Canadian director Kara Blake‘s award-winning short documentary The Delian Mode is an audio-visual love letter to pioneering electronic composer Delia Derbyshire, best known for her spooky rendering of Ron Grainer’s Doctor Who theme music for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1963. (Legend has it that when Grainer heard what she’d done—creating each quavering, alien-sounding note by speeding up or slowing down analog tape recordings of a single plucked string, then cutting and splicing it—with rulers, razor and cellophane tape—before embellishing the results with the sound of waveform oscillators and white noise, he asked “Did I write that?” She answered “Most of it.”). It’s an impressive piece of filmmaking, dreamlike, lyrical and especially pleasing to the eye—and ear—for a documentary. Blake wouldn’t have had a lot to work with (I’ve only ever seen one short film clip of Derbyshire) but does a wonderful job of presenting a well-rounded account of Delia Derbyshire’s work and of her influence on electronic dance music.
You simply cannot watch this marvelous film without concluding that Delia Derbyshire was a creative and technical genius, producing complex music that seemed to come directly from another dimension, yet was wholly constructed via analog means (such as a tape loop that ran all the way down a hallway or slowing down the sound of banging on a metal lampshade.)
The Delian Mode is inspiring, it’s a bit sad (depression and alcoholism plagued Derbyshire’s life) but it’s a story that needed to be told and told with respect. That she was a self-created woman working in what was then largely a man’s space makes her achievements seem all the more remarkable and and especially cool. (At one point we hear audio of Derbyshire describing herself as being a “post-feminist” before the concept of feminism even existed, although there were other women veterans of the BBC Radiophonic Laboratory, notably Daphne Oram, creator of “Oramics,” which controlled sound with celluloid plates, and Maddalena Fagandini.)
Blake interviews Derbyshire’s colleagues at the BBC Radio Workshop, Adrian Utley of Portishead, Ann Shenton of Add N to (X) and Sonic Boom aka Peter Kember of Spacemen 3, Spectrum and E.A.R., who brought Derbyshire into his own work towards the end of her life on the E.A.R. albums Vibrations (2000) and Continuum (2001).
After Derbyshire’s death, 267 reel-to-reel tapes and a box of a thousand pages of music and notes were found in her attic. Her life and work will be celebrated this Saturday April 12th on Delia Derbyshire Day at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester.
“I’d like to believe in God, but…” An excerpt from Delia Derbyshire / Barry Bermange’s “Amor Dei: A Vision of God.”
Delia Derbyshire and Anthony Newley “Moogies Bloogies”
Delia Derbyshire / Barry Bermange - “Inventions For Radio No 1: The Dreams.” Originally broadcast on the BBC Third Programme, June 1, 1964.
Above, the trailer for the horror film The Legend of Hell House with music and eerie atmospheric sounds created by Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson. Another BBC Radiophonic Workshop vet, Hodgson created the sound of the TARDIS and the voices of the Daleks. Hodgson and Derbyshire were both also members of the avant garde electronic music groups Unit Delta Plus and later (with American musician David Vorhaus) White Noise.