Delia Derbyshire Day 2016

Delia Derbyshire Day 2016 was held on 17th January at HOME in Manchester, with an evening celebrating the legacy of her pioneering electronic music. This multimedia event, organised by Dr David Butler and Caro C, presented unique items from Delia’s archive alongside newly-commissioned works inspired by her innovative techniques. For various reasons I missed previous Delia Derbyshire Days, but this year I took time out to attend the celebrations.

In his introduction David Butler described how Delia’s interest in electronic music was sparked by a visit to the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958. There she attended Le Corbusier’s Pavilion, where she heard a performance of avant-garde electronic music (Edgar Varèse’s Poem électronique), which was synchronised to a slide-show of monochrome photographs. This was an inspirational moment for Delia, and one that foreshadowed her work at the BBC; most of the music she composed at the Radiophonic Workshop was designed to support visuals, and has only been heard in its own right through releases on vinyl and CD.

This theme of electronic music’s relation to the visual arts formed the basis of the evening’s programme. The event opened with two films featuring scores by Delia, and in the second half we were treated to new productions that acknowledged her musical influence. The programme began with an introduction from host Caro C, followed by the films One of These Days (dir. Elsa Stansfield & Madelon Hooykaas, 1973) and Two Houses (dir. Elisabeth Kozmian, 1980). I had previously thought that Delia stopped composing after leaving the BBC in 1973, so it was amazing to see these obscure films including her music.

One of These Days followed a ‘day in the life’ of an Amsterdam designer named Marte Röling, with Delia’s ominous score sharply contrasting against Marte’s breezy confidence. The soundtrack was in English, but with clips of the original Dutch; Delia’s music used heavily-treated samples of the dialogue, so the languages overlapped. Two Houses meanwhile, concerned the act of moving and renovating houses, with an elegiac piano underscore by Delia. This was a return to her classical roots, and a radical departure from the ambient drones heard in the previous film.

The second half provided another highlight: For Delia, an abstract monochrome film by the Manchester artist Mary Stark. This 35mm production accompanied a new suite of music from Delia’s archive, prepared by David Butler. David’s mix drew on material that Delia composed for the Ron Grainer musical On the Level (1966), creating a collage of dark industrial sounds.

Mary interpreted these mechanical rhythms with a rapid sequence of patterns; some were inspired by Delia’s handwritten notes, whilst others turned heavily scratched, scuffed, and stained film into a dense montage that pulsed in time to the music. In the coda a clanking metronome slowly faded, submerged by a wave of choral harmonies from Amor Dei (one of Delia’s collaborations with the playwright Barry Bermange). This was a graceful finale to the soundscape, at which point a typewritten caption “For Delia” slid into view.

Mary’s film was followed by a live performance from the Architects of Rosslyn, a duo featuring the producer Mandy Wigby and percussionist Howard Jacobs. The Architects provided musical backing to a film by the artist Di Mainstone.

Di’s film opened with a surreal dream sequence in which words expressing mixed feelings about a relationship appeared in a white void. A woman (performer Hollie Miller) danced through the scene, adopting a series of balletic poses as letters were projected onto her body. One shot made a visual pun on the phrase “eat my words”, whilst elsewhere mathematical symbols contrasted with ambiguous thoughts on love and loss.

The Architects complemented Di’s imagery with a score that captured the inventive spirit of Delia’s music whilst forging its own identity. Mandy generated an ethereal wave of synth textures and manipulated melodies played by Howard on the bass clarinet. Their sound was further augmented by an exotic percussion kit including the waterphone, an instrument whose eerie tonality has enhanced countless horror films (you’ll know it when you hear it).

The event concluded with a chance for the audience to put questions to the artists involved; David Butler hosted the Q&A, and a lively discussion between Madelon Hooykaas, Mandy Wigby, and Mary Stark ensued. What came across here is the passion that all concerned have for Delia’s music, and the huge potential in combining electronic music with visual media. All three artists were enthusiastic about how music can transform on-screen action, citing Delia’s radiophonic work as a great inspiration. Caro C and David Butler then closed proceedings by thanking the artists and audience, before dedicating the event to Delia herself. This was a wonderful evening, and I look forward to DD Day 2017!

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