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Electronic Pioneer Delia Derbyshire


June 23, 2013

Posted by: Lauralie Ezra

Technically we can say that the history of electronic music – or at least the use of electronics to make music – goes back more than 100 years. Almost as soon as electricity became part of daily life composers were finding ways of experimenting with it by way of instruments like the Theremin. However, when did we start seeing beat-driven electronic music that is obviously a missing link to the dance-oriented music that we see today? That claim is contentious as it starts with a variety of musicians taking advantages of the new recording technologies of the 50s and 60s, but one of the most futuristic and influential among them was someone who’s work you have probably heard if you’ve watched enough public television – Delia Derbyshire.

Born in England in 1937, Delia Derbyshire received degrees in both mathematics and music in 1959 from Cambridge. Unfortunately, despite her high qualifications it was not easy for a woman at that time to gain acceptance in the heavily technical world of audio. However, after becoming an assistant studio manager with the BBC, she eventually became part of its Radiophonic Workshop – a studio that had been created in 1958 to develop the music and sound effects for radio and television. This ended up being Derbyshire’s calling – she spent the next 11 years with the workshop creating sound for nearly 200 programs.

Her most famous arrangement? The 1963 theme for Dr. Who, which has been re-imagined as many times as the beloved series itself. It was one of the first television themes to be recorded entirely through electronics. Derbyshire realized a score written by composer and collaborator Ron Grainer and built it out of white noise, oscillators, and other audio tools that were usually intended for testing audio rather than creating music.

In this clip you can see Derbyshire at work with sample recordings and reel-to-reel beat matching. Notice the buildup of beats over a base rhythm and experimentation with different accents using different tracks. It is not a surprise that in the years after her stay with the BBC workshop she was active in expanding electronic music as a genre and is regarded as a true pioneer in the field.