Women of electronic music: Delia Derbyshire

I’ve written about this topic before, and it is one that I will keep returning to. Over the past year, as part of my explorations of the Bristol music scene, I have been to a lot of gigs and club nights. One thing that is impossible to ignore is the under-representation of women, particularly when it comes to audiences for and producers of electronic music. While it isn’t always the case, I have been to nights and stood amongst crowds that have been ninety per cent male. This trend is also reflected in wider narratives about electronic music and its origins, in which the contributions of women are often forgotten or marginalised.

This is not going unnoticed in Bristol. I’ve previously mentioned Saffron Records, who are doing much to promote the work of young female musicians in the city. Similarly, The World is Listening, a Bristol-based podcast, celebrates the contributions of women in the world of electronic music production. Taking a more overtly political stance on the issue, and the lack of creative spaces run by women, is the LaDIYfest collective, which organised a two-day festival last October in Bristol and has an objective to ‘celebrate the achievements of self-identifying women and oppressed genders in the arts’.

It was LaDIYfest who organised the showing of Kara Blake’s 2009 documentary The Delian Mode at Bristol’s Hydra bookshop last night. The 25-minute film focuses on the work of Delia Derbyshire, the composer of the Doctor Who theme tune, and a pioneer in electronic music who is slowly becoming recognised as a major influence on contemporary producers and musicians. The film highlights how her childhood in Coventry, and particularly, her experiences of the bombing of the city, were pivotal in her developing a fascination with sound theory. In one scene, she talks about hearing air-raid sirens, and later, following her family’s removal to her parent’s home town of Preston, the sounds of ‘clogs on cobblestones’ as a massive influence on her.

She went on to gain a Maths degree from Cambridge, an experience which she described as ‘quite something for a working class girl in the fifties, when only one in ten [students] were female’. From 1962 to 1973, she worked with the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop in Maida Vale, a studio set up to create sound effects and music for radio and TV programmes. She became a talented producer of musique concrète – the practice of using recorded sounds, often from field recordings or everyday objects, and manipulating these to create compositions. Her tools were primarily analogue tape reels, and the pain-staking work of splicing tape befitted her eccentric and obsessive character. Her talents as a producer were counter-balanced by depressive tendencies and a life-long dependency on alcohol, which would eventually lead to her death from renal failure  in 2001 at the age of 64.

In many ways, the techniques that Derbyshire was using prefigured the possibilities that would later come with synthesizers (which she disapproved of due to their ‘inorganic’ approach to sound creation) and with digital audio work stations. She influenced a generation of musicians who grew up in the 60s and 70s, listening to the radio and watching the TV programmes that her studio produced.

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