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The Groundbreaking Sound of Delia Derbyshire

If you don’t know who Delia Derbyshire is, you should. Here’s a primer on the unsung heroine of British electronic music.
Delia Derbyshire Vinyl The Delian Mode
Silva Screen Records
By  · Published on September 30th, 2020

Welcome to The Queue — your daily distraction of curated video content sourced from across the web. Today, we’re watching a video that explores the groundbreaking work of Delia Derbyshire.

If you’ve ever wondered how early electronic musicians worked in a time before computers and synthesizers, the answer is: very laboriously.

In the 1960s, composing electronic music the analog way meant working with magnetic tape, which is a cumbersome, finicky medium that demands time, exactness, and perfectionism. The innovation of magnetic tape was that it allowed artists to manipulate natural and found sound once it had been recorded.

In this way, early electronic composers, like Delia Derbyshire, weren’t all that dissimilar from foley artists. As with foley, it was ultimately the job of these pioneers to hear the potential in a breath of wind, to envision the musicality of the neck of a wine bottle, or to hear the rhythm of the sound of clogs on cobblestone. The result: a process that was at once organic and alien, a distinctly human-made noise that was also implacably not of this earth.

Derbyshire, a working-class genius and Cambridge-educated mathematician, was particularly gifted when it came to hearing a sound and knowing what to do to make it interesting. The bulk of Derbyshire’s musical output came from her tenure at the Radiophonic Workshop, a sound effects unit of the BBC — housed on top of a skating rink — created in 1958 to produce incidental sounds and new music for radio and, later, television.

As it were: there was a need for a pioneering approach to sound to complement the pioneering approach to programming in the 1960s. During her eleven years at the Workshop, Derbyshire would create music and sound for almost two-hundred radio and television programs, including the hauntingly iconic theme song for Doctor Who

Because the BBC preferred to keep the members of the Workshop anonymous, Derbyshire’s genius was not recognized, as it should have been, at the time of her creative output. She was never credited as a composer and never saw financial residuals for her work. And yet, despite the best efforts of the BBC bureaucracy, the forces of time now rightfully recognize Derbyshire’s pioneering genius as an early and invaluable contribution to electronic music.

Below, you can find a clip showcasing an inside look into the Workshop, with reflections on how the Workshop brought composer Ron Grainer‘s Doctor Who theme to life.

Watch “Creating the Theme | Radiophonic Workshop | Doctor Who“:

Who made this?

This clip above is from the special feature “Masters of Sound” on the Doctor Who: The Beginning box set DVD.

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Based in the Pacific North West, Meg enjoys long scrambles on cliff faces and cozying up with a good piece of 1960s eurotrash. As a senior contributor at FSR, Meg's objective is to spread the good word about the best of sleaze, genre, and practical effects.