Reading Daphne Oram’s An Individual Note: Of Music Sound and Electronics (1971), the 1960s seem strikingly distant. Oram’s singular text is a combination of philosophy, circuit diagrams, proto-neuroscience and biological sound theory, all delivered in a style that is as enthusiastic as it is matter of fact. (At one point, anticipating Deleuze and Guattari, she wonders: ‘It is said that the human ear is a non-linear device […] Could we be altogether non-linear?’) Contrary to nostalgic clichés, the works of Oram, Delia Derbyshire and other BBC Radiophonic Workshop pioneers evoke a mid-century that is both more ordinary and far stranger than popular memory would suggest.
Derbyshire shared the sense that she was out of step with her times. Working at the Radiophonic Workshop – then a BBC backroom filled with discarded machines and makeshift electronics – from 1962 to 1973, she helped produce the astounding sounds that haunted several decades of British television. The Workshop was founded in 1958 to supply custom soundtracks that would match the BBC’s increasingly adventurous radio programming. With extremely limited means, they introduced a range of avant-garde techniques into the popular unconscious, from spliced tapes and modified oscillations to Derbyshire’s ‘crash-syncing’ (beat-matching by ear on multiple tape players, without a mixer). Her reputation grew and, outside of her day job, Derbyshire collaborated on video art, theatre productions, avant-pop records and sound installations. But in 1973 she left the BBC, stopped composing and all but disappeared. As she would later reflect: ‘To me, everything was out of tune with itself.’
‘Delia Derbyshire Day 2013’ – a screening, roundtable, listening session and concert – was a welcome celebration of Derbyshire’s work, and the hundreds of tapes and papers discovered in her attic. Organized by three Manchester-based sound and music artists, Ailís Ní Ríain, Naomi Kashiwagi and Caro C, the event has already toured to Liverpool, Sheffield and Newcastle, with the possibility of more stagings in the future. It began with Kara Blake’s brief but captivating documentary The Delian Mode (2009), which is rich in biographical detail and a testament to Derbyshire’s total dedication to her art. The artist would frequently work into the small hours manipulating tape, and sometimes found herself cycling far from home, such was her absorption in solving these sonic puzzles. Derbyshire’s aural awakening came as a child during the Coventry Blitz, transfixed by the bombs and air-raid sirens, and the violence of sound recurs in much of her subsequent work: from the famously terrifying Dr Who theme (1963) to the unconscious anxieties of The Dreams (1964), a composition which was very likely the British public’s first introduction to sound art.
The Manchester event also provided a rare opportunity to hear some of the treasures from the archive. These ranged from surprising prototype forms of house and synth-pop to versions of some of Derbyshire’s finest recordings – the vocal fragments that would become Blue Veils and Golden Sands (1967) and the revelatory skronk and shimmer of her TV theme to Tutankhamun’s Egypt (built upon a 1939 recording of a silver trumpet found in Tutankhamun’s burial chamber). Even more intriguing were some of the pieces that weren’t played, including a piece prepared for a 1967 festival in Brighton, in collaboration with Hornsey College of Art students, described by archivist David Butler during the panel discussion as extremely aggressive and shockingly ‘un-Delian’.
The day ended with the performance of three new works commissioned in response to the archive. These were suitably imaginative and diverse: Ní Ríain spun the tape fragments of micro-epic Port-au-Feu (c.1965) into a brittle jazz-inflected composition for trumpet and double bass; Kashiwagi interfered with a wind-up gramophone to produce rudimentary loops in real time; and Caro C offered an expansive mix of loose electronic textures and shifting kicks, ending with a nursery rhyme echoing into the beyond: ‘They will hear, in the end, my dear.’
But, in the end, Derbyshire, who died in 2001, still remains something of a mystery. She left an astonishing legacy of sound, but one cut abruptly short. Her lost years have been framed as a reaction to changing working conditions (The Delian Mode explains that synthesizers were seen as labour-saving devices within other BBC departments, which caused demands on work-rate to increase enormously). But this only produces more questions: what of an artist’s frustration at the constraints of TV work, or a ‘working-class girl from Coventry’ on the edge of a stubbornly male-centric European scene? Figures such as Derbyshire and Oram were pioneers in a political sense too – as Derbyshire describes herself down a crackly phone line, ‘post-feminist before feminism was invented’ – and her work endures as a welcome corrective to cosy BBC nostalgia, a radical and pained form of popular Modernism. Or, to quote Oram on the unity of persons and sounds: ‘a vast tangible river of flowing tensions’.