The Delian Mode


I managed to miss blogging on Ada Lovelace day for a variety of reasons, however I did have the best intentions and had planned (at least in my head) to write about Delia Derbyshire – a name I hope means something to you, if not it shortly will.

Delia Derbyshire was born in England in the 1930s and after successfully completing a degree in mathematics and music at Cambridge she sought work with Decca records where she was told that that they did not employ women in their recording studios. Undeterred, and after working in Geneva for the UN, she eventually returned to the UK to join the BBC as a trainee studio manager where she became attached to the fledgling Radiophonic Workshop.

Once ensconced at the Workshop she quickly and quietly came into her own developing and researching into the theory and perception of sound whilst using only electronic sources and within a few months had created her interpretation of Ron Grainer’s Doctor Who theme, perhaps the most iconic and recognisable piece of music to come out of the Workshop.

Unfortunately by the middle of the 1970s it seems that Delia became disillusioned with where electronic music was going – unhappy it seems (and this may seem a little perverse) with the lack of craft in it’s creation with the birth of the synthesizer. As a result of this she disappeared off the radar for many years before reappearing shortly before her death in 2001 thanks to a resurgence of interest in her and her work by a number of musicians including (and perhaps most principally) Peter Kember aka Sonic Boom – who she worked with on a couple of albums released under the E.A.R. (Experimental Audio Research) moniker.

As I’ve written about previously one of the most exciting aspects of working with some of Norfolk’s finest “sonic scientists” (namely Magoo – see elsewhere) was the chance to travel along with them to the sessions they recorded for the John Peel show – and in particular the chance to wander around the corridors of the studios at Maida Vale and find the door marked BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Now obviously I’ve no actual idea whether this door led to the room where Delia and her colleagues worked (and if you know it wasn’t please don’t shatter the illusion). Or whether the corridor itself was the same one she used to splice together tape loops of ever increasing length and complexity, that said I suppose it doesn’t really matter because regardless it felt that I was in a place of huge importance.

Thankfully Delia Derbyshire is increasingly being remembered for being the musical pioneer she so self evidently was. A radio play, Blue Veils And Golden Sands, from the BBC possibly began this a few years ago with a biographical look back at her life and just this week a more musical study at what she achieved appeared, Sculptress of Sound : The Lost Works of Delia Derbyshire, again on the BBC – and with further research too I’ve just found out about this new documentary, The Delian Mode, which looks great.

Finally hidden away on YouTube is this great documentary on the Radiophonic Workshop, The Alchemists Of Sounds, which is a good place to start and for me a good place to end.

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