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March 20, 2010

In the 1960’s, before GarageBand and Justice, before ravers and house music, and even before Kraftwerk and italo disco, electronic music began its slow climb out of academia and the avant-garde and into mainstream culture. While electronic music of some form predates recorded music, it wasn’t until the 1960’s that electronic music recordings became known to a wider audience, and electronic instruments became accessible to a wider array of musicians. At the forefront of this musical innovation was the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, a studio that created sound effects and jingles for radio and television. The studio’s best known work, the original recording of the Dr. Who theme song, was painstakingly compiled by a young musician and composer named Delia Derbyshire.

Delia Derbyshire was born in Coventry, England in 1937 and received a degree in mathematics and music from Cambridge. After being rejected by Decca Records because they didn’t hire women,  Derbyshire worked for the UN in Geneva and a music publisher in London before being hired by the BBC in 1960.  While she was a promising musician and studio manager, she fought hard to maintain her work against the pressures of sexist attitude towards her.

As she was struggling to make a name for herself in the studio, her work exploring and recording sound through solely electronic channels flourished, culminating, perhaps, in her recording of the Dr. Who theme song. At the time, Derbyshire’s arrangement and mixing of Ron Granger’s composition was nothing short of groundbreaking; outside of a few elite circles, music recorded without traditional instruments was virtually unknown.

What set Derbyshire apart from her colleagues at the workshop was her background in music composition, and she soon garnered a reputation as an innovative composer for low-budget BBC productions. Her groundbreaking work with the workshop, however, was considered to avant-garde for BBC audiences, and she struck out on her own in a private studio,  finding work in film, theater, television, and in some of the earliest electronic music festivals in the world . One of her most accessible and well-known projects was a collaboration with David Vorhaus and Brian Hodgson on an experimental electronic pop group entitled white noise. Their album, An Electric Storm, is totally mind-blowing and available to download here.

Derbyshire quit electronic music for 30 years after becoming disillusioned with where the state of the genre was going, and found work in other fields. She returned to electronic music in the late nineties, and began work on an album with Spacemen 3-founder Sonic Boom in 2001. The album was cut short, however, when Derbyshire died at the age of 64.

Derbyshire’s contribution to and influence on electronic music in particular and popular music in general is monumental. Less than 50 years after her recording of the Dr. Who theme song introduced electronic music to the general public, you’d be hard-pressed to find a hit recording that didn’t incorporate at least some elements of electronic music. And for that, Delia Derbyshire is my inspiration. Watch the lady at work:

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