Sunday, January 13, 2013

Delia Derbyshire Day

Yesterday was "Delia Derbyshire Day", a day of screenings, talks and performances at Band on the Wall in Manchester to celebrate the late Delia Derbyshire, who is famed for her work primarily with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Derbyshire is an unusual cult figure in that her work was ubiquitous in homes throughout Britain, albeit virtually anonymously. Most famously, her treatment of Ron Grainger's "Dr. Who Theme", for which she was denied a songwriting credit (Grainger wanted her to have one, but it was against BBC policy.) Her name became better known towards the end of her life (she died in 2001), as cult artists like Sonic Boom, Broadcast and Stereolab, took inspiration from her early sonic experiments; yet even now very little of her music - primarily written for commission - is available; yet in the late 1960s she was already recognised as a pioneer of electronic music and her music appeared at "happenings" and art festivals.

The day started with Canadian film maker Kara Blake's short documentary, "The Delian Mode." A compact 25 minutes, its more like a film essay or visual tone poem than a traditional film; using Delia's music and words throughout to construct a portrait of her creative process. A deserved award-winner, its pulls up some great footage and audio. This was followed by a Q&A particularly focussing on the Delia Derbyshire archive which is now at the University of Manchester. Those in the packed audience hoping for some announcements about new Delia material were to be disappointed, as the archive process is a slow and painstaking one; as the tapes they had been left in Delia's loft for years, and any "context" for them was missing. There is also a BBC Radiophonic Workshop archive, looked after by Mark Ayres - and the story of the workshop, Delia's role in it, and the interest that remains in the both it and her have grown steadily over the years.

It was a shame that Teresa Winter was unable to be on the panel as advertised, as the Q&A did tend to the anecdotal; when, for me at least, it is Derbyshire's role in the musical avant garde of the late 60s that is of interest. Though a woman composer, contemporary music still appears to be far behind visual arts and literature in acknowledging female composition - and even in the Radiophonic workshop, the classically trained Derbyshire was renowned as much for her mathematical background as her musical one. Yet, at the time, through her extra-curricular work in White Noise and Unit Delta Plus, she was part of that late 60s avant garde that could find Yoko One, Paul McCartney, the Pink Floyd, Alan Ginsberg, Soft Machine, Cornelius Cardew and others at the same events, festivals and happenings. There is very little early electronic music available, as the only people who had access to the equipment were institutions, such as conservatoires and the BBC, and rock stars like George Harrison and Pete Townsend who were often "loaned" equipment. What fascinates about Delia's work though is that it pre-dates the synthesizer, and yet the principals that it uses, where the "science of sound" is so critical to the painstakingly constructed sound collages made with magnetic tapes, are what has attracted so much contemporary interest. The history of electronic music has several phases, and each phase has a unique sound and context. Therefore Delia was uninterested in the monolithic synths of the late 60s and early 70s, as falling short of the potential of her own experiments; whilst our contemporary sample-based culture, and cheap phrase-samplers and digital audio workstations approximates her world, but in a virtual space, without something of the serendipity that caused the unique sound of much of her work.

For when the question was asked about "why Delia?" its not just about her being one of the few women making experimental music in that era, or because she was one of a small number of electronic pioneers, but because the work she created had such a range (as one might expect for one working to commission) and yet was so clearly informed by a creativity and emotional sensitivity. In many ways, the things that have always plagued acceptance of electronic music: that its just button-pushing, that its repetitive, that its "cold", are all refuted in her work; and are testament to her genius.

Following the Q&A a "deep listening" session, with tracks both published and unpublished, gave us an opportunity to hear tracks that had inspired the three female artists who would be playing that evening, and who had put together the day. The freshness of the sound, even today, of music mostly recorded around 40 years ago, came crisply through the Band on the Wall's impressive sound system. Yet there's a real mystery to this music - which is ironic really, given it was written for mass public consumption via TV and radio - in that individual pieces from the archive are sometimes uncredited. Working with early synth, the VCS-3, a brilliant electronic pop track from the early 70s, is ten years too early; yet is it Delia? We don't know. To these ears it has some similarity to the experiments of Tonto's Expanding Head Band, but with a rhythmic presence which is something new. For the many tapes in the archive aren't all Delia, and there is a magpie nature to that early Radiophonic workshop work, as a "sound" used on Dr. Who might be re-used elsewhere, both inside and outside the BBC; yet they also add to our understanding of her process, meticulous, perfectionist, time-consuming.

The 2nd half of the day was in its own an equal revelation. Electronic musician Caro C, composer Ailís Ní Ríain and artist Naomi Kashiwagi, along with visuals by Kara Blake, formed the "Delia Darlings" and had used the archive as a jumping off point for three original pieces of work. Ailís Ní Ríain piece for double bass and trumpet took some themes from the remarkable Pot au Feu, and used them as a jumping off point; the sparse but rhythmic arrangements, and the unusual choice of instruments was more of a dialogue between the two women composers, than a conventional "cover". The artist Kashiwagi is renowned for her performances using ancient technology, old wind-up gramophones and 78RPM records. As an artist, rather than composer, her challenge was to create something new - in this case a piece of sound art based on an old jazz standard. Using samplers and software for the first time, although I didn't think the piece quite worked as the finished article, the techniques (with an overhead projection of Kashiwagi's turntablism) were interesting, and of the three peformers, perhaps offered the closest dialogue with Delia's compositional technique. It will be interesting to see how Kashiwagi extends or continues with these experiments. Caro C, finished the evening, with a long multi-modal electronic piece. As the only electronic musician its perhaps not a surprise that her engagement with Derbyshire seemed the deepest, for electronic music remains a genre with its own history, and an approach which is often different than traditional forms. Though her piece was a long, multi-part song-suite, there were clear echoes of Derbyshire's musical achievements, filtered, I think, through that historical view of electronic music of which she is such a part. Echoing Derbyshire's technique, Caro C used different everyday objects to create interesting sounds that were added live to the soundtrack.Finishing off, she thanked the audience, and introduced the DJ, who, fittingly, began with Delia's "Dr. Who Theme."

I very much doubt if anywhere else in the country there was such a rapt audience on Saturday evening for three new, experimental music pieces; which in itself was a tribute, not just to Delia's influence, but to those who had been touched by her work. Audience, film maker, panellists and artists came together in what was a perfectly conceived day, and a tribute which, in an ideal world, Delia Derbyshire would have been alive to witness.  Anyone in Liverpool, Sheffield or Newcastle this week should go along to one of the film/performance events completing the tour.

Post script: just thinking about the day again; and what an interesting audience it was - people I knew from various communities - arts, digital, academic contexts - and how it refutes my post from earlier in the day about our love of "mediocrity" - for here we have the opposite in some ways; a brave, sometimes thankless archeology of a figure that can't realistically be called either "major" or "minor." The audience for her work is always going to be small, so whereas an unreleased Michael Jackson album might sell millions, an unreleased Delia Derbyshire record would be in the 1000s at best. Yet I think its her role in electronic music that is so critical - for electronic music is part of a whole wider dialogue about our information age. There's a point in the film where she talks about being influenced by the sound of the bombs falling in Coventry. Is electronic music the sound of our modernity? It still polarises. There's direct link her to the futurists and surrealists; and personally, what I found interesting was the serendipity in her work - she had to discover new sounds to match the visual briefs she'd been given, and because they weren't there, she invented techniques. That technology has made the job easier doesn't mean that the quest for new sounds has ended. Its certainly been core to my own music over the years, and I think fuelled the artists on the Bedroom Cassette Masters compilation that I was recently asked to contribute to.What's interesting about Delia's work, is that it suggests a different direction for electronic music than the one it eventually took; often emotional, often dark, but always both inventive and empathic.


Unknown said...

You may want to do a quick edit- Ailis' piece is for double bass and trumpet, not trombone. I'm the bass player :) Thanks for the lovely review though.

Adrian Slatcher said...

Whoops, I'm an idiot. I'd got trombone in my head for some reason. I could see it was a trumpet. I could hear it was a trumpet. Thanks! Challenging piece, I imagine, well executired.