Just as Daphne Oram was stepping out of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, another lady was stepping in. Though Delia Derbyshire may not be a household name, the sound of her music is certainly embedded in the brains of several generations of Science Fiction fans, as she realized the iconic score for the Doctor Who theme song in the Workshop studios. With the original Doctor Who series lasting for twenty-six continuous seasons from 1963 to 1989, the song has touched the lives of millions of people around the world. I give credit to my own love of electronic music to my being a fan of Doctor Who since I was ten years old.
I remember the first time I watched, catching a rerun of an episode late one Saturday night on the local PBS station, while my parents and grandparents visited at my great-grandparents house and all those adults were talking and playing scrabble around the kitchen table. The show was like a revelation. It was the fifth Doctor, played by Peter Davison. Not only was the storyline a subject of fascination, but the sounds, and the way they melded with the visuals transported my imagination. I became a fan at that moment and ever since Doctor Who has been my favorite TV show. Though my first love remains the original series, and my first Doctor, the first few seasons of the 2005’s Doctor Who revival exceeded my expectations and I continue to tune in.
There is one area where I am a Doctor Who purist though. That is where the theme song is concerned. Each new regeneration of the travelling Time Lord saw the producers of the show making slight adjustments to the song. Eventually it came to a point where, though the theme was the same, they did not use the original version as recorded, and essentially, created by Delia Derbyshire. It’s quite a shame because there was magic in that mix.
The original tune was written by Ron Grainer, but he didn’t have anything to do with the production, how it was made. The project for realizing it and arranging it for electronics was given to Delia.
But how did she end up at the BBC in the first place?
She had been a bright girl, learning to read and write at an early age, and started training on the piano at age eight, but like many of us who have grown up as part of the working or middle-class it was radio that opened up her world. Delia said “the radio was my education”. Being involved with radio also ended up being her fate. After graduating from Barr’s Hill Grammar School in 1956 she was accepted by both Oxord and Cambridge. This was “quite something for a working class girl in the 'fifties, where only one in 10 were female,” she said. She ended up going to Girton College, Cambridge, because of a mathematics scholarship she had received.
Despite some success with the mathematical theory of electricity, she claimed to have not done so well in school at the time. So she switched her focus to include music, specializing in medieval and modern music history, while graduating with a BA in mathematics. She also received a diploma, or what the British call a licentiate, from the Royal Academy of Music in the study of pianoforte.
While in school she had developed an interest in the musical possibilities of everyday objects. This would later find its full expression in the musique concrete she would make and master at the BBC. While still in school in 1958 she also had the opportunity to visit the Worlds Fair in Brussels where she experienced Edgard Varèse's Poème Électronique installed in Le Corbusier's pavilion. Varèse's work was a touchstone for the new generation of electronic musicians as Daphne had also experienced this work at the Fair.
Upon finishing her schooling she approached the university career office for advice. The pieces had been arranged on the board of her life but she needed help with making her next move. She told the counselor she had an interest in “sound, music and acoustics, to which they recommended a career in either deaf aids or depth sounding.” With their advice wanting, she made a move on her own and tried to get a gig at Decca Records, but was told no. No women were employed in the recording studio of the label.
In lieu of a job with Decca she scored a position with the UN in Geneva as a piano and math teacher to the children of various consuls and diplomats. Later she worked as an aid to Gerald G. Gross, who worked in diplomatic functions and oversaw conferences for the International Telecommunications Union. Eventually she moved back home to Coventry where she taught at a primary school. This was followed by a brief stint in the promotions department at Boosey & Hawkes, a music publisher.
The following year in 1960 she stepped into the BBC as trainee assistant studio manager. Her first job there was working on the Record Review, a program where hoity-toity critics gave their highfalutin opinions on classical music recordings. Just like Daphne Oram, she had a well-developed sense of where to drop the needle on any given platter. Delia said "some people thought I had a kind of second sight. One of the music critics would say, ‘I don't know where it is, but it's where the trombones come in’ and I'd hold it up to the light and see the trombones and put the needle down exactly where it was. And they thought it was magic."
Of this time period she further elaborated, “It was very exciting, especially on the music shows. All the records had to be spun in by hand and split second timing was essential. When tapes came in I used to mark them with yellow markers to ensure that one followed another, and that there were no embarrassing gaps in between,”
Not long after she had started working on the Record Review she heard about the Sound-House Daphne Oram had helped create, the Radiophonic Workshop, and she knew she wanted to be in the Sound-House, developing and working in the new field of electronic and electro-acoustic music, exploring the widest parameters of musical research.
When she approached the heads of Central Programme Operation with her wish to work in the Radiophonic Workshop, they were baffled and puzzled. The Workshop wasn’t a place most people sought out to work in, it was a place people were assigned, no doubt with grumbling resentment. It was a place only the eccentric, or visionary, would choose to go.
“I had done some composing but I had a running battle with the B.B.C. to let me specialise in this field. Eventually they gave me three months to prove I was good -- and I'm still here,” she noted in a newspaper article.
In 1962 Delia got here wish and was assigned to the Radiophonic Workshop in Maida Vale. For the next decade and a year she gave the BBC a herculean effort in the creation of sound and music for about 200 radio and television shows.
“I have to sense the mood which the producer is trying to achieve. He may want something abstract, or it may be a piece with changing moods which have to correspond to specific cues in either dialogue or graphic designs.”
The next year was the year Doctor Who came to broadcast. The theme song was one of the first on television to be made entirely with electronics.
Brian Hodgson, who worked with Delia at the Workshop, and also produced a lot of incidental music for Doctor Who commented on her work on the theme. “It was a world without synthesisers, samplers and multi-track tape recorders; Delia, assisted by her engineer Dick Mills, had to create each sound from scratch. 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.”
Interviewed about the theme on a 1964 episode of the radio show Information Please she said, “the music was constructed note by note without the use of any live instrumentalists at all,” and went on to demonstrate the use of various oscillators, including the workshops famous wobbulator, which she said was “simply an oscillator which wobbles”.
It was a laborious process and the Radiophonic Workshop had become the perfect laboratory for the great works of sonic separation, granulation, elaboration and final distillation of the musical substance.
To create the Doctor Who theme each note was individually recorded, cut, spliced. Some of the base materials used for the process included a single plucked string, white noise, and the harmonic waveforms of test-tone oscillators. The bass line was the single plucked string. The pattern for the bass was made by splicing it, in versions that had been sped up or slowed down to create the perfect pitch, over and over again. The swoop of the lower bass layer was made through careful and calculated tweaking of the oscillators pitch. The melody was played on a keyboard attached to a rack of oscillators while the bubbling hiss and fry of some etheric vapor was made by filtering white noise and then arranging it in time on tape. Some of the notes were also redubbed at varying volumes to create the necessary dynamics heard in the song.
With all the basic materia in the laboratory now prepared, ready with the proper pitch and volume, it all needed to be conjoined. To do this the first step involved taking a line of music –the bass, melody, or vaporous bubbles of white noise- and trimming each note to length by cutting the tape and sticking them all together in the right order. Next further rectifications were required, distilling these elements down further and further until a final mix was completed.
At the time, there were no multitrack tape machines to ease the process. A method to mix it all together had to be improvised. Each separate portion of the song on individual reels of tape was played on separate tape machines with the outputs mixed together. Getting it all to synchronize was just one of the obstacles as not all tape players play back at exactly the same speed, and not all of them stay in sync once started. A number of submixes, or distillations, were created and these in turn synced together before the music could finally be said to be finished.
When Ron Grainer first heard Delias realization of his score he was more than delighted and said "Did I really write this?"
Delia relplied,"Most of it."
Grainer made a valiant effort to give Delia credit as a co-composer of the theme. His attempt was blocked by the bureaucrats at the BBC who had the official policy of keeping the members of the Workshop anonymous and only giving credit to the group as a whole. Delia was not credited on screen for her work until the 50th anniversary special of Doctor Who.
Even so, her tenure in the Workshop was off to a grand start and she continued to produce music for radio, television and beyond.
Between 1964-65 Delia got to expand her palette of sound across the canvas of radio in collaboration with playwright Barry Bermange in a series of four pieces called Inventions for Radio. These pieces were broadcast on the BBC’s Third Programme and involved interviews with people on the street on such heavy subjects as dreams and the existence of God, collaged against a background of electronic soundscapes and strange noises. It was a new form of documentary radio art.
Working with Bermange, the voices of the interviewees were edited in a non-linear way, creating insightful juxtapositions. For the episode on dreams she used one of her favorite musical sources, a green metal lightbulb shade being struck. The sound, as always, was later manipulated in the studio.
And even though her work for the Workshop continued to remain anonymous her reputation as a musician and electronic composer started to spread to some of the senior officials at the communications behemoth. Martin Esslin, the Head of Radio Drama, sent a memo to Desmond Briscoe, than head of the Workshop, noting his regret that Delia Derbyshire and her co-worker John Harrison were not able to receive credit for the work they had on a production of “The Tower”.
He wrote, “I have just been listening to the playback of the completed version of ‘The Tower’ and should like to express my deep appreciation for the excellent work done on this production by Delia Derbyshire and John Harrison. This play set them an extremely difficult task and they rose to the challenge with a degree of imaginative intuition and technical mastery which deserves the highest admiration and which will inevitably earn a lion's share of any success the production may eventually achieve. I only wish that it were possible for the names of contributors of this calibre to be mentioned in the credits in the Radio Times and on the air. But failing this I should like to register the fact that I regard their contribution to this production as being at least of equal importance to that of the producer himself.”
UNIT DELTA PLUS, KALEIDOPHON & WHITE NOISE
As Delia’s reputation grew, she began work on other projects outside the umbrella of the BBC. She joined forces with her friend and fellow Radiophonic Workshop member Brian Hodgson, along with Peter Zinovieff, the creator and founder of the EMS synthesizer, to establish Unit Delta Plus. The purpose of this organization was to promote and create electronic music. A studio Zinovieff had built in a shed behind his townhouse at 49 Deodar Road in Putney served as their operational headquarters.
Zinovieff had followed the research of Max Mathews and Jean-Claude Risset at Bell Labs. He had also read the David Alan Luce MIT thesis from 1963, “the Physical Correlates of Nonpercussive Musical Instrument Tones.” You know, the kind of thing you read on a rainy day. These were some of the influences on his own work. The three were quite the trio.
They participated in a few experimental and electronic music festivals. In 1966 they demonstrated their electronic prowess at The Million Volt Light and Sound Rave. This was the same event where The Beatles had been commissioned to create an avant-garde sound piece. They came up with song Carnival of Light in response had its only public playing.
Though there were intervening projects, the next major one outside of the BBC was to mark another landmark in the history of electronic music. It all get sparked when Derbyshire and Hodgson met David Vorhaus.
Vorhaus recalls, “I met Brian Hodgson and Delia Derbyshire, who were then in a band called Unit Delta Plus. I was on my way to an orchestral gig when the conductor told me that there was a lecture next door on the subject of electronic music. The lecture was fantastic and we got on like a house on fire, starting the Kaliedophon studio about a week later!"
Vorhaus was a classical musician, trained as a bass player. He also happened to be a physics graduate and electronic engineer. The three were an electrical storm of creative energy. Together they created the Kaleidophon studio at 281-283 Camden High Street, where they made music and sound for a variety of London theatres. They also made library music, contributing many tracks to the Standard Music Library, a firm set up in collaboration with London Weekend Television (ITV) and Bucks Music Group in 1968 to provide the music for hit TV shows. These recordings were done under pseudonyms. Derbyshire’s compositions were credited to Li De La Russe, something of an anagram with a reference to her auburn hair to boot. A number of these songs made it onto the ITV shows The Tomorrow people and Timeslip, which rivaled Doctor Who.
When not working on a commission they worked on their first album as the band White Noise, titled An Electric Storm.
The album is a masterpiece, spanning genres of giddy electro-pop to the more austere and serious sonorities. It spans a deep emotional gamut and is an excellent and dizzying listen from start to finish. Released on the Island label, it was something of a sleeper album, or what some call a perennial seller. It is one of those albums that didn’t do as great when it was first released as it has done over time. Now it is a continual best seller. Considering the difficulties the band had in even getting it onto a label makes their achievement even more remarkable.
Though the name White Noise lives on with David Vorhaus, Hodgson and Delia left the project and the studio after the first album.
MUSIC OF SPHERES AND I.E.E.100
A number of other commissions, recordings and events took place as the last years of the sixties unspooled. She made music for a film by Yoko Ono, contributed to Guy Woolfenden’s electronic score for Macbeth produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company and collaborated with Anthony Newley for a demo song called Moogies Bloogies that has never seen an official release.
In 1970 Delia worked on an episode for the TV show series Biography that detailed the life of Johannes Kepler, the renaissance astronomer who showed that planets orbit the sun in ellipses, not perfect circles. The episode was titled, I measured the Skies and was taken from his epitaph which read:
I measured the skies, now the shadows I measure,
Sky-bound was the mind, earth-bound the body rests.
In his book Harmonices Mundi from 1619 Kepler explored the relationships between musical harmony and congruence in geometrical forms and physical phenomena and related his third law of planetary motion.
Medieval philosophers had spoken of the music of the spheres as metaphor. Kepler discovered actual physical harmonies in planetary motion, finding harmonic proportions in the differences between the maximum and minimum angular speeds of a planet in its orbit.
A newspaper article by Christine Edge that came out around the time explained, “Kepler had interpreted the sounds made by the planets into scale notes, and Delia subjected them to her own gliding scale of electronic sounds.” A few years later she revisited the Music of the Spheres, this time producing a piece for a segment on Kepler in Joseph Bronowski's 1973 TV series The Ascent of Man. Her short piece accompanies a simple computer graphic being shown on the screen.
Delia was in her own sphere and orbit, and as her velocity accelerated the people around started to notice its wobble.
In 1971 the International Institute of Electrical Engineers turned 100. The BBC commemorated the anniversary with the Radiophonic Workshop in Concert event on the 19th May. Delia composed the piece I.E.E. 100 for the program, but the tape almost didn’t survive. She looked to radio and the history of electrical engineering for inspiration.
She said, “I began by interpreting the actual letters, I.E.E. one hundred, in two different ways. The first one in a morse code version using the morse for I.E.E.100. This I found extremely dull, rhythmically, and so I decided to use the full stops in between the I and the two E's because full stop has a nice sound to it: it goes di-dah di-dah di-dah.
I wanted to have, as well as a rhythmic motive, to have musical motive running throughout the whole piece and so I interpreted the letters again into musical terms. 'I' becomes B, the 'E' remains and 100 I've used in the roman form of C."
Further elements of the piece included many touchstones of the history of telecommunications from, the development of electricity in communication from the earliest telephone to the Americans landing on the moon. She sampled the voice of Mr Gladstone congratulating Mr Edison on inventing the phonograph, used the opening and closing down of Savoy Hill, where the BBC had their initial recording studios with the voice of Lord Reith, the first general manager of the BBC, and Neil Armstrong speaking as he stepped onto the surface of the moon.
“The powerful punch of Delia's rocket take-off threatened the very fabric of the Festival Hall,” Desmond Briscoe wrote.
This was one of the events where Delia’s chronic perfectionism began to show itself, having a deleterious effect on her ability to finish work, despite being a professional who had tackled numerous large projects. She was working on the piece up to the last minute the night before the event, making edits, trying to make it live up to the rigorous standards she set for herself. Brian Hodgson was in charge of directing the program, and he was aware that Delia might have a breakdown and do something to the tape, so he called upon one of the Workshops engineers to secretly make a second copy of the final version of the work and to give it to him.
Hodgson’s intuition and assessment of the matter was quite correct. He said of the incident, “I said to Richard [the engineer] ‘Run another set in Room 12, don't tell Delia you're doing it, and that copy bring to me in the morning, because I have an awful feeling she was going to destroy the tape.’ And he did that. And she came in the next morning in tears, around 11 o'clock. And said, ‘I've destroyed the tape, what are we going to do?’ I don't think she ever forgave me for that.”
Two years later she would leave the BBC, fed up. In an interview on Radio Scotland she said, “Something serious happened around '72, '73, '74: the world went out of tune with itself and the BBC went out of tune with itself... I think, probably, when they had an accountant as director general. I didn't like the music business.”
She spent a brief time working at Brian Hodgson’s Electrophon Studio, before quitting that too. It was hard for her to quit radio though, as it is for many who’ve been hooked and tried to give it up. She got a gig working as a radio operator. She says of the time, “Crazy, crazy, crazy! I was the best radio operator Laing Pipelines ever had! I answered a job in the paper for a French speaking radio operator. I just had to sleep - everything was out of tune, so I went to the north of Cumbria. It was twelve miles south of the border. I had a lovely house built from stones from Hadrian's Wall. I was in charge of three transmitters in a disused quarry. I did not want to get involved in a big organisation again. I'd fled the BBC and I thought - oh, Laing's... a local family firm! Then I found this huge consortium between Laing's and these two French companies.”
By 1975 she’d stopped producing music for public consumption. According to Clive Blackburn, “in private, she never stopped writing music either. She simply refused to compromise her integrity in any way. And ultimately, she couldn't cope. She just burnt herself out. An obsessive need for perfection destroyed her."
Yet in the 1990’s she started seeing the electronic music she had championed starting to come into its own. Pete Kember, a member of the psychedelic noise rock band Spacemen 3 sought Delia out and befriended her. Kember had amassed a collection of synthesizers and electronic music gear as part of his musical research and interest. He was embarking on a new project called Spectrum making the kind of music she had been at the forefront of in previous decades.
Delia’s life had become chaotic though. The ravages of alcohol abuse were catching up with her body. Just as she started to work on public music again with Peter in 2001, she died of renal failure. A short 55-second collaboration they had made, called Synchrodipidity Machine (Taken from an Unfinished Dream) was released after she had departed and was dedicated to her memory. Kember credited her with "liquid paper sounds generated using fourier synthesis of sound based on photo/pixel info (B2wav - bitmap to sound programme)."
After she died 267 reel-to-reel tapes and a box of a thousand papers were found in her attic. These were entrusted to Mark Ayres of the BBC and in 2007 were given on permanent loan to the University of Manchester. Almost all the tapes were digitised in 2007 by Louis Niebur and David Butler, but none of the music has been published due to copyright complications.
Her life was an unfinished dream, and it is a shame she did not stick around long enough to see the credit that was later bestowed on her for her generous contributions to electronic music.
The BBC Radiophonic Workshop: The First 25 Years by Desmond Briscoe, BBC 1983
Special Sound: The Creation and Legacy of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop by Louis Neibur, Oxford, 2010
If you liked this article check out the rest in the Radiophonic Laboratory series.
Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.