Eee 701 Planetoid

2010/03/23

For Ada Lovelace Day: Music of the spheres

Filed under: Blog — Tags: , , , , — Tim @ 20:55

(Note: I wouldn’t normally post this piece here, as it has little if anything to do with this particular blog’s subject matter—my Asus Eee 701 netbook 🙂 —but my main blog is currently experiencing a lot of technical problems due to a disk crash at my Web host, and I may soon have to reinstall WordPress there. Let’s just call this a “guest post” from Sidingsound—normal service will resume here shortly…)

24th March 2010, you may or may not be surprised to learn, is Ada Lovelace Day—a day where bloggers are invited to celebrate the achievements of women in science and technology, by writing about a woman in these fields who has made an impression on them.

If your first reaction to the above paragraph was something like, “who’s Ada Lovelace?“, I’d suggest reading the page at the link above, which summarises the answer to that question quite nicely, as I’d rather devote the space to what I pledged to do. So, without further ado, I would like to nominate my candidate for consideration on Ada Lovelace Day: one of the pioneers of electronic music in the United Kingdom, whose name goes largely unrecognised amongst the British public, who would nonetheless be familiar with her most famous piece of work, even if they don’t realise it.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: Delia Derbyshire (1937-2001).

Delia Derbyshire

Delia Derbyshire in the early 1960s

A Cambridge graduate in mathematics and music, Delia Derbyshire applied for a job at Decca Records in 1959, only to be told that women were not employed in their studio.  Undeterred, she joined the BBC in 1960, soon finding herself part of the fledgling BBC Radiophonic Workshop, where she quickly found kindred spirits in the likes of Brian Hodgson and Maddalena Fagandini. (The latter is one of a number of female electronic musicians to have connections with the Workshop, including Daphne Oram and (later) Elizabeth Parker; others have written more on the sizeable contribution of women to electronic music in the UK, so I will concentrate on Derbyshire’s work here.)

In 1963 Derbyshire was tasked with “realising” electronically, a composition by Ron Grainer which was to become one of the most unique and recognisable signature tunes in British television history. Weeks later, when Grainer heard what Derbyshire had fashioned from his manuscript, he is reported to have asked in astonishment, “Did I create that?” (“Most of it”, was her response.) I can barely imagine how unearthly Derbyshire’s realisation of the theme tune to “Doctor Who” (YouTube—this is the 1973 single mix) must have sounded nearly half a century ago, but it is a tribute to her talents that all these years later, the piece still sounds as if it was telephoned in from the ether.

Despite working on this and many other projects for the Radiophonic Workshop, and coming into contact with (and gaining the respect and admiration of) musicians as diverse as Paul McCartney, Yoko Ono and the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones, Derbyshire struggled to gain wider acceptance. She eventually abandoned music in the 1970s, only to be tempted back in the late 90s by a younger generation of electronic musicians (most notably Sonic Boom (Peter Kember)), inspired by the path she laid many years before, and singing her praises to all who would listen. Welcome as it was, her creative renaissance was all too brief, and she died on 3rd July 2001 of renal failure whilst recovering from breast cancer, at the age of 64—leaving behind an unfinished album, her first in over thirty years.

So, how do I sum up what Delia Derbyshire and her work means to me personally?

It’s a coin (or if you will, a record) of two sides. On one side, as a recording musician, I feel a sense of great injustice on her behalf; that such a prodigiously-gifted musician and composer should have faced so many obstacles and prejudices in her career. I have no doubt that her gender played a part in this (particularly coming from higher management), but—and this may sound a contentious point—I wonder if this factor may have been overstated a little. From my reading, Delia and her work seems to have inspired almost universally positive reactions amongst fellow musicians (male and female alike) who came into contact with her, eliciting responses ranging from the fascinated to the outright awestruck (Exhibit A: colleague Brian Hodgson’s heartfelt obituary for her in the Guardian).

It’s hardly surprising; this is the woman who assembled (literally) the “Doctor Who” theme using junkyard oscillators and spliced and varispeeded tape fragments, two years before Robert Moog built his first custom modular synthesisers. Whilst I could fashion a passable imitation of the “Doctor Who” theme in Logic on our iMac in a couple of hours, I wouldn’t know where to begin to recreate the piece in the way that Derbyshire did (although in fairness, back in London in 1963, she would’ve had little choice). “Genius” is often a glibly-applied term, but every time I hear the “Who” theme and consider how Derbyshire generated it, I feel she deserves it in spades.

Still, it’s hard to learn that by the 1980s, judging by one account, Derbyshire was languishing in a number of unsuitable jobs (including a radio operator for British Gas and working in a bookshop), struggling with drink and understandably bitter about her experiences. Would she have had an “easier ride” if she wasn’t a woman? No-one can know for sure (and I know it could be debated heatedly), but I would proffer just one thought: a musician who pointedly eschewed synthesisers in favour of cutting up tapes and whacking an old metal lampstand to create tones to manipulate, was not one to make an easy career for herself.

The other side of the coin, however—and the one I prefer to dwell on—is the body of work that Delia left behind, and also the fact that she lived long enough to witness the beginning of her recognition as one of the founding mothers of British “electronica”. Beyond the Time Lord’s theme, an excerpt from my personal Derbyshire favourite can be heard at her Web site’s sound samples page: “Dreams”, a 1964 collaboration with Barry Bermange for the BBC Third Programme (later BBC Radio 3). Disturbingly evocative of its subject, the full work is a 45-minute collage of musique concrète and recorded interviews with individuals describing their dreams. The nine-minute slice at the Web site is presented as a lo-fi MP3, which if anything accentuates the woozily hypnotic nature of the piece. I’d love to hear the entire work, preferably alone at midnight, only I shudder to think how my own dreams would turn out afterwards.

So, there you have it: my own somewhat hastily-created tribute to a woman who, in my humble opinion, deserves entry to Ada Lovelace’s metaphorical hall of fame. I hope I have done Delia a measure of the justice she deserves, and that the reader may agree in at least some measure with why I chose to pay tribute, on this of all days.

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