Music for the years of the BBC time lords

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On 26 September 2004, The Sunday Times published an article on the occasion of the opening of the biographical play Standing Wave: Delia Derbyshire in the 1960s.[1]


Music for the years of the BBC time lords


Unlike other long-running theme tunes, the Dr Who music seemed to come from another planet. Ron Grainer was the composer, but the woman made it special was the electronic music pioneer Delia Derbyshire.

Now, three years after her death, Derbyshire’s contribution is being celebrated in Standing Wave, a play by the Glasgow theatre company Reeling & Writhing.

“There are so many things about her that kept drawing us back,” says the director Katherine Morley. “There was her personal life, her work life, her intensity, her love of fun and messing around as well as her protectiveness of her work. And, of course, there's her music. Not just the way she made it, but what she made.”

Derbyshire was working in the early days of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, set up by the corporation’s drama department to develop what was then termed “electrophonic” sounds, when a commission came through for a science-fiction series called Dr Who.

Using Grainer’s score as a starting point, she spent weeks manipulating signals from tone generators, distorting everyday sounds and stretching the possibilities of tape recording to create a piece of music unlike anything heard on television before. Grainer was astonished and it was only because of BBC bureaucracy that Derbyshire was never credited as co-composer.

“Nobody knew what they were making or that it was going to be popular, because nothing had been popular in that way before,” says Morley.

Dr Who was merely the most high-profile moment in the career of an extraordinary woman. A graduate in music and mathematics from Cambridge University, Derbyshire joined the Radiophonic Workshop in 1962 and remained there until 1973.

In an era before synthesisers, she had to generate all the sounds. Using her understanding of mathematics, she would find an object such as a metal lampshade, hit it and feed the sound through oscillators and filters to create a new sound. As well as the 200 programmes she worked on for the BBC, she created music for theatre and collaborated with Paul McCartney, Yoko Ono, Karlheinz Stockhausen, George Martin and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.

She backed out of creative life in the early-1970s and died in 2001, but her influence can still be felt today in bands such as Massive Attack and the Chemical Brothers. Pippa Murphy, the Edinburgh-based composer, jumped at the chance to write the score for Standing Wave. She sees Derbyshire as the missing link between the highbrow world of Stockhausen and the underground pop psychedelia of early Pink Floyd.

“I’ve always known about the Radiophonic Workshop through my compositional studies,” she says. “Delia Derbyshire picked up techniques from other pioneering composers who were working about 10 years before her and she brought them into a popular medium. That’s why she’s special.

“I also think she’s funny. She makes me laugh. You can hear her through her music. She used mad, wacky, way-out sounds in a totally classical structure. It’s great to listen to, but quite bonkers. I’ve come to love her.”

She and the playwright Nicola McCartney worked closely to ensure that music was at the heart of the production, the two of them influencing each other’s approach to musical and dramatic structure as they wrote. As the director, Morley is pleased to find Standing Wave developing in a way that is as unusual and creative as Derbyshire.