The Delian Mode

Many of my friends have their knickers in a twist about the “New Doctor,” i.e., the actor playing the newest incarnation of Doctor Who, the perennial British science fiction TV series. Having seen a few episodes over the years, and being completely underwhelmed by the show’s low-budget cheesiness (blame the BBC), I have steadfastly refused to watch it. (I am an equal-opportunity hater: my contempt for Doctor Who is surpassed by my loathing of the original Star Trek.)

The one thing that Who has over every science fiction series is it’s theme music, that chilling combination of wooshes and theremin-like melody that has never been improved upon since its appearance in 1963:


Ask Who fans who wrote that theme, and they’ll tell you it was Ron Grainer, the television and film composer who would later go on to write the theme for The Prisoner. Ask fans who realized the theme, who committed it to tape, and they’ll draw a blank. Again, blame the BBC: Grainer wanted to split his royalties with his collaborator, but was against Beeb policy. And so, a pioneering electronic composer was denied credit and almost doomed to obscurity.

That composer was Delia Derbyshire (pronounced “darby-sheer”), and she was a genius. She joined the legendary BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1962, and, working out of Room 13 with decommissioned equipment, created almost 200 pieces of incidental music for radio and television. She worked primarily with microphones and found objects, splicing notes together on tape. Synthesizers and multi-track recording had yet to be invented, so she made do with what was available, as seen here (using loops from her composition “Pot Au Feu”):

Look at that again: she’s beat-matching and mixing four separate tape recorders, a feat that only the most skilled of turntablists could manage today. (And call me out on my often-professed geekiness, but I think she’s hot.)

In 1969 she joined the group White Noise, whose first recording, An Electric Storm, was an experiment in merging psychedelia with electronic sounds.


The record became a cult classic, years later influencing the sound of Orbital, Broadcast, and Stereolab.

Delia left the BBC in 1973, the same year that synthesizers were introduced at the Workshop. She thought that they stifled creativity, and refused to use the instruments to speed up her deliberate output. She stopped composing and remained in retirement until her death in 2001. In a 1997 interview on Radio Scotland (part 1, part 2) she talks about her career and influence, well worth the listen.

She’s finally getting her due. The BBC aired a documentary on the Radiophonic workshop called The Alchemists of Sound. The section about Delia starts at the 2:50 mark:

The bit about playing the lampshade is a technique that Brian Eno nicked ten years later. The gongs at the end of “Some of Them Are Old” and that play in the background through out “Here Come the Warm Jets” are recordings of a struck lampshade played at different speeds.

This year saw the release of The Delian Mode, a short film about Derbyshire’s career by Kara Blake.

It has recently become available on DVD, you can purchase it from the web site.

Last year it was announced that 267 tapes had been recovered from Delia’s attic after she died. This article from the BBC contains several samples of material from the tapes, including a mind-blowing “experimental dance track” that sound like it was recorded yesterday.

Perhaps the most fitting tribute to her influence was this encore, the last live performance by Orbital, recorded at the BBC Maida Vale studio — the home of the Radiophonic Workshop. The song still kills four decades later.


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2 Responses to The Delian Mode

  1. dean cameron says:

    Dig those british teef.

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