Ada Lovelace Day: Delia Derbyshire Sculptress of Sound

Yesterday was Ada Lovelace Day, a day to celebrate – and blog about – women in technology. My belated entry is a testimony to a woman who was pioneer in the field of electronic music who has helped to inspire me on my journey as a woman working in technology and as an electronic musician.

Delia Derbyshire, born in Coventry in 1937, was most widely known as a member of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop during the 1960s, in the legendary era when the team produced futuristic audio soundtracks and sound effects for TV and radio productions that took ‘serious’ electro-acoustic and computer music into people’s living rooms.  The Radiophonic Workshop created an eerie electronic soundtrack that became an important childhood memory for many 40-somethings today.  Delia ‘realised’ Ron Grainger TV theme composition for Dr Who to create the memorable classic theme today – yet she never saw a penny from the hit as BBC employees weren’t entitled to royalties.

Delia’s talents were barely recognised in her lifetime.  She left the BBC in 1973 to work in a bookshop and marry a miner, and spent many years battling with the establishment to accept ‘serious’ electronic music, although she did go on to work with composers Peter Maxwell-Davis and Lucianio Berio.

In the late ’90s interest in retro electronic music boomed, as I charted in a university study I wrote at this time ‘Space Age Music and the Moog‘.  The musician Sonic Boom, someone I’ve also had the priviledge of working with on several musical projects, wanted to help Delia return to music and was working on an album with her when she died aged 64 while recovering from breast cancer.

In the era Delia was producing soundscapes, electronic music was a rare commodity – equipment would be large tape machines and expensive cumbersome equipment and erratic synthersizers.  Studio work was hard labour involving tape splicing, pitch-shifting and laborious hours to convert acoustic sounds into processed, electronic music.  Today, affordable samplers and computers allow people to create music with speed and simplicity, creating almost any sound you can imagine.

I have my own sense of how it would have felt for Delia to compose and work in the BBC studios.  I studied electronic music as part of my degree at the University of Birmingham (1996-9) in the BEAST studios.  In the first year we learnt how to compose using tape loops and tape splicing.  The university soon phased out this ‘archaic’ form of music in favour of computer music – but the powerful feeling of working with giant tape loops (sometimes looping around the whole studio) and real instead of digital tools (including knives, scotch tape and a splicing block) had a powerful resonance with me and fuelled my interest in music technology – perhaps more so than computer music would ever have done.  This increased my interest and enthusiasm for pursuing a career in a technologically focused area.

In June 2008 I went to a symposium at the Southbank Centre on Oramics - about Delia’s Radiophonic Workshop colleague Daphne Oram and her picture-to-sound machines and theories.  I was struck by how hard both Delia and Daphne had to work to try, and ultimately failed, to be accepted as serious contemporary composers – perhaps in large part to do with their gender.

It’s a cruel cliche that Delia was only famous when dead.  Now, a new found respect for Delia and her work has come to light and its importance, triggered by her death when her private collection of material she recorded was bequeathed to Mark Ayres. He has worked with Manchester University to create a fully digitised archive of her work from 267 tape reels.

Several new commerical records of her work have been released in recent years. In 2002, a play about her work at the Radiophonic Workshop, ‘Blue Veils and Golden Sands’, was aired on Radio 4 (featuring Sonic Boom as himself!).

In 2008 I went to a festival in Coventry called A Thing About Machines which played tribute to Coventry’s first lady of electronic music.  There were talks, musical tributes and screenings of Delia’s best work on screen.  The strangest moment had to be a presentation by a guy who had moved into Delia’s old childhood home and discovered a box of her stuff in the attic, which included her ration card and gas mask from the war.  He passed round the objects – some scans to safeguard the original – and we looked on in strange fascination.  It was most surreal that were were ‘fetishising’ and creating a legend around a  woman who probably in her own lifetime was given very little credit for her own talents.

Today we now recognise Delia as a pioneer.  This week the celebrations of her work continue:

Delia is a source of inspiration for my own creativity.  But ultimately her life story is a sad one and it is important that women in technology feel they can be supported in their career journey in what is, sadly, still a male-led profession.  I’ve read some damning comments online recently about why women aren’t as successful as they could be – often through a failure to develop a custom inflatable sized ego – and lack of role models plays a part in this.

Here in Nottingham, through events I’ve participated in like Nottingham Girl Geek Dinners (organised by usability designer Elsa Bartley) and this week’s Mediacamp Nottingham (set up by Caron Jane-Lyon) we are providing platforms to discuss ideas in ways that are appealing to women – more conversational, discussions and social which helps us to develop new ways to do business which can encourage more women to get involved and have a voice in the technology community.

Importantly, we’re getting on and doing it for ourselves.  Ada Lovelace, Delia Derbyshire and all the heroines of yesterday, today and tomorrow are inspiring us on our journey.

RainyKatz has also blogged about Delia for Ada Lovelace Day.


Digital Consultant links for March 20th through March 22nd

These are my links for March 20th through March 22nd:

  • Best Practices for Using Video to Convert Visitors to Leads – Good ebook on using video for conversion.Optimum length is apparently 90 secs before a massive attention drop off and authentic,conversational non professional production works better at conversion than a typical corporate promo. great news for us citizen journalists, handy with a Flip, Kodak zi6 and inspired by the passion we have for our subject.
  • South Africa Set For Digital Music Expansion – Emerging markets for digital music may make up the gap in Western sales: South African could see a commercial music service this year.
  • Strategic Skills Assessment for the Creative Media Industries 2010 – Skillset, the sector skills council for media (aka a skills funding quango) have conducted an analysis of future skills needs, concluding creative media jobs set to rapidly grow, with multiplatform skills a major shortage and developing new business models to monetise content. Nothing you haven't heard before, but always worth hearing again – particularly in such a deep and difficult recession when so many creatives are losing their jobs and considering getting out of the sector.

Today’s Digital Consultant Links for March 14th

These are my links for March 14th from 12:13 to 17:21:

  • Fans, Friends & Followers: Building an Audience and a Creative Career in the Digital Age – Here's a great time-limited gift: download Scott Kirsner's free e-book 'Fans, Friends and Followers' (132 pages) but ONLY for the duration of the SXSW festival. It's a great idea for how independent creatives can begin to forge careers using online and social marketing tools. And a great example of creating scarcity in the (abundant) digital age – grab it while you can!
  • Strategy Basics: It’s Really all about having a Plan – The smart thinking people at Carsonified, the web design specialists, have a smart view about developing a strategy: "At the heart of it all “strategy” is just about having a plan for the thing you are working on."<br />
    They use the example of creating a useful iPhone content app to meet a client's sales goals.
  • Tories promise fast broadband – The election fight is heating up, and broadband is becoming another leverage of differentiation: Tories say the majority will have 100Mbs fast broadband by next parliament, Labour want universal access at lower levels (2Mb) by 2012 and superfast by 2017. Interesting split and not an unexpected divide: Labour want access for all quickly, Tories want quicker access for some giving industry in cities a competitive advantage globally. Whoever wins the election, we should see the speeding up of networks as a priority.

Digital Consultant links for February 24th through February 27th

These are my links for February 24th through February 27th:

  • Low-Hanging UX Fruit, How a Well-Designed “Thank You” Inspires Community Uptake – The Carsonified blog Think Vitamin is a fantastic read, it's all about web design and usability, which to a non-techy like me is hugely understandable and engaging. Their case studies are well worth studying: this one on improving a conversion goal (increasing prospective students to join a Facebook page) showed a massive 1000% uptake. I've always been sceptical about usability claims for conversion (surely if the content and message is the same the effect is more-or-less the same?), from this evidence I'm prepared to seriously rethink my point of view.
  • Italian privacy: Google officials convicted in video bullying case – For once, I actually feel sorry for Google. This case, where Google employees have been convicted for hosting a video depicting a crime on Google Video, is 'PC gone mad' and could have serious implications for those of us working in creating spaces to allow user generated content.
  • Sellaband Not Quite Dead Yet, Waiting For White Knight’s Signature – The great dream of online music services replacing traditional labels directly with audiences…seems to have bitten the proverbial. Sellaband, one of the VC-funded leaders in this space are borderline bankrupt, and this artists critique of her treatment: seems to suggest all the same problems of days of old: focused too much on profit, not enough on A&R (probably less so than most indie labels), and limited support for marketing and promotion.

Today’s Digital Consultant Links for February 13th

These are my links for February 13th from 10:29 to 11:44:

  • Warner Music to quit streaming online? – I'm not sure if this story just relates to New Zealand, but it's intriguing to see that Warners, the smallest of the 'big 4' record labels, is considering withdrawing from the popular yet profitless streaming space and setting up rival premium subscription services. This to me is a return to the segregated bad old days of 2002 when different labels got together to establish seperate e-tail services – all of which failed miserably. Punters don't care WHICH label a band is on (unless it's a specialist indie), just that the service is good, affordable and has lots of what they like. So unless Warners (a massively loss making company who may struggle to see it through this decade) can get other majors on board, this idea is dead in the water. We're building too many boats here with not enough passengers.
  • Dotty Mummy :A wry and humorous look at one Mummy’s struggle through life – Sometimes the internet can be a dark as well as uplifting place. I came across this lady's Twitter feed as people were asking about her on Twitter due to a suicidal blog and Twitter post. Thanks to a quick Twitter led rescue mission by one of her online friends, Dotty was rescued and taken to hospital after taking a lethal overdose. Her blog is heartfelt reading too: with little written to disguise her identity (which has led to her survival) she writes emotively about her life as a mother, battling depression and a marriage break down. Yet there's a downside: Dotty's disclosure of her difficult choices, and the comments made by readers criticising her, accelerated her path towards suicide. To me, Dotty's struggle symbolises the light and dark of social media: it acts as a life line for those without a voice, but can be a damning void of faceless hatred in the same admission.
  • Google Buzz Makes Gmail Social – If you haven't got it already, internet mega lords Google are trying to get a steal in the social networking space and microblogging status updates. Google Buzz is not disimilar to Twitter but sits within users existing Gmail system, and favours a 'closed' network of people you already email, thus being more like Facebook. I can't see this being the big killer app of 2010, however, there are probably uses for business-to-business communications from those who aren't as public or prolific as Twitter users. The big win: It sits where you already are (your email), no need to visit third party sites/services. The big lose: if you aren't using Gmail day to day, it's unlikely to take off, thus limiting its potential to grow.
  • Measuring Engagement is just another term for Measuring Relationships – Good article from a PR's perspective applying relationship engagement particularly within a social media context by applying Grunig's relationship theory. The advice is to measure not just the metrics but the move from 'lurker' to active participant and advocate in your different channels (this can be done quantatively, but I would think impossible to track individual's usage on multiple channels (and potentially unethical) but certainly aggregating changes in user behaviour i.e. new 'retweeters' each month or those entering more engaged programmes is positive for organisations or brands who wish to build long-term communities of interest.
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