Delia Derbyshire: ’60s Science Fiction Sound Art

Share

Watch “The Delian Mode” a documentary on the innovative electronic music pioneer Delia Derbyshire, who worked from 1960 to 1973 at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. She utilized both real-life and ‘artificial’ electronic sounds in her compositions using a musical style known as Musique Concrète.

Delia Derbyshire, the Delian Mode

Derbyshire’s Musique Concrète embodies the idea that concrete sounds from objects ‘found’ in the real world can be used like jig-saw pieces to construct an entire composition. Image by Draculasaurus.

Attention Doctor Who fans: Watch ‘The Delian Mode’ terrific short documentary on Delia Derbyshire

By Richard Metzger, Published in Dangerous Minds

Canadian director Kara Blake‘s award-winning short documentary The Delian Mode is an audio-visual love letter to pioneering electronic composer Delia Derbyshire, best known for her spooky rendering of Ron Grainer’s Doctor Who theme music for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1963. (Legend has it that when Grainer heard what she’d done—creating each quavering, alien-sounding note by speeding up or slowing down analog tape recordings of a single plucked string, then cutting and splicing it—with rulers, razor and cellophane tape—before embellishing the results with the sound of waveform oscillators and white noise, he asked “Did I write that?” She answered “Most of it.”).

It’s an impressive piece of filmmaking, dreamlike, lyrical and especially pleasing to the eye—and ear—for a documentary. Blake wouldn’t have had a lot to work with (I’ve only ever seen one short film clip of Derbyshire) but does a wonderful job of presenting a well-rounded account of Delia Derbyshire’s work and of her influence on electronic dance music.

STORY: Francis Bacon About Town: Surrealist Painter, Worth Multi-Millions

The_Delian_Mode_%28film%29_cover

It was a world without synthesizers, samplers and multi-track tape recorders; Delia, assisted by her engineer Dick Mills, had to create each sound from scratch for the 1963 science fiction television series Dr. Who. She used concrete sources and sine- and square-wave oscillators, tuning the results, filtering and treating, cutting so that the joins were seamless, combining sound on individual tape recorders, re-recording the results, and repeating the process, over and over again.  — Brian Hodgson

You simply cannot watch this marvelous film without concluding that Delia Derbyshire was a creative and technical genius, producing complex music that seemed to come directly from another dimension, yet was wholly constructed via analog means (such as a tape loop that ran all the way down a hallway or slowing down the sound of banging on a metal lampshade.) The Delian Mode is inspiring, it’s a bit sad (depression and alcoholism plagued Derbyshire’s life) but it’s a story that needed to be told and told with respect. That she was a self-created woman working in what was then largely a man’s space makes her achievements seem all the more remarkable and especially cool. (At one point we hear audio of Derbyshire describing herself as being a “post-feminist” before the concept of feminism even existed, although there were other women veterans of the BBC Radiophonic Laboratory, notably Daphne Oram, creator of “Oramics,” which controlled sound with celluloid plates, and Maddalena Fagandini.)

“What we are doing now is not important for itself, but one day someone might be interested enough to carry things forwards and create something wonderful on these foundations.” – Delia Derbyshire

Blake interviews Derbyshire’s colleagues at the BBC Radio Workshop, Adrian Utley of Portishead, Ann Shenton of Add N to (X) and Sonic Boom aka Peter Kember of Spacemen 3, Spectrum and E.A.R., who brought Derbyshire into his own work towards the end of her life on the E.A.R. albums Vibrations (2000) and Continuum (2001).

STORY: Bitter Music in Natural Acoustics with Harry Partch

The Delian Mode (Kara Blake, 2009) by anaimiaktion After Derbyshire’s death, 267 reel-to-reel tapes and a box of a thousand pages of music and notes were found in her attic.

Delia Derbyshire – Love Without Sound (1969) 

Delia Derbyshire/Blue Veils and Golden Sand

Also See: Delia Derbyshire: Recording the Future, Effectrode

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share

About The Outpost

WilderUtopia.com regularly posts articles, photo essays, features, and documentaries from around the web that illuminate the challenges to coexistence between city and wild, developed and developing, human and other. To reach out, write to jack (dot) eidt (at) wilderutopia (dot) com. Follow us on Twitter @WilderUtopia