Delia Derbyshire Day 2017

“Blue Veils and Golden Sands.” Photo & image processing © David Huggins, 2018. This shot features a Coolicon lampshade and valve oscillator set against the Sahara desert, in tribute to Delia’s music for a documentary about the nomadic Tuareg tribe. Sahara background image sourced from the royalty-free library at Pixabay, via CCo Creative Commons.

Saturday 10th June 2017 saw Delia Derbyshire Day celebrate what would have been the composer’s 80th birthday year, with an evening of archival rarities and musical performances at Band on the Wall, the legendary Manchester venue. The 80th birthday celebrations featured a typically eclectic programme, and for this special occasion our host Caro C welcomed onstage some of Delia’s closest friends and colleagues from the Radiophonic Workshop: Dick Mills, Brian Hodgson, and Mark Ayres.

The trio were delighted to remember their friendship with Delia, their reflections shining light on her character and creative process alike. Clips from Delia’s tape archive (held by the University of Manchester) helped set the scene and sparked some fascinating anecdotes about a typical “day in the life” of the BBC’s electronic music studio. A few bars from Delia’s arrangement of Bach’s Air reminded Dick of their struggle to repair a glitch in the track as a deadline loomed. Nowadays this would be easy to fix in a digital audio workstation. But in 1962 finding a bad edit meant unspooling bulky reels of analogue tape and inspecting every splice, inch by inch. A radiophonic track could take several weeks to compose, demanding a formidable degree of artistic inspiration and technical expertise.

Dick smiled as he recalled the skill, good humour, and tenacity with which they overcame such challenges, allied with Delia’s incredible ability to synthesize any sound she needed. Brian Hodgson explained that his approach to electronic sound was much more intuitive, so when he collaborated with Delia they tended to meet somewhere in the middle. Their creative partnership emerged through the huge range of electronic music projects taken on by the Radiophonic Workshop: everything from television DIY series to science documentaries, alongside educational programmes and popular dramas.

Many of the Workshop’s early commissions reflected the department’s origins as a service to experimental radio drama, a genre that inspired some of Delia’s most memorable work. One play that benefitted immeasurably from her treatment was a 1964 adaptation of Peter Weiss’s The Tower, an intense psychological drama broadcast on the BBC’s Third Programme. The programme survives in the BBC archive, and Brian had with him a clip highlighting Delia’s contribution. The play dramatises the emotional turmoil endured by its central character Pablo, who was raised by the abusive owners of a circus held in the eponymous tower. As a child Pablo was imprisoned there, and forced to perform balancing acts for his captors. Many years later Pablo returns to relive the nightmare on his own terms, taking a job as the circus’s escapologist. He asks to be bound in order to break free, hoping to transcend his childhood trauma.

The extract began as a magician tried to undermine Pablo’s confidence with claims of the tower’s unchanging nature. As he spoke, the sonic perspective shifted to illustrate his claims: a clock ticked whilst the circus director snored, a mattress creaked, and the tower’s manager groaned in her sleep. Finally a tidal wave engulfed the tower’s inhabitants, their cries lost in the tumult. Delia’s sound design for The Tower is haunting and atmospheric, conjuring vivid images in the mind’s eye. Proof enough of Douglas Adams’s famous claim that the pictures are always better on the radio.

By the early 60s, however, the Radiophonic Workshop was equally acclaimed for its television work, most notably Delia Derbyshire’s electronic realisation of Ron Grainer’s theme for Doctor Who. Dick Mills was on hand to deconstruct its timeless magic, stepping through each part in a virtual multi-track file. The famous bass line set the foundation, an exhilarating rush of low-frequency pulses. Underpinning this is a low-pitched swoop reinforcing each bass note. Then came the ethereal “oo-ee-oo” melody, built from carefully timed adjustments of a valve oscillator. A series of rhythmic hisses were then set in orbit around the melody, sonic counterparts of the visual feedback in the opening titles. With the addition of high harmonics and cavernous reverb the theme was complete, still sounding like the future.

Mark Ayres followed Dick’s presentation with a commentary on “Blue Veils and Golden Sands”, an elegant ambient track that Delia composed for a BBC film about the nomadic Tuareg tribe in the Sahara desert. Mark played the track’s makeup reels in an audio restoration program, allowing us to hear the piece evolve from its raw tape samples to the finished mix. A spectral waveform revealed how Delia had cut the low frequencies from a sample of her voice, re-pitched into an evocative theme for the nomads’ endurance of the desert heat. Additional reverberation lent the tune a hazy quality, as though it was a call to prayer floating across the desert plains.

Amongst the other sounds Mark identified was that of Delia’s metal lampshade, which yielded a rich chime when struck. Delia recorded this at several speeds, muting the percussive impact and reconstructing its bell-like harmonics with a bank of valve oscillators. Intricate filtering made the sample shimmer and swirl, providing a sonic parallel to ripples crossing the water in a desert oasis. The auditory illusion was completed by a reedy phrase synthesized from square waves, emphasising the searing heat of the desert’s golden sands. A perfect piece of sound design for the documentary, and a beautiful composition in its own right.

DD Day 2017’s first new commission continued the theme of electronic music’s relation to visual media, with a treated spoken-word recording from Delia’s tape archive (remixed by Dr David Butler) synchronized to an evocative film by the artist Andrea Pazos. David’s mix focused on a 1960s reading of Guillaume Apollinaire’s poem “Il Pleut” [It is Raining], enhanced with Delia’s electronic effects. “Il Pleut” is one of Apollinaire’s calligrams, a type of visual poem whose layout echoes its subject matter. For this piece Apollinaire’s melancholy reflections on an overcast day in Paris were typeset in diagonal strands to suggest sheets of rain falling from the sky. Its graphical style was groundbreaking in 1916 and Apollinaire wanted poets to build on his experiments by adding recorded sound and cinematography to their art form, infusing it with a completely new lyricism.

This new presentation saw his dreams become a reality. The montage opened with a female vocalist reading the opening line of Apollinaire’s poem, which likened the background murmur of women’s voices in a cafe to cascading raindrops. The singer’s performance alternated between spoken word and lines sung in a descending scale, treated by Delia with phased tape echoes to add a fluid quality to the voice. Andrea Pazos augmented these shifting patterns with film of rushing water, crossfaded against tape reels unspooling against an inky backdrop.

As the vocal faded, the image darkened and the stage was set for a medley of Delia’s more rhythmic compositions. These up-tempo tracks showed Delia pushing her recording equipment beyond its assumed limitations: the results sounded like proto-techno, driven by pounding beats that punched through the mix with algorithmic precision. Eventually the synthesized percussion receded to make space for the narrator, who closed the sequence with a graceful reading of the poem’s opening line. This was a whirlwind tour of Delia’s musical styles, taking in surreal poetry and dance beats before returning to the unprocessed human voice in the coda.

Tracey Zengini painting live at DD Day 2017, interpreting electronic music by Manuella Blackburn. Photo © Anna Budrys (reproduced on Oscillate Wildly by kind permission of Delia Derbyshire Day).

Painter Tracey Zengeni and composer Manuella Blackburn joined forces for the next new performance, an audiovisual work paying tribute to Two Sides of Delia. Tracey’s imagination had been sparked by a colourful pattern of tessellating shapes that Delia sketched as a child. For Manuella this design was reminiscent of the isolated musical parts in Delia’s tape archive: the sounds she heard there were similarly vibrant, yet neatly structured. She demonstrated this with a clip from Delia’s track Restless Relays, a whimsical tune whose sonic palette recalls space age 60s cartoons, punctuated by robotic zaps and electromechanical chatter.

Two Sides of Delia presented Manuella’s musical response to Delia’s archive, which Tracey interpreted with an improvised abstract painting. Manuella’s music faded in with a siren wailing over a stomping beat, translated by Tracey into bold arcs of red and blue paint. Tracey’s colour blending technique mirrored the growing complexity of Manuella’s music; as the sounds became richer, Tracey painted a wider range of hues for greater light and shade. From here the insistent beat grew louder and Tracey darted between layering colours and stepping back to judge the emerging pattern. This was an engaging presentation, and an illuminating contrast to Delia’s mathematically pre-planned compositions.

The evening’s celebrations concluded with The Architects of Rosslyn (producer Mandy Wigby and percussionist Howard Jacobs) reprising their DD Day 2016 piece The Waking Sleep, for which they provided live musical accompaniment to a series of surreal films directed by Di Mainstone. The scene unfolded with performer Hollie Miller dancing through a white void as carved letters (animated by stop motion) extruded from her skin. The Architects closely tracked the action throughout, their music evolving as Hollie found herself in a variety of unusual dream scenarios. A quirky electronic waltz accompanied a portrait of her as a 1920s swimmer, clad in a bizarre headdress made of shuttlecocks; this was soon discarded in favour of a diving suit as she swam through the void, her movement propelled by tribal drums and bubbly analogue synths.

The final scene transported Hollie to the recognisable reality of the Clifton Suspension Bridge, photographed from an oblique angle to resemble a giant harp. The opening shots intercut views of the bridge from a dizzying height, set against a synthesized heartbeat and metallic phrases played by Howard on the waterphone. For shots of performer Hollie Miller hammering the bridge’s suspension cables he dragged a mallet across the waterphone’s tines for a series of impacts that worked both as live sound effects and rhythmic elements in the Architects’ music – perhaps a subtle nod to the radiophonic scores that Delia created at the Workshop, which often blurred the boundary between sound effects and musical themes.

This highly imaginative approach to combining music with pure sound design typified Delia’s work at the BBC and beyond. DD Day 2017 illustrated to striking effect the open-minded and experimental sensibility that she brought to her music: archive radio recordings such as The Tower and “Il Pleut” showed her uncanny ability to evoke images through electronic sound, whilst her incidental music for TV (exemplified by Blue Veils and Golden Sands) demonstrated a rare talent in creating sonic parallels to existing pictures. In the years after these programmes were transmitted, the original broadcast context has receded and Delia’s music has found new life in re-masters and reissues. Since 2013 DD Day has provided an invaluable complement to these recordings, by sharing unique archive materials which help place Delia’s music in a historical setting. And with newly commissioned artworks such as Two Sides of Delia and The Waking Sleep, it’s clear that contemporary artists continue to be greatly inspired by Delia’s musical legacy. As our host Caro C concluded, although Delia is sadly no longer with us, she is still making waves.

Top of Page

(Event report © David Huggins, 2017, published on Oscillate Wildly 2018).

Fanzine review: “Delia”, by Karen Harte

Delia at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Illustration © Karen Harte. Reproduced on Oscillate Wildly by kind permission of the artist.

Although Delia Derbyshire’s musical talent was rarely credited in her lifetime, the years since her passing have thankfully seen a far wider public recognition of her pioneering legacy. Delia’s profile has grown through a diverse range of publications ranging from academic studies of her work (such as Louis Niebur’s 2010 book Special Sound, featuring detailed analyses of her music), to documentaries such as Kara Blake’s 2009 film, The Delian Mode. And since 2013 the charity Delia Derbyshire Day has celebrated her music with an inventive series of events, concerts, and educational programmes. Karen Harte’s new fanzine Delia: The Story of Delia Derbyshire is a great addition to these tributes, and one of the best starting points for anyone curious to learn more about the woman behind the Doctor Who theme. The comic tells Delia’s story in her own words (quoted from a wealth of archival interviews) with illustrations by Karen which vividly capture not only Delia’s likeness, but her sheer enthusiasm for making electronic music.

The comic begins by recounting Delia’s childhood, distilling key moments to show the formative influences on her music. Karen opens the story with a decorative pattern of complex equations and musical notation, indicating how closely related maths and music became in Delia’s creative process. The reader then discovers how Delia’s aural imagination was also sparked by more concrete sources… most notable amongst these are the electronic noise of the air-raid sirens during the Coventry blitz, and the percussive sound of mill workers’ clogs on cobbles as they went to work.

A glimpse of her school days shows how Delia had to push against authority throughout her life. Here we see the young Delia sitting slightly apart from her classmates, eyes closed in contemplation, cradling her head in her hands. Her thought bubble shows her preoccupation with acoustics, a subject she studied for herself when her teacher refused to cover it in class. The male teacher stands at the front, hands on hips, eyes downcast as he drones on. His lesson had become merely noise to Delia, whilst she raced ahead in a world of her own private intellectual endeavours. The panel underneath shows her taking solace in listening to the radio, an experience she later cited as a valued supplement to her formal education. She came from quite a humble background with relatively few books in the house, and the BBC’s broadcasts were inspirational to her.

Years later Delia clashed with lecturers at the University of Cambridge, whom she persuaded (much against their judgement) to allow her to change her degree subject from maths to music. Upon graduation Delia set out to work in the music industry, and was incredulous at the careers advisor’s recommendation that she should instead work in depth sounding. Shortly after that her enthusiasm for electronic music fell on the deaf ears of a Decca executive, who bluntly informed her that they did not employ women in the recording studio.

Karen’s use of speech bubbles is particularly inventive in this scene. Delia is shown in profile, talking animatedly; her speech bubble contains a sine wave, one of the basic building blocks of electronic music. The adjacent frame shows a bored Decca interviewer, whose speech bubble is filled with ellipses. In tandem with the surrounding quotations, this neatly conveys a sense of the gender discrimination in the music industry at that time. The next panel shows Delia marching out of Decca’s offices, with a clenched fist and expression of steely determination. On the wall behind her the legend NO WOMEN ALLOWED is rendered in large capitals as high as Delia, like graffiti. Fortunately, such closed-minded prejudice seemed only to sharpen Delia’s resolve to follow her dreams.

This sets the scene for a series of panels explaining how, by 1962, Delia had realised her ambition to work for the BBC. Delia wanted to join the Radiophonic Workshop (the corporation’s electronic music studio), but at first composers were only allowed to spend three months at a time in the department. In the early 60s, BBC management thought that spending any longer than that experimenting with electronic sound would send their staff crazy. Recounting this policy years later (in an interview with the musician Peter Kember) Delia joked that it was, at least, “a beautiful way to be crazy.” Eventually the “three month” limitation was abolished, and Delia was at last in her element, creating electronic music for programmes such as Doctor Who. A two-page illustration captures her heyday at the Workshop. It shows Delia smiling with her arms aloft, holding a length of magnetic tape above her head. The tape, glowing gold, cascades from a reel-to-reel deck mounted on the wall, circling round her like the ribbon of a rhythmic gymnast. Her pose seems to capture her dancing, moving to the rhythm of the tape loops she’d set spinning.

But sadly this high note didn’t last, and in the final frames Karen sketches out the context for Delia’s departure from the BBC in 1973. By her own account, Delia rebelled against a lot, doing all sorts of things she wasn’t “supposed” to do; she used whatever techniques were necessary to create her music, ignoring the academic debate over whether it was better to use purely synthetic tones in electronic music, or to include manipulations of real sounds picked up by a microphone. Delia’s music freely combined both methods. Her perfectionism also drove her to work late into the night, and at times she became exhausted in the pursuit of the perfect sound. She was an independent thinker who questioned authority, a fact acknowledged in a birthday card a friend sent her in 1997 (brilliantly recreated here by Karen Harte). The card shows a shoal of fish facing to the right, their mouths all downturned in a display of miserable conformity; one fish faces the other way, smiling with quiet contentment: this is the exception to the rule, the independent thinker to whom the card was addressed.

This cartoon no doubt chimed with Delia as she looked back on her time at the BBC, which by the early 70s had lost the great appeal it initially held for her. In her view the corporation had gone out of tune with itself, reflecting a profound change in the wider culture. She didn’t want to compromise her integrity any further, and left. In these closing panels Delia is shown in silhouette walking away from the BBC; a scratchy black cloud overhead indicates her frustration, and perhaps also her sadness at leaving her friends and colleagues behind.

The comic closes on a poignant series of quotations from interviews that Delia gave late in life. They reveal a humble and self-deprecating frame of mind, in which she regards her own music as not important in itself, but only in terms of a potential ‘stepping stone’ for future artists. At that point (circa 2000), she felt like the process of making her music had been more important than the end result. And in the future, a new generation of musicians might be inspired by the Radiophonic Workshop’s example. In 2018, with Delia’s music hailed as massively influential, we can now see how prescient her remarks were, although I would beg to differ in arguing that the music she recorded has stood the test of time itself. And with Karen Harte’s new fanzine, it’s clear that her story still resonates with fans across the decades. Long may it continue.

Delia: The Story of Delia Derbyshire is available to buy from: https://www.instagram.com/karen.harte/

Top of Page

Review © David Huggins, 23rd November 2018.

Colourful abstractions for “Mattachin” (1968)

Delia Derbyshire’s light and effervescent track Mattachin (from the 1968 album BBC Radiophonic Music) can be heard on the YouTube channel of PlanetNamedDesire, accompanied by a colourful sequence of abstract animations. The BBC Radiophonic Music album is available to purchase on Amazon’s UK website at the following link.

The patterns in the above video blend so well with Delia’s music that I initially thought she might have composed the track to accompany them. But PlanetNamedDesire explains (in a comment below the video) that he adapted the visuals from another source: the archives of the American filmmaker Harry Smith, whose early abstract animations have been published on DVD (more details are available at the Harry Smith Archives). The pulsing colours and translucent effects of his experimental work are a perfect match to the rhythms of Mattachin.

Delia spoke briefly about Mattachin in her interview with John Cavanagh for BBC Radio Scotland’s Original Masters programme (broadcast in October 1997). She was delighted to hear the track for the first time since 1968 but typically self-deprecating about its origins, explaining that she had assembled it over a lunchtime from what she called objets trouvées, “bits cut out of other things after editing.” Some of these sonic components derive from “Talk Out”, a signature tune that Delia had composed in 1964 for a BBC radio discussion programme (the track is available on the Radiophonic Workshop compilation 21, reissued by Silva Screen in 2016).

If you enjoyed the Mattachin animation, I would highly recommend also checking out the work of motion designer Peter Northcott. In particular, his circular graphic “Dots and Loops – 0015” really evokes the visual style of the early Radiophonic days, whilst echoing the warm, atmospheric quality conveyed by Harry Smith’s animations.

David

Top of Page

Delia on Tomorrow’s World in 1965

On this day in 1965, Delia appeared on the BBC’s popular science programme Tomorrow’s World to explain the basis of electronic music. Clips from this episode have appeared in previous radiophonic documentaries such as BBC Four’s Alchemists of Sound and Kara Blake’s The Delian Mode, but as far as I know this is the first time since the original broadcast that the complete report has been shown. It’s great to see the BBC Archive sharing this rare clip.

The Tomorrow’s World report shows Delia working on a track called Pot au Feu, which was later released on the 1968 album BBC Radiophonic Music. It’s fascinating to see how she uses a complex mixture of acoustic ‘found sounds’ and pure electronic tones to create each layer.

Some of these tape loops are later reworked to great effect in Way Out, one of Delia’s tracks on the Standard Music Library’s album of electronic music. The ascending, three-note phrase heard from 4.34 in the Tomorrow’s World video is also reminiscent of the haunting intro to The Delian Mode, another of her acclaimed tracks from BBC Radiophonic Music. I guess it might be the same source sound, re-pitched and treated differently for an equally atmospheric effect.

David

Top of Page

The Delian Mode and Henry Moore

audio-meter-grungy

Just reading the Doctor Who magazine special The Music of Doctor Who. Fascinating stuff – it’s beautifully presented and meticulously researched. I’m not sure if it’s still in print, but there are often copies available on eBay and elsewhere (the Who Shop currently have a few copies in stock).

One bit of info I thought might be of interest here is from Mark Ayres’ article The Sound of Music on the early days of the Radiophonic Workshop, in which he notes (on p. 15) that Delia Derbyshire composed her classic track The Delian Mode for Barry Bermange’s Inventions for Radio – The Dreams. According to BBC Genome this was originally transmitted 5th January 1964, on the BBC Third Programme.

I hadn’t heard this programme in full before, so searched online and listened to a clip from an off-air recording (as far as I know, there’s no official release of The Dreams). The Delian Mode appears in the section entitled The Sea.

One thing that stood out is that the music heard in The Dreams (from 1964) is presented in a slightly different mix than the commercial release of The Delian Mode (released in 1968 on the BBC Radiophonic Music LP). The released mix of the Delian Mode has several elements not heard in The Dreams, perhaps in order to thicken the arrangement in parts where the music would have originally complemented speech in the radio broadcast.

In researching the track, I’ve found that the released mix of The Delian Mode includes elements created by Delia for a 1968 documentary on Henry Moore, called I Think in Shapes, Not in Words (first broadcast by BBC 2 on 27th August 1968). Delia’s incidental music for this programme is based on the sound of Moore tapping one of the large hollow sculptures on display at the Tate Gallery’s retrospective of his work.

Two clips from this programme are available on the BBC website: Extract 1 contains Delia’s music (from 0.57 – 1.35), which reworks the metallic sound of the sculpture being struck into an eerie piece of musique concrète. Extract 2 shows Moore walking through the exhibit and tapping the sculpture, providing the source sound for Delia’s music.

The same metallic impact sample can also be heard from approximately 3.27 to 4.38 in The Delian Mode, as part of a loop used in the track’s closing section. I’m guessing that Delia edited these atmospheric sounds into the Delian Mode when the track was being prepared for release on the BBC Radiophonic Music LP later that same year. I haven’t been able to find any further info to support this as yet though.

There are various other differences between these mixes which I hope to document later, as part of a longer article on the Inventions for Radio. That’s beyond the scope of this blog entry though, and probably something I’ll return to in the new year.

David

Top of Page

New beginnings…

akai-tape-deck

Welcome to the site! There are just a few pages to begin with but I hope you enjoy them. More to follow in the new year.

I took the above photo at a concert of Tristram Cary’s music at Diss church hall on 9th April 2016. I added some monochrome effects to try to evoke the era of 60s radiophonic music, the heyday of Delia Derbyshire at the BBC…

David