Hero of the Day: Delia Derbyshire

Well, not hero per se, more musical genius of the day. And more retrospectively of July than of December.

I briefly mentioned Derbyshire in my piece about women artists in history. Her story is this: she studied music and mathematics in Cambridge. After being turned down for a job at Decca Records (the company didn’t employ women), Derbyshire started working for the BBC, composing and producing hundreds of pieces of music (themes, incidental etc.) for BBC programmes. Her most famous work is the Doctor Who theme, which I love to bits, especially since I read about how it was produced.

Now, this was before synthesizers (but not before taxes*). Nowadays, roughly speaking, you use your keyboard as an interface and then manipulate pitch, duration etc. electronically. But in the 60s, how could you produce sounds that could not be made by traditional instruments? You could for example invent new instruments (like the wonderful Theremin).

Derbyshire instead often didn’t even use any instruments. She used all sounds she could find, sometimes from every day household articles like lamps, sometimes electronic devices like noise generators and oscillators.  She recorded those sounds, then re-recorded the  takes at different speeds to pitch them, then spliced those second-long pieces of tape together by hand to get a loop, *then* re-recorded different loops together by playing each on a different tape machine, starting and thereby synchronising them by hand. Here Derbyshire explains the process herself. For something like the Doctor Who Theme, this process took weeks. Ron Grainer wrote the original tune, which Derbyshire then arranged and produces. Apparently Grainer was so astonished about and delighted by the final product, that he wanted to share credit with her in the show’s opening, but the BBC policy of the time didn’t allow shared credits.

I find early electronical music strangely fascinating, not least because there was a tremendous amount of work necessary for the tiniest of sound effects. Many of those 60s tracks still sound fresh and new to me. For examples, search for Derbyshire or the BBC radiophonic workshop on YouTube.

*sorry, little The Princess Bride reference there.

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