Future Echoes: A visit to the Delia Derbyshire archive

Doctor Who just wouldn’t be the same without its iconic signature tune, which has become one of the best-known pieces of music composed for television. Delia Derbyshire’s production of Ron Grainer’s theme was ground-breaking, and has had a massive influence on the world of electronic music.

Her work outside of Doctor Who is less well-known, but equally beautiful. Whilst at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop Delia’s musical output was prolific, gracing countless dramas, documentaries, and educational programmes.

After Delia’s death in 2001 hundreds of audio tapes were found in her attic: a collection of reels containing a mix of “work in progress” material and finished tracks. These unique tapes – recorded between 1962 and 1973 – are a window on her creative process, showing how she used experimental techniques to realise her musical ideas.

The tapes were entrusted to the composer and archivist Mark Ayres, who had previously saved the Radiophonic Workshop’s recordings from destruction after the department closed in 1998. Mark began the painstaking process of cataloguing Delia’s tapes, a huge project that was ultimately completed by a team led by Dr David Butler at the University of Manchester. (A more detailed account of the archiving process is available in Mark Ayres’ interview for These Hopeful Machines).

All 281 tapes have now been digitised and are available in the John Rylands Library in Manchester, where visitors can listen to them on a touchscreen PC. In May 2016 I wrote to the collection’s curator Dr Janette Martin to book an appointment, and on the 28th I headed up to Manchester to visit the archive.

The Delia Derbyshire collection is held in the library’s reading room; I got there for 10.00 a.m., completed the necessary paperwork, and was shown by a librarian to a quiet study area where I could listen to the music on headphones. On this first visit I concentrated on two radio interviews, and tapes containing early versions of several tracks.

First up was a 1960s interview that Delia gave to a BBC radio programme called Short Wave Listeners’ Corner. In this clip Delia described the origins of radiophonic sound by playing its basic building blocks: sine waves, square waves, and warbling tones from the Wobbulator. Listeners then heard a tune combining all those sounds: her quirky theme for a TV series about Arabic Science and Industry. Delia’s enthusiasm was palpable, as was the presenter’s interest in electronic music (“I always wondered how they make those peculiar noises!”).

This was a great starting point to explore the other tapes containing “work in progress” versions of Delia’s music. I focused on reels related to ‘Blue Veils and Golden Sands’, a haunting piece she composed for a TV documentary about the Tuareg tribe in the Sahara desert.

These tapes present each part of ‘Blue Veils’ separately, highlighting the meticulous work involved in the track’s creation. The parts include Delia singing one note, re-recorded at different speeds to change the pitch; she cut the resulting notes from the tape and spliced them together to make a melody. More filtering and cavernous reverb gave the vocal a distant, hazy sound.

Delia’s vocal was followed by a piercing reedy tone (sharply-filtered square waves), cut into a plaintive phrase that emphasized the desert’s searing heat. The signature sound of ‘Blue Veils’ is that of a metal lampshade being struck; Delia muted the percussive impact and remade its harmonics with valve oscillators. Further processing yielded a shimmering texture that merged with film of the heat haze on the desert’s horizon.

The finished track was hailed by the Workshop’s manager Desmond Briscoe as one of the most beautiful pieces in the department’s discography. ‘Blue Veils’ was also included on a 1968 library album of BBC Radiophonic Music, and later used to eerie effect in the 1970 Doctor Who story Inferno.

Browsing the archive, I heard several more tracks that proved just how innovative Delia was. ‘Dance from Noah’ was among the highlights – a pounding beat from a schools radio show that sounded like acid house decades before its time. Another gem was a catchy instrumental (entitled ‘Ron Grainer’s Bread’) that Delia recorded in the early 70s. Its sparkly synth tune and hypnotic groove wouldn’t sound out of place on Air’s album Moon Safari.

Although I only had time to sample a small part of the Delia Derbyshire archive, it was wonderful to hear these rare recordings from her tenure at the Radiophonic Workshop. Mark Ayres, David Butler, and the team at the University of Manchester have done great work in preserving the collection and making it available to the public; they have recovered sounds that often went uncredited when first broadcast, and restored the legacy of a musical pioneer.

Anyone interested in visiting the archive can make an appointment by contacting the curator Dr Janette Martin, via the following page on the John Rylands website: Listening to the Delia Derbyshire Archive.

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Article © David Huggins, August 2016.
(Originally published in Issue 63 of the Doctor Who fanzine, Fast Return)