It can be tricky to pick a subject for an open-ended column like the Listener, but when I realized today was Delia Derbyshire Day, my choice was obvious. In the early 1960s, this UK electronic composer and performer helped change the world of sound as we know it.
Born in Coventry in 1937, Delia Derbyshire fell in love with sound against the backdrop of the blitz–she later described the air-raid-warning and “all clear” sirens she heard as a child as her first experience with “electronic music.” After studying mathematics and music on scholarship at Cambridge, she was turned down for a job at Decca Records due to a ban on hiring women to work in the label’s recording studio.
After bombarding the BBC with applications for more than a year (while teaching, traveling with a theater troupe, and working for a music publisher, among other jobs), Derbyshire became a program operations assistant in late 1960. The following year the BBC promoted her to studio manager, and in 1962 she made her most momentous move, requesting a transfer to the Radiophonic Workshop.
Cofounded in 1958 by fellow electronic-music visionary Daphne Oram, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop was a sound-effects lab that quickly evolved into an important incubator for electronic music and technology, despite its dilapidated equipment and cramped conditions. Most BBC staffers had to be compelled to join the workshop, and they tended to stay just a few months, but Derbyshire spent the next 11 years there. Because this was before the widespread adoption of synthesizers and computers, her process was a painstaking one: working mainly with reel-to-reel tape, she recorded, cut up, and transformed an inventive variety of electronic and acoustic sounds.
Derbyshire is most associated with her iconic 1963 version of Ron Grainer’s theme for Doctor Who, but that was the only time in her career that she arranged someone else’s composition. Her body of work includes original pieces for more than 200 radio and television programs, as well as music for stage productions.
In 1966 Derbyshire helped launch Unit Delta Plus, a group intended to promote the creation of electronic music and encourage its use in film, TV, and advertising. In 1968 she founded the studio Kaleidophon with David Vorhaus and Brian Hodgson, and the following year they released the album An Electric Storm under the name the White Noise (which Vorhaus has kept alive to this day). She largely retired from making music in 1975.
It took decades for Derbyshire to be recognized for her contributions, in large part because the BBC’s standard practice was to credit the Radiophonic Workshop for compositions by its staff–this not only denied her royalties but also ensured she’d remain obscure during her most productive years. Derbyshire passed away in 2001, leaving behind nearly 300 reel-to-reel tapes (most of which have since been digitized) and a thousand papers in her attic.
Delia Derbyshire Day 2020 is Monday, November 23, and marks the 57th anniversary of the first TV broadcast of her famous Doctor Who theme. Beyond listening to her music, one of the best ways to celebrate her legacy is to experiment with sound on your own–and you don’t need experience to have fun mixing and matching loops and effects in the Delia Derbyshire Day organization’s online Deliaphonica game. v
The Listener is a weekly sampling of music Reader staffers love. Absolutely anything goes, and you can reach us at [email protected].