Workshop’s most promi­nent composers—Derbyshire, John Bak­er, and David Cain—and fea­tures one of her most famous themes, “Ziwz­ih Ziwz­ih Oo-Oo-Oo,” which crit­ic Robin Car­mody described as “her most ter­ri­fy­ing moment, tum­bling into a night­mare, the sound of child­hood at its most chill­ing.” The work she did for the Radio­phon­ic Work­shop was not intend­ed to be par­tic­u­lar­ly musi­cal at all. Work­shop employ­ees were instead expect­ed to be tech­ni­cians of sound, employ­ing new audio tech­nolo­gies for pure­ly dra­mat­ic effect.

“The only way into the work­shop was to be a trainee stu­dio man­ag­er,” Der­byshire remarked in a 2000 inter­view. “This is because the work­shop was pure­ly a ser­vice depart­ment for dra­ma. The BBC made it quite clear that they didn’t employ com­posers and we weren’t sup­posed to be doing music.” Nonethe­less, she applied her tape loops, oscil­la­tors, and oth­er musique con­crete tech­niques to at least one clas­si­cal piece, Bach’s “Air on a G String.” The result­ing inter­pre­ta­tion sounds entire­ly dif­fer­ent from Car­los’ elec­tric Bach. It is, Car­mody writes, “an ice-cold noc­tur­nal rewrite… the stuff of a sev­en-year-old child’s most unfor­get­table night­mares.” The piece does not seem to have been made for a BBC pro­duc­tion. Der­byshire her­self dis­missed the record­ing as “rub­bish,” though she admit­ted “it has a fair num­ber of admir­ers.”

Soon after its release, in a 1:44 snip­pet on the com­pi­la­tion album, Der­byshire left the Work­shop to pur­sue her own musi­cal direc­tion. She com­posed music for the stage and screen, then became dis­il­lu­sioned with the music indus­try alto­geth­er. The avail­abil­i­ty of the ana­log syn­the­siz­ers pop­u­lar­ized by Car­los’ record had ren­dered her way of mak­ing music obso­lete. But as the many recent trib­utes to Derbyshire’s lega­cy tes­ti­fy, her work has been as influ­en­tial as that of the ear­ly ana­log synth com­posers, on every­one from the Bea­t­les to con­tem­po­rary exper­i­men­tal artists. Der­byshire’s play­ful weird­ness has been oft-imi­tat­ed over the decades, but no one has ever inter­pret­ed Bach quite like this before or since.

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

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

Wendy Car­los’ Switched on Bach Turns 50 This Month: Learn How the Clas­si­cal Synth Record Intro­duced the World to the Moog

The Scores That Elec­tron­ic Music Pio­neer Wendy Car­los Com­posed for Stan­ley Kubrick’s A Clock­work Orange and The Shin­ing

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

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