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