Delia Derbyshire’s Dr Who: Feminism in Electronic Music?

41BHDJnSYRLOn the 3rd of July 2001, British composer of electronic music and musique concrète (a form of electroacustic music) Delia Derbyshire died in Northampton, England. Alongside Daphne Oram and Maddalena Fagandini, she was one of the key female figures in the development of electronic music in the twentieth century. In 1962, she joined the BBC Radiophonic Workshop established for the production of sound effects and electronic music for radio and television programs. The Workshop was responsible for creating everything from atmospheric background music to special effects, advertising jingles, and catchy program themes. Derbyshire was the most prominent of several women composers employed by the Workshop over the years. Her numerous works were inventive, and far ahead of their time stylistically.

Derbyshire is perhaps best known for her electronic realization of Ron Grainer’s theme music to the British science fiction television series Doctor Who. She “…was still fairly new to the Workshop when she was assigned Doctor Who, having only composed three pieces prior to the commission. She studied math and music at Cambridge and, after applying to Decca Records and being told that “they didn’t employ women in the recording studio,” toured for a time with a stage production of Julius Caesar, providing offstage electronic sound effects. After joining the BBC, she spent much of her time as an SM visiting the Workshop, and often asked Briscoe if she could “just sit in the back and watch.” Once employed there, she quickly learned to combine her love of music and mathematics to create new sounds. One of her standard methods involved analyzing complex concrete sounds using an oscilloscope, then reconstructing the sounds using banks of Jason valve oscillators.” (Louis Niebur, Special Sound: The Creation and Legacy of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop)

41VNBocpbnLThe specifications for the Doctor Who theme, given by Verity Lambert – the series producer, were that it should stylistically resemble the sound of the French group Le Structure Sonore who played music on resonating glass rods. In Grainer’s words, it was supposed to sound like “wind bubbles and clouds” in an alien sort of way, yet, with a detectable human element in it. Dick Mills, the sound engineer at the Workshop, described the theme as follows: “There was a certain robotic quality, a sterile quality, which, if you like, could only be found in outer space where there’s no atmosphere, and no coloration. …It’s very easy to listen to musicians – they bring a piece of music to life by putting their own performance onto it. And although they are in rhythm 99% of the time, it is the little 1% that makes it a human being playing it and not a machine. …So when we did the Doctor Who music, we tried to creep in one or two, not wrong notes, but imperfections, like a little bit of tremolo in the tune. We may have shifted the beat slightly just to make it sound as though it was played by somebody with feelings, rather than a stitched together music job. …The Doctor Who tune swoops up, it doesn’t go in precise notes. It sort of slides from note to note, and it does give it a bit of a spacey feel.” (Niebur)

Derbyshire also worked outside of the Workshop, and by the mid-1960s had forged relationships with significant figures in the experimental and rock music scene. Her tape work was featured at The Million Volt Sound and Light Rave, one of the UK’s early electronic music festivals that also featured tape music by Paul McCartney. She even discussed a collaboration (never realized) with The Beatles around the time when they were first experimenting with tape loops. In 1969, in order to explore a less commercial approach to creating electronic music, Derbyshire, together with David Vorhaus formed the experimental electronic group White Noise. Soon after that, in 1973, she left the Workshop and continued to have a fruitful career as an influential electronic music composer.

41PNDTEKwULDerbyshire used an analytical approach to synthesize complex sounds from electronic sources. The mathematics of sound seemed to come naturally to her, but she believed that the way the ear and brain perceive sound should have dominance over any basic mathematical theory. She stressed the impact of intuition, and especially female intuition, in an interview with Jo Hutton about the quality of electronic music: “Women are good at sound and the reason is that they have the ability to interpret what the producer wants, they can read between the lines and get through to them (the producers) as a person. Women are good at abstract stuff, they have sensitivity and good communication. They have the intricacy – for tape cutting, which is a very delicate job you know…. A producer once said to me, “You must be an ardent feminist,”….I said “What!”, I hadn’t even thought in those words.” (Jo Hutton, Radiophonic Ladies). Instead, she kept calling herself “a post-feminist before feminism was even invented.” 

Perhaps it would be simplistic to say that electronic music is more ‘feminine’ or ‘feminist’ than any other genre of music, but, as noted by David Stubbs, “this music does not require women to strike a pose – it’s more meritocratic.” In support of his argument, Stubbs referred to the words of Peter Rehberg who said: “I think the nature of electronic music is very liberating, you can do whatever you want – whereas in other genres there is machoism about it – you’ve got to “be” in a certain world, a Rolling Stones world – and if you have a “lady” in your band it must be some sort of statement. Electronic music is largely instrumental; it isn’t putting out messages in that sort of way.” (David Stubbs, Fear of Music: Why People Get Rothko But Don’t Get Stockhausen).