I am delighted to be able to present the fourth in what I hope will be an unending series of ‘Guest Postings’ by friends, acquaintances and strangers who are active in or around the musical world and have interesting things to say.
This present Guest Posting comes to us from David Traynier — who is one of the million or so people I know purely through interactions on the internet.
Over on so-called ‘social media’, David is a doughty fighter for fine ideas and good causes — and it was while following his Twitter timeline the other day that I saw he had posted a message celebrating the electronic music pioneer Delia Derbyshire (1937-2001). I was presumptuous enough to ask him if he would gather together his thoughts for the benefit of this blog’s readers — and here is the result.
David Traynier is based in Colchester and works for a charity that cares for people with terminal and life-limiting conditions. He describes himself as ‘a life-long Whovian’ (I had to look that up) who has a burgeoning interest in electronic music and ‘progressive rock’ (I had to look that up, too).
Over to Mr Traynier…
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Delia, the Doctor, and the Mathematics of Sound
18th of June, 2017
After 54 years with a lead character who routinely breaks-in a new body, Doctor Who mastered regeneration long before the competition had laced up their (re)boots. Yet two of its icons have largely withstood fashion and fad: the blue police box and the theme music. The woman who gifted us the latter, Delia Derbyshire, has just been commemorated with a blue plaque on her childhood home.
Derbyshire was a working class Coventry girl, born in 1937, who went on to read mathematics and music at Cambridge. In 1960, after being turned down for a job at Decca Records (who ‘didn’t employ women in the studio’), she became a trainee BBC studio manager. Here she impressed, not least with what some thought a ‘kind of second sight’ that allowed her to find the precise passage on a vinyl LP by holding it to the light and scrutinising the grooves.
In 1962, Derbyshire began a ‘temporary’ attachment to the BBC’s legendary Radiophonic Workshop which was to last a decade. Here she found the perfect cradle for blending her love of mathematics and music, using numbers in nature, like the Fibonacci sequence, to discipline her art. Derbyshire also credited events within her childhood for her ‘deep-rooted physical passion’ for abstract sounds and electronic music, which she later likened to ‘smelling the fibre-optic flowers.’ The air-raid sirens sounding the ‘all clear’ over blitzed Coventry resonated in her melodies, the sounds of mill workers’ clogs on Preston’s cobbles echoed decades later in her percussion.
It was in June 1963 that Derbyshire was tasked with realising a piece by Ron Grainer, the Australian-born master of the TV theme whose inspirations helped to define The Prisoner, Maigret, and Steptoe and Son. Aware that the realisation would be almost entirely electronic, Grainer provided a simple composition: a single sheet of music paper with little more than a bass line and melody. Orchestration was evoked with unusual terms such as ‘wind bubble’ and ‘cloud.’
What might be achieved in hours with modern synthesisers and samplers took weeks of scrupulous toil. Derbyshire crafted every sound, every individual note, with test tone generators — diagnostic devices never intended for music. A couple of rudimentary equalisers, a ‘wobbulator,’ and a white noise generator completed her orchestra. Derbyshire recorded each note on magnetic tape, which she trimmed to length and then glued into sequences to create each line of the composition. She then mixed these lines, years before multitrack mixers, using a battery of synchronised tape players.
The result was an astonishing piece of pure electronica that, six decades later, remains rich, timeless, and unfathomably organic. A delighted Grainer asked, ‘Did I write that?’
After Doctor Who, Derbyshire gained standing within the Workshop, producing an abundance of outstanding creations. But she became frustrated, too. After being told on one occasion that her music was ‘too lascivious for 11-year-olds’ and ‘too sophisticated for the BBC2 audience’, she quit. Beyond the BBC, she created a film soundtrack for Yoko Ono, hallucinogenic soundscapes for Peter Hall, music for festivals, and co-created the unforgettable album, An Electric Storm.
In the 70s, Derbyshire fell out of love with a scene now infatuated with synthesizers. She worked in a bookshop, an art gallery, and, in Cumbria, for years as the ‘the best pipeline radio operator ever.’ In the 90s, she re-embraced the scene and found, in turn, that it venerated her, with credits and covers by groups including Add n to (x), Sonic Boom, Aphex Twin, and The Chemical Brothers. In 2010, almost a decade after Derbyshire left us, Orbital played Doctor Who at Glastonbury, joined by Doctor no. 11, Matt Smith. Perhaps Delia was with the crowd, her hair braided with fibre-optic flowers…
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A website dedicated to Derbyshire’s legacy: http://www.delia-derbyshire.org/
Derbyshire’s obituary: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2001/jul/07/guardianobituaries1
Mark Ayres’s history of the Doctor Who theme: https://web.archive.org/web/20160109002138/http://www.markayres.co.uk/