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.

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