Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry

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Derbyshire, Delia Ann (1937–2001), composer, was born on 5 May 1937 at 124 Cedars Avenue, Coventry, the daughter of Edward Derbyshire, a sheet metal worker in a motor car factory, and his wife, Mary Amelia, née Dawson. She later made the link between her upbringing in blitz-ravaged Coventry, with its wailing air-raid sirens, and her lifelong fascination with sound, but piano lessons provided her with a more traditional musical base. She attended Coventry grammar school, and went on to Girton College, Cambridge, to read mathematics, before switching to music; her fascination with the relationship between these two subjects underpinned her subsequent composing career. For a woman wanting to work in the grey area where music meets acoustics, it was not an easy time: a careers adviser suggested a career working on deaf aids or depth sounding, while at Decca records she was blandly informed that they did not employ women in recording studios.

After spells working for the United Nations in Geneva, and for the music publishers Boosey and Hawkes in London, Derbyshire joined the BBC as a trainee studio manager in 1962, and was soon seconded ‘temporarily’ to work at the corporation's Radiophonic Workshop. The workshop, situated in Maida Vale, London, had been set up a few years earlier to provide sound effects and backing tracks for BBC drama productions: among her predecessors there was a fellow female pioneer of electronic music, Daphne Oram. In the summer of 1963 Derbyshire produced her best-known work, the electronic ‘realization’ of Ron Grainer's theme tune for Doctor Who, the BBC's long-running science fiction serial, which was, for many people, their first exposure to electronic music. Grainer was, she later recalled, ‘tickled pink’ (Cavanagh) with her ground-breaking arrangement, which used twelve oscillators and tape edits to produce a throbbing bass riff and wailing melody line. On first hearing it he asked, ‘Did I really write that?’, to which Derbyshire modestly answered, ‘Most of it’. BBC rules at the time forbade her from accepting his offer of a half-share in the writing credits (The Guardian). This eerie tune captured brilliantly the mystery and menace of the programmes and ranks as one of the most effective themes of the early television era.

Another notable collaboration was with the poet and playwright Barry Bermange, with whom Derbyshire produced ‘The Dreams’, featuring people recounting their dreams over a wash of precise, minimal, yet atmospheric electronic sound. Desmond Briscoe, the senior studio manager at the Radiophonic Workshop, gave Derbyshire credit as the first person there to make electronic sounds into beautiful music. As she perceived it, her sex was crucial to her style: ‘Men are more into violence, action sounds, frightening sounds. I was much more into reflective sounds’ (Hutton). At the time all the workshop's material was created through primitive, labour-intensive techniques using tape machines, tape loops of anything up to 50 feet in length, oscillators, and ‘found’ sounds. One of Derbyshire's favourite sound sources was a tatty BBC lampshade, which was ‘the wrong colour, but had a beautiful ringing sound to it’ (The Guardian). She was never as happy when working with the synthesizers that came later, and particularly deplored their use merely to imitate traditional instrumental sounds.

Outside working hours Derbyshire enjoyed fruitful collaborations with, among others, the composers Peter Zinovieff, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Peter Maxwell Davies, and Roberto Gerhard, working with the latter on his Anger of Achilles, which won the 1965 Prix Italia. As part of the ensemble Unit Delta Plus she worked with Paul McCartney and George Harrison on a show entitled The Carnival of Light at Chalk Farm's Roundhouse in 1966, and provided a film soundtrack for Yoko Ono. With Anthony Newley she recorded an extraordinary piece of prototype electro-pop entitled ‘Moogies Bloogies’, and with David Vorhaus and Brian Hodgson she recorded the more substantial An Electric Storm album under the collective name of White Noise (1968).

Writing music to order at the Radiophonic Workshop could be frustrating, and on occasions Derbyshire had work turned down as unsuitable—in one instance, because the sounds were said to be ‘too lascivious’ for children (D. Derbyshire and Sonic Boom, interview, Dec 1999). She left in 1973 because, as she explained later, the BBC seemed to her to be increasingly being run by committees and accountants, and they seemed to be dead scared of anything that was a bit unusual. And my passion is to make original, abstract electronic sounds and organise them in a very appealing, acceptable way, to any intelligent person. (ibid.)

It was a passion that was in abeyance for some years, as, after a brief period working at the Electrophon studio in Covent Garden, she left London for Northumberland, where she was employed variously as a French-bilingual radio operator on a gas pipeline laying project, in a bookshop, and in an art gallery. On 30 November 1974 she married David William Hunter, labourer, and son of Ernest Hunter, coalminer; from 1980, about which time she went to live in Northampton, her partner was Clive Blackburn.

In the late 1990s Derbyshire was widely cited as an inspiration by a new generation of musicians in electronic dance and ambient music, including Orbital, the Chemical Brothers, the Aphex Twin (Richard D. James), as well as Sonic Boom (Peter Kember), formerly of the band Spacemen 3, who hailed her as ‘one of the great unsung electronic music heroines’ (Sonic Boom, letter to The Wire). A website was set up with her co-operation in response to this wave of interest, and she was encouraged to return to composing and production, collaborating with Sonic Boom on two albums that came out under the name Experimental Audio Research: Vibrations (2000) and Continuum (2001). The methodology of much electronic music had by this time come almost full circle: the digital sampling technology of the 1990s bore a far closer resemblance to Derbyshire's tape manipulation techniques than to the additive synthesis that had dominated the genre in the intervening period.

Pictures of Derbyshire in her Radiophonic Workshop days reveal a striking figure, with her neatly bobbed auburn hair making her a prime candidate for 1960s icon status. She was very tall, and her early attempts to learn the violin had foundered because her arms were, in her own estimation, ‘longer than a guardsman's’ (Cavanagh). She died of renal failure at Northampton General Hospital on 3 July 2001, with a project to investigate the musical possibilities of shapeshifting alloys still in progress. She was survived by her partner, Clive Blackburn. Interest in her life and work continued to grow after her death: two Radiophonic Workshop albums featuring her music were re-released in 2002, and in December of that year she was the subject of a Radio 4 play written by Martin Wade, in collaboration with a later workshop employee Elizabeth Parker, entitled Blue Veils and Golden Sands after one of Derbyshire's compositions. Another play, written by Nicola McCartney with music by Pippa Murphy, entitled Standing Wave: Delia Derbyshire in the 1960s, went on stage at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, in autumn 2004.

H. J. Spencer


D. Derbyshire and Sonic Boom [P. Kember], interview, Dec 1999, Surface (May 2000); repr. at www.delia-derbyshire.org, accessed 7 July 2004 · J. Cavanagh, ‘Delia Derbyshire: on our wavelength’, Boazine 7; repr. at www.delia-derbyshire.org, accessed 7 July 2004 · J. Hutton, ‘Radiophonic ladies’, www.delia-derbyshire.org, accessed on 7 July 2004 · The Guardian (7 July 2001) · The Herald [Glasgow] (9 July 2001) · The Scotsman (12 July 2001) · The Times (23 July 2001) · R. Carmody, ‘Delia Derbyshire RIP’, The Wire, 210 (Aug 2001), 14 · Sonic Boom [P. Kember], letter, The Wire, 211 (Sept 2001), 6 · M. Sweet, ‘Queen of the wired frontier’, The Observer (17 March 2002) · S. Harris, ‘Phonic youth’, Time Out (2 Oct 2002) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert. Archives  


photograph, BBC WAC; repro. in The Guardian · photographs, repro. in www.delia-derbyshire.org · photographs, BBC WAC  Wealth at death: under £210,000: probate, 31 Oct 2001, CGPLA Eng. & Wales 

H. J. Spencer, ‘Derbyshire, Delia Ann (1937–2001)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Jan 2005; online edn, Jan 2015.