For the 2021 Delia Derbyshire Day, the charity responsible for the annual event commissioned two fascinating new pieces that evoke the spirit of the electronic music legend

Delia Derbyshire didn’t simply disappear when she quit the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in the mid-1970s. While it’s true that she spent much of the next 25 years or so carving out a quite different life – working in a bookshop, in an art gallery and, rather more randomly, as a radio operator for Laing Pipelines on the national gas network installation – she still took on the occasional creative project. By the time she died from renal failure in 2001, aged just 64, she had started to rediscover her love of electronica, not least due to the growing appreciation of a new generation of musicians. 

The decade that followed Derbyshire’s untimely death continued to see an incremental rise in interest in her, with radio, stage and documentary explorations of her life and work. There were CD reissues of Radiophonic Workshop compilations too, as well as White Noise’s ‘An Electric Storm’, the first album from the band she had formed in 1969 with her BBC colleague and close friend Brian Hodgson and classical musician David Vorhaus. And alongside this slow fade-up of scrutiny, tantalising fragments of information about the existence of an extensive Delia Derbyshire tape archive began to filter through. 

Radiophonic Workshop archivist Mark Ayres told me about a cache of hundreds of Derbyshire tape reels when I interviewed him for a book in 2003. These included compositions she had produced for the BBC and lesser-known freelance commissions, made both while she was still at the Workshop and after she had left. Most hadn’t been heard for decades. Some had never been heard at all. 

The tapes had been discovered by Derbyshire’s long-term partner Clive Blackburn and were passed first to Brian Hodgson and then to Mark Ayres, who lodged them with Manchester University in 2007. The material, which has since been digitised, now resides at the John Rylands Library as part of a wider Delia Derbyshire collection that also includes her notes, graphic scores and juvenilia such as scrapbooks and diaries. 

Caro C Photo: Shirlaine Forrest

Around about the same time that Ayres donated Derbyshire’s tapes to Manchester University, electronic musician Caro C moved to the city from Berlin. Caro says she was “instantly intrigued” when she heard about the archive and felt “we needed to make a fuss of this gem of electronic music heritage”. Five years on, she founded Delia Derbyshire Day with composers Ailís Ní Ríain and Naomi Kashiwagi, initially as a sequence of one-off events. When these proved to be more popular than even the organisers expected, Delia Derbyshire Day formed as a charity with the aim of using the archive to educate the public and advance the art of British electronica. The charity has doggedly pursued its unique mission since 2015, with Caro C as project manager, David Butler, Jenna Ashton and Mark Ayres as trustees, and Brian Hodgson as an adviser. 

“We’re busy throughout the year,” explains Caro. “We act as experts for Delia and the history of early electronic music. We’ve spoken at SynthFest UK about Delia’s controversial relationship with synthesisers and how they made the famous ‘Doctor Who’ theme tune. We helped Dick and Dom recreate the tune on CBBC using pig noises and metal dog bowls. We’ve appeared in a ‘Doctor Who’ documentary on BBC America online. Our aim is to empower and nurture the next generation of daring musicians and sound engineers.”

The charity uses Delia Derbyshire’s story and methodology to inform its educational work in schools and its partnerships with other organisations. It often hosts panel discussions at festivals such as Blue Dot (Jodrell Bank in Cheshire) and Inner City Electronic (Leeds). There is still an actual Delia Derbyshire Day too, which is held every year on 23 November, the anniversary of the first broadcast of ‘Doctor Who’ on the BBC in 1963 and the first time the world heard Derbyshire’s realisation of Ron Grainer’s theme, the piece with which she will be forever identified. 

Lacey Liang

It’s an annual tradition for the charity to commission new pieces that draw on Derbyshire’s unique archive and are then premiered on Delia Derbyshire Day. This year was no different. Four creators working in two pairs crafted audiovisual projects on the theme of imagination – DJ and producer MT Hall teaming up with 3D artist Lacey Liang, while singer and sound maker Suzy Mangion partnered with visual artist Katie Mason. Both pieces are now available on the charity’s website. 

Derbyshire herself often worked in isolation from whoever was producing the visual media she was soundtracking. This was particularly the case at the BBC, where she and her Radiophonic Workshop colleagues would usually be asked for sound material for programmes that had already been made or were almost finished. By contrast, the artists that were commissioned for Delia Derbyshire Day 2021 collaborated on their respective projects from the very start. 

Liang and Hall’s piece, ‘Hybrid Ecologies: Between Sky And Soil’, comes in two parts. It was created using what MT Hall describes as a “call and response” methodology.

“Firstly, I’d produce a sound piece and hand it over to Lacey to respond to visually,” she explains. “Lacey would then give me her visual work for me to answer sonically. We maintained this collaborative relationship throughout the creative process. Lacey had some footage she had filmed by the sea, for example, so I responded by making field recordings at New Brighton Beach.”

This material surfaces in the shorter first part of Hall and Liang’s piece. An expansive beach vista with a cruise ship moored offshore becomes the backdrop for protean, oily shapes, extending like tendrils or gathering up into a ball. Much of the longer second section meanwhile takes place in a woodland setting, the abstract mutable shapes weaving around trees as rocks and tree trunks metamorphose.

MT Hall

Hall’s music combines field recordings, analogue synthesis and digital production techniques, with the raw material spliced, treated and processed in Ableton. In the second part of ‘Hybrid Ecologies’, delayed field recordings of female tawny owl calls interact with percussive patterns built up from samples of falling rocks, with a Korg Minilogue deployed for drones and drawn-out melodic lines. Together, the two segments create an ambiguous impression of forces at work in the natural world, as the abstractions morph and combine with beach, sea, sky, trees and rocks. These ever-changing shapes become a visual metaphor for the mutability of sound – a recurring theme in Derbyshire’s oeuvre.

Suzy Mangion

Suzy Mangion and Katie Mason’s commission, ‘Location: Gilsland’, takes its inspiration from the Northumberland-Cumbria border village where Derbyshire lived for a few years after leaving the BBC. The title graphics nod to a 1970s public information film and introduce a sequence of still images – maps, aerial photographs and period photos – that locate the work in time and place. Yet you immediately feel this is not the Gilsland that Derbyshire knew, but somewhere in a quite different world. Mangion’s title theme sets a mildly ominous tone, a doomy synth melody playing over a rhythmic sample of a piledriver. The film then winds its way through 12 minutes of what might be a compressed dream of the time when you were off sick from school and spent the day watching TV, circa 1975.

“It’s a kind of mash-up of influences,” explains Mangion. “It’s taken from programmes for schools and colleges, the Open University, library music, continuity cards, pages from Ceefax, and especially the BBC Radiophonic Workshop short pieces that accompanied segments of TV.” 

Mangion is a singer and a songwriter – and it shows. In contrast to MT Hall’s expansive, evocative soundscapes, her music is more like a collection of interlocking theme tunes. In that sense, it conjures up the sort of work that Derbyshire was leaving behind as she arrived in Gilsland. 

Take ‘Chosen Companions’, where Mason’s riverside pastoral scenes and watery bubbles are overlaid with vintage postcards showing courting couples in what seems to be the same location but many decades earlier. Mangion’s church organ, bass pulse and poignant synth tune accompany a collage of speech fragments, with women discussing their experiences of marriage. It’s both odd and touching. ‘I Measured The Skies’, on the other hand, has the more obviously Radiophonic sound of the two commissions, a spongy loop and feathery oscillator-like tones escorting Mason’s camera as it wanders over the wreckage of an abandoned Cold War-era jet. The Brigadier, you sense, might be nearby. 

“Piano and keyboards are my main instruments,” she says. “But I ended up using bits of piano recorded on my phone, which I then transferred to Logic, rather than doing them properly. I always meant to re-record it, but I ended up liking the sound-drifting-from-another-room quality of it and the unpolished feel it gave the track. The other main instrument I used was a Roland MC-09 PhraseLab, a piece of kit I’ve had for a long time but not played for a while.”

Both commissions succeed as stand-alone projects on their own terms while also connecting back to the source – Derbyshire’s life and work as it survives in the archive. Hall and Liang’s piece is cerebral, intense and brooding, summoning up Derbyshire the mathematician, the theorist, toiling intensely through the night, with Hall “particularly compelled” by the dark ambient soundscapes Derbyshire created for ‘The Dreams’. Something of this atmosphere comes through in Hall’s immersive music, which has a deep tidal pull, while Liang’s visuals are unsettling. There is a sense that you don’t quite know what is happening, that all might not be as it first appears. Mangion and Mason’s piece shares that quality of things not being entirely what they seem, but it’s a more eccentric vision.

“Delia was methodical and disciplined in her practice,” concedes Mason. “But she also had a playful and experimental way of working.”

It doesn’t go unnoticed that, halfway through, Mason’s graphics are not Ceefax but “Deefax: The Other World At Your Fingertips”. A world which turns out to be, in Mangion and Mason’s hands, skittish, odd, funny, and just a little bit spooky.

The mere existence of both Delia Derbyshire Day and the Daphne Oram Trust endorses the significance of early electronica in the UK’s cultural heritage. It also poses challenges about how archive music survives and, as a consequence, how history is written. Even now, in the age of omni-availability, the music that is preserved for posterity is likely to have been originally issued on vinyl.

Derbyshire was not a recording artist in the music business vernacular sense, though. A simple reissue programme throws up a fascinating but skewed CV consisting of a White Noise album and some library music. To fully appreciate the scale of her work, its methods and the reach of its influence, you have to unlock the archive, which contains material widely heard in the 1960s and 1970s alongside obscure and radical avant-garde experiments.

Delia Derbyshire Day has opened up a treasure chest – and it continues to do so. It has taken the enthusiasm of committed individuals like Caro C and Mark Ayres, along with academic support and resourcing from funding bodies including Arts Council England and the PRS Foundation, to raise a hugely important figure to something like her rightful place. But it goes further. It takes Derbyshire’s story and her output – in all its originality, peculiarity, playfulness and emotional power – and uses it as a stimulus for education and new music.

“One of the many inspirational qualities of Delia’s creativity was its gift to the imagination,” offers David Butler, the chair of the charity’s trustees. “It encourages us to think about the possibilities of everyday sounds being transformed into music and to listen with wonder to the world around us.”

This year’s commissions continue in that “liquid energy” of imagination, as Derbyshire herself might have put it. Among her many ingenious pieces for the BBC was the ‘Invention For Radio’ series, the third part of which was called ‘The Afterlife’. Delia Derbyshire Day, with its archive and events and commissions, is a sort of afterlife. And so, in a sense, one of electronic music’s most exceptional pioneers lives on.

For more, see

You May Also Like
Read More

Alison Cotton: A Northern Soul

She has played synthpop with Saloon and folk rock with The Left Outsides, but Alison Cotton‘s new solo album enters more experimental territory, evoking the beautifully bleak heritage of her native North East
Read More

A Certain Ratio: ACR CAR MCR

With their back catalogue being lovingly reissued via Mute, we pile into a car for a guided tour of the Manchester hotspots that shaped the influential sound of A Certain Ratio… fasten your seatbelts