Delia Derbyshire Day 2013: A Celebration of an Electronic Music Pioneer

On 12 January, Manchester’s Band On The Wall plays host to Delia Derbyshire Day – the start of a series of events to celebrate and highlight the work of the pioneering electronic music composer who worked for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

The project involves three new music-based commissions, a film screening and panel event, with three further dates in Liverpool (FACT – Wed 16 January), Sheffield (with Sensoria Film Festival – Fri 18 January – venue to be confirmed) and Newcastle (Star and Shadow Cinema – Sun 20 January).

The producers behind this unique venture are Delia Darlings – a female trio of Manchester based artists working in music and sound paying sonic homage to Delia Derbyshire having spent time with her archives at the University of Manchester. Ailís Ní Ríain (contemporary classical), Caro C (was caro snatch – experimental electronic) and Naomi Kashiwagi (gramophonica) will each perform new commissions with live visual accompaniment by Kara Blake, director of the award-winning documentary “The Delian Mode”. All dates will also feature a screening of the film and a Q&A with the director.

Here Cath Aubergine takes a look into the history of this musical visionary, and has a little chat with Caro C about the project. But first, listen to this…

It sounds like something you’d hear at ATP or a similar gathering. Maybe a couple of shadowy types on stage in near darkness, manipulating switches and samples in front of a blurry projection. Not something made more than three decades ago. The group, if they could even be considered such, involved three experimental composers who blurred the lines between music and electronic engineering – one of whom should already have been a household name.

When “Dr. Who” was beamed weekly into the nation’s living rooms in 1963, its eerie theme music was credited to Ron Grainer. In-house composer Grainer had, admittedly, come up with the original tune, but when he heard the version that’s still ingrained on the consciousness of vast swathes of the British population of a certain age he was amazed, reportedly asking “Did I really write this?”. “Most of it” replied Delia Derbyshire.

A member of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, she had given Grainer’s notes a weird and wonderful life of their own using razor-cut audio-tapes, test-tone oscillators, filtered white noise and a manual pitch-shifter involving multiple tape machines; Grainer requested that Derbyshire be given a co-credit and the associated royalties, but the BBC refused, reportedly wishing to keep members of its Workshop anonymous.

As a ten-year-old with an exciting Christmas present of a little mono radio-cassette player but few actual cassettes of my own, I was disappointed that the small selection in my local library did not contain any present-day pop – but there was a Radiophonic Workshop tape.

Like most children of the era I loved Dr.Who and the tape boasted a collection of sound effects from the programme as well as the theme and other similar music. It was weird, but I loved it; took it out time and again. I don’t think anyone else ever borrowed it. They should really have just given it to me.

I can trace my love of pure electronica, and possession of a number of albums so bereft of any conventional melody they can be pretty much played at any speed, to this early introduction. I was also well into my chemistry set, Sinclair ZX81 and technical Lego, and gradually realising that toys aimed at boys (admittedly far less so 30 years ago than the blue and pink segregated displays in modern toy shops) were much more fun than those aimed at girls. Little did I know that many of these incredible sounds had been created by a woman who had refused to let gender stereotypes keep her from what she wanted to do.

Delia Derbyshire had graduated in maths and music, and in 1959 approached Decca Records with a view to working in their recording studios: she was informed that the company did not employ women in such roles. On this occasion alone we maybe owe a debt of gratitude to the fossils responsible for this policy, as it was shortly afterwards that Delia joined the BBC as a trainee studio manager and then requested to be attached to the newly created Radiophonic Workshop, a request which was granted in 1962.

Over the next decade or so she, along with sound effects creator Brian Hodgson (the man who invented the Tardis noise) and others, made the music and effects for over 200 TV shows.

And then things got really out-there.

Experimental composer David Vorhaus – whose background also included physics and electronic engineering alongside music – met Derbyshire and Hodgson by chance in the late sixties, telling interviewer Niall Macdonald in 2001: “I was still doing my postgrad degree when I went to an amateur orchestra and the conductor said “Hey, in the next room there’s a lecture on electronic music” and it turned out to be the people that ran the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Brian Hodgson and Delia Derbyshire, and they really seemed to know what they were talking about.”

Thus was born White Noise, probably the single most ahead-of-their-time musical group of the 20th century. The resulting album “An Electric Storm” isn’t exactly designed for easy listening, being both delightfully abstract and darkly unsettling; it wasn’t easy to make, either, Vorhaus telling Macdonald in the same interview that “it would certainly be true to say that there are more edits on that album than in anything else ever made.”

Delia herself meanwhile told another interviewer “I was there in the blitz and it’s come to me, relatively recently, that my love for abstract sounds [came from] the air-raid sirens: that’s a sound you hear and you don’t know the source of as a young child… then the sound of the “all clear” – that was electronic music”. You can certainly hear this in the album, cited as an inspiration by Julian Cope, The Aphex Twin and many more.

Delia continued to work for the BBC until 1973, as well as dabbling in her own music, much of which would not be heard until after her death when 267 reel-to-reel tapes were found in her attic; these included an experimental “dance track” which Derbyshire prefaces with “Forget about this, it’s for interest only.” Orbital’s Paul Hartnoll, one of the first people to hear the lost track, described it as “quite amazing … it could be coming out next week on Warp Records”.

Delia Derbyshire Day 2013: A Celebration of an Electronic Music Pioneer

By the mid-’70s Delia had pretty much turned her back on music and led a fairly ordinary life somewhere near Northampton until Peter Kember (AKA Sonic Boom formerly of Spacemen 3) contacted her in the late nineties: a longtime fan who’d moved very much into the field of abstract electronica and sound manipulation himself by this point, he asked her to work with him on his Experimental Audio Research project. This she did, and a new generation of music fans were finally becoming aware of this pioneering musical visionary when she died aged just 64 following cancer surgery.

Around the same time, contemporary electronic musician Jon Brooks (under his King Of Woolworths guise) named an album after her. The past decade has seen her finally recognised as a hugely influential sound artist, with Kara Blake’s award-winning 2009 documentary “The Delian Mode” acting both as an introduction and celebration.

I first came across the music of Caro C (then known as caro snatch) a few years back via her Rare As A Green Dog (AKA RaGD) events at the Royal Northern College of Music, which featured electronic-based music with a minimum 50% female line-up in a theatrical context, accompanied by video artistry and innovative DJing. Her own performances at the events were truly boundary-pushing, featuring multi-tracked voices, ambient melodic drones, Autechre-like analogue oscillations, a love song to a tree and guest vocals from a self-described “queer Canadian acupuncturist and spoken word poet” and an opera singer. So when the first mailshot about DDD appeared in the inbox it wasn’t exactly a massive surprise to discover Caro was one of the people behind it…

LTW: How did you first come across Delia Derbyshire?

Caro: “Of course via the BBC as a kid with the Dr Who theme tune which would have been all 80’s cheesy synths by then but still – though I did not know of Delia or that she was responsible for the original iconic sound of it. Later on, fellow electronica/experimental heads told me more about her, then I looked her up. It was when I first moved to Manchester that someone working at Futuresonic/Future Everything Festival here told me: you do realise the archives of the Godmother of Electronic Music are here in Manchester, don’t you? To which I replied, no and Wow.”

LTW: What’s your musical background, and how/when did you get into electronic music?

Caro: “Well I never wanted to play a musical instrument til I was 25 years old. Avoided it at school, it didn’t engage me at all. I did however have a fondness for sounds – such as some car indicators (not all of them) and chugging train rhythms. I got into making electronic music in the mid to late 90’s via a partner who had all the classic electronic music kit – 303, 606, 808 etc – and when we decided to buy and live in a double decker bus, I also bought me a Korg Poly 800 (semi vintage synth). I started to play away on the machines while I was laid up and generally alone. Oh and read manuals and taught myself to read music just for the fun of it so tapped into the nerd in me.”

LTW: I mention that electronics is to this day often seen as a bit of a blokey genre, and I’ve certainly been to electronica gigs where I’ve been the only female in the audience… yet there have always been women at the forefront of music technology – Anne Dudley’s work with sampling pioneers Art Of Noise being an obvious one…

Caro: “Oh I would not want to share any clumsy conclusions about this. Who was performing at these electronica gigs? Obviously not enough lasses knew about it..Most of these gender imbalance questions come down to conditioning and confidence in my sometimes humble opinion.”

LTW: Which other female electronic composers / musicians (past / present) do you find inspiring?

“Well Daphne Oram and her wonderful oramics machine is amazing – like Delia she was very on it technically and also very intuitive and creative too; Laurie Anderson, Leila Arab, Bjork (can’t be beat for intuitive pop), AGF, Nic Endo, Laura Escude, Analog Tara and so many more that won’t spring to mind til you’ve printed this or whose names you may not know – Female Pressure and Women in Electronic Music is a great resource for discovering more of them.”

LTW: Finally, how did the DDD event come about?

Caro: “I felt there is an interesting project and experience here with her fascinating archives on my doorstep. So I invited artist Naomi Kashiwagi and composer Ailís Ní Ríain to discuss a possible project for us all. And it was during these discussions that the idea of DD Day and accompanying tour dates came about, with us calling ourselves Delia Darlings as a playful and affectionate producer team. We are all doing our thing with sound and music in a suitably experimental and playful fashion so we hope the varying approaches and styles will be enjoyable/of interest to the same audience that might not usually get to hear such a spectrum of genres and experimentalisms. Then we applied for Arts Council and PRSF Women Make Music funding and got it. Also, I had come across Kara Blake’s experimental documentary ‘The Delian Mode’ a couple of years back and wanted to get her over from Quebec for something. So she applied to Quebec arts Council and got enough to be able to come over and personally introduce her award-winning documentary and take part in post-screening Q&A sessions. What a treat. And special thanks go to David Butler at University of Manchester who has tirelessly supported our project and let us keep pestering him to come listen to Delia’s amazing archive tapes and sharing many an anecdote. David will be one of our Delia D panel experts along with BBC Radiophonic archivist Mark Ayres (who knew and worked with Delia I believe) so another treat in store for all Delia-philes to hear more about this most competent and creative lass.”

Delia Derbyshire Day was awarded funding from the PRS for Music Foundation through their ‘Women Make Music’ programme which aims “to raise awareness about the funding we offer to music creators and encourage more women to come forward for this support. By promoting role models for future generations, we hope that we will be encouraging more women to think about making a living as a music creator.”

Delia Derbyshire Day 2013 event details

Date: Saturday 12 January 2013
Time: Mini symposium: 3pm – 6pm; Evening event: 8pm – 10.30pm
Place: BAND ON THE WALL, 25 Swan Street, Manchester, M4 5JZ
Tickets: Full Day: £10 Early Bird (before Dec 12), £12 after; Afternoon event only: £6; Evening event only: £7.50; Concessions available

You can also find out more on the Delia Derbyshire website and Delia Derbyshire Day blog.

All words and interview by Cath Aubergine – more from Cath on LTW here.


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