Delia Derbyshire

Recollections of a very special day early in the new millennium when Delia Derbyshire came to tea

A wider view of Room 12, with a jackfield for connecting the tape machines and ‘leader tape’ spools visible to the left. The window to the rear originally allowed Room 11 to be used as a recording area, prior to its use by the Workshop.

Delia arrived at my doorstep at around 3pm on Friday, 24th February 2000.

I was expecting a glamourous, diva-ish sort of person. She was neither,

but she did have an air of the artiste about her. As I fussed around trying to make her comfortable, Delia refused tea or biscuits and instead took out from her rucksack a blue plastic carrier bag, which she put on the floor by her chair, and a snuff box which she placed assertively on the table. She then brought out a stack of papers and photographs of the Radiophonic Workshop.

In those first few minutes of meeting her, the most striking thing for me about Delia was her voice. It cut through with crystal clarity, rising and falling in a way that was absolutely musical. Her laugh, a ripple of high-pitched giggling, interjected almost every other sentence. And the way she said “oh golly”, as a sort of out-breath gasp with a long emphasis on the “go…”, every time a question brought up forgotten memories, followed by a long pause, during which she reflected on some locked-away feeling that my question had evoked. I let these pauses hang there uninterrupted. There was nothing awkward about them, just Delia momentarily disappearing into her past, taking time to gather her mixed thoughts. There was, she said herself, “overwhelming bitterness” towards the music and broadcast industries, but this was overridden by her bubbling passion and articulate knowledge for anything to do with sound, electronic music and radio.

My interest in Delia at the time was sparked by her connection to Daphne Oram, whose then-unknown Oramics machine I was researching. Brian Hodgson, Delia’s friend and colleague from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, had put me in touch with her. She spoke about her life and personal thoughts on electronic music, equipment and sound, with occasional pauses to sniff snuff and sip what she revealed to be red wine, from the plastic Kia-Ora bottle in the blue plastic bag on the floor. I’ve no idea why she disguised it in this way, since she told me what was in it!

As we flicked through her photos and press clips, she tapped her fingers firmly on the table, “Now look, this one is really interesting…”, and she would launch into memories of the anomalies of particular tape machines with either deep frustration or affection. The rulers they used for measuring tape were even more exasperating to her, because each one, wooden or plastic, metric or imperial, was calibrated slightly differently and was impossibly inaccurate. She remarked, “If one was doing intricate work cutting tape together, nothing would sync at all.”

The oscillators were Delia’s best friends, because they were the point at which her maths and music skills came together. Each model had its own characteristics – the Muirhead, which they used for tuning, was the only accurate one, the infamous Wobbulator, and the Jason which she described as, “Just swoopy, you know? ‘Dr Who’ swoopy”. She showed me some of her notes – frenzied mathematical scribbles that used “just intonation”, an ancient Greek method for calculating new tunings for music scales that only Delia could translate onto the Workshop’s oscillators. She illustrated the Workshop as a place full of disjunct items of equipment, each with its own frustrating quirkiness that contributed to the music.

When I asked her what she felt about being the only woman working there, she claimed she had “never even heard of” the word feminism at the time. She said she thought women were good at working with tape because they had the hands for it. I noticed, as we flicked through her papers, that she did indeed have beautiful, pianist’s hands, and I imagined her with those unwieldy rulers, obsessively measuring and cutting tiny pieces of tape and sticking them back together in different ways, to shape new sounds. She suggested that, where the men in the workshop tended to make explosive and scary sounds, her work was more reflective, concerned with “making complex sounds and probabilities and serendipities and synchronicities”, such as ‘The Dreams’ and ‘Amor Dei’, and ‘Blue Veils And Golden Sands’. She called it “music to watch sculpture by”.

What I loved about Delia during the short time we spent together, was this contradictory self-aggrandising/self-deprecating humour that ran throughout the interview. When I recounted some press trivia that suggested her preferred sound was a half-full wine bottle, she laughed and said, “Oh that’s just legend. I’m legendary”. When I asked about her genius for maths,

she dismissed me by saying that she just had an analytical mind, and going back to the ancient Greeks seemed the logical thing to do.

Delia originally studied piano at the University of Cambridge in the 1950s, and I asked her if she still played. She said she’d taken a great dislike to the piano, but instead had bought a spinet. She had lived in a room above a flower shop in Maida Vale, close enough to the Radiophonic Workshop to go home at lunchtime, where she would “play and play and play”. The spinet had a particular sound that absorbed all other noises so that you couldn’t hear the phone ringing at the other side of the room, or the traffic outside. This is perhaps the strongest image of Delia that I was left with. In that one-hour break from the pressures of electronic composition for the BBC, she was just totally absorbed in playing Bach on the spinet.

We stayed in touch after this interview, and her tandem fixation for maths and music is summed up in a letter she sent me a few months before she died: “I’ve also been working on the relationships between the hypotheses of certain internal elevations of Chartres Cathedral and the harmonic series – the organic beauty of whole number ratios is totally lost to most people who are working in decimal numbers.”

She was the go-to person at the Radiophonic Workshop for all the electroacoustically-curious music stars of the time – Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio, Paul McCartney, Pete Townshend, Yoko Ono… I’m still not sure why she felt the extreme hurt she expressed looking back on her past. Perhaps because she sought (and deserved) greater recognition on the world stage as a composer. Instead, she is posthumously emerging as a national treasure. At the end of the interview she said, “I can still hear beautiful things in my mind and I know how I can make more beautiful things. I’m in tune with myself, that’s the important thing.”

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