Thursday, 11 March 2010

Blue Veils and Golden Sands

Jarvis Cocker, on his Sunday afternoon show on radio 6 (remember to register your opinion on the decision to axe the station at the BBC consultation pages) alerted his listeners to Kara Blake’s recent film about Delia Derbyshire, the Delian Mode, which is about to receive a further screening at the Flatpack Festival in Birmingham on the 28th March. His guest was Peter Kember (aka Sonic Boom) who talked about his work and friendship with Derbyshire in her later years. He mentioned his role (playing himself) in Martyn Wade's radio drama about Delia, Blue Veils and Golden Sands, which sent me back to listen to it. It’s included on the collection Doctor Who at the BBC: The Plays.

The play opens with the sounds of sirens in Coventry, accompanied by electronic oscillations (Delia’s piece Music of the Spheres). Delia’s voice talks about the emotional content of sound, which is exemplified by the different feelings evoked by the air raid warning and the all clear sirens. This opening, which takes place in the bunker of the air raid shelter and highlights the acute attention paid to the nature of sound, anticipates both her immersion into the radiophonic world of electronic music and her final retreat into the comforting, protective disarray of her house in Coventry and into the isolated world of her self. The play takes the form of a retrospective narration, with Peter Kember’s introductory phone call prompting her into reminiscent mood which calls to mind various incidents from her past. We hear about her rejection by the Decca studios, who refused to hire any women. Her extraordinary ear for sound and feel for its physical quality is noticed at the BBC, where she is able to pick out a casually hummed extract from a symphony and put the needle down precisely on the required spot judging by the appearance of the grooves in the vinyl. She takes up her position in the Radiophonic Workshop with eager enthusiasm, despite being warned that people generally only worked there for a short span of time, since any longer stay would drive them mad. Her meeting with Ron Grainer and his subsequent expression of delighted disbelief at what she’d done to his Doctor Who theme is wryly observed.

Looking back on her music, she distinguishes those pieces of which she is proud from the throwaway jingles and merely functional studio trickery. The former includes Blue Veils and Golden Sands, the piece which she wrote for The World About Us and which summoned up the atmospheres of the Sahara and suggested the slow journeys of the Tuareg nomads who crossed it (it was a piece which was also used as incidental music in Doctor Who); and the music for the programme she did with Barry Bermange, Dreams, in which people relate their dream experiences over Delia’s oneiric music. These are the pieces which she describes as being in the true Delian mode. Delia is horrified when Anthony Newley takes a piece of her music, which she describes as being ‘pure and innocent’ (another fragment of the Pythagorean continuum) and adds a half-spoken, half-sung narration which turns it into ‘a dirty raincoat song’. It is indeed a peculiarly repellent little ditty which manages to ruin the bubbling, fresh spirit of her music, as you can hear here (it goes under the title of Moogies Bloogies). It is a track which cries out for the vocals to be excised. And yet Newley, like other men before him, is not interested in Delia’s opinion and blithely assures her of his own innate brilliance in his carefree mockney manner.

From the start, Delia extols the virtues of an open mind, of intellectual curiosity and hunger, which is something she never loses. Her voice, as played by Sophie Thompson, never loses its sense of enthusiasm and intense interest in the life of the mind. She keeps up a cheerfully chipper facade throughout, with hints of widening cracks barely papered over with whatever means are necessary (means which may on the surface resemble madness). Her fortitude is fuelled by red wine, which bolsters her failing self-confidence. Delia comes from a generation which was intent on maintaining a semblance of life as normal, even as the world crumbled around them, leaving them shoring up the ruins. We sense that she is a shy and reserved person who sparks into life when expressing her ideas and enthusiasms. These are repeatedly greeted with indifference and lack of understanding, whether by her disdainful tutors at Cambridge (where she has gone as a lower middle class girl made good) or by the amiable but philosophically non-inquisitive Ron Grainer, who is bewildered by her talk of Pythagoras and the music of the spheres. These ideas are at the heart of her intellectual excitement. She is stimulated by the idea of ‘music as numbers made audible’, of the musical equivalent of Pythagoras’ ideal solids, the manifestation of sounds which always and eternally exist. Later, this is confined only to her inner world, as she loses the confidence to continue making music which is compromised by the commercial demands of those who fail to respond to her on the level of ideas. Her idealism is worn away, and she retreats, trying to follow the example of the Tuaregs she depicted so evocatively. Moving North, away from London, she adopts the aphorism ‘avoid cleaning and tidying at all costs’, moving on when things become too chaotic. As she puts it, ‘I went missing’. She comes across as a solitary figure, happy to work through the night at the Radiophonic Workshop studios so that she can use all the equipment that’s available too her, as well as spool out her lengthy tape loops into the corridors. When she retreats into the house her parents leave her in Coventry towards the end of her life, we sense that still hears the Pythagorean music of the spheres, but it is no longer given voice. Whilst she is living in what many might consider to be squalor, and has taken to drinking a little too much red wine, this is not a depressing tale. She acknowledges that the 60s were her decade, and recalls them with an air of wistful nostalgia. She says of her current life and her years of inactivity ‘I’ve not been unhappy. I just wish…looking back…some recognition. It would’ve been nice’.

Delia receives the recognition which she craves as a new generation comes to acknowledge her influence, crate digging archaelogists removing the veil of anonymity from the ‘music for use’ made for the BBC and for library records. Peter Kember draws her out of her latter day Coventry shelter and introduces her to this new wave of electronic music enthusiasts. With their new tools and digital technology, the new means of labour enables whole new worlds of sound without the sheer brain-aching tortuousness of the days of tape-splicing and looping. The ambiguity in such productive facility is hinted in Delia’s experience of the early synthesisers, however. The BBC orders a new arrangement of the Doctor Who theme using their new ‘Delaware’ EMS synth. Delia is frustrated at the limitations of this new technology, and annoyed at the assumption that it is a productive machine which will enable the instant assembly line creation of music to order. The idea of sound as physical matter to be manipulated and twisted into new shapes has been lost.

As the play draws to a close, Delia’s health rapidly deteriorates and she finally admits herself to hospital (her complaints about not being allowed her red wine suggesting a serious problem). As she reflects that ‘there is no such thing as silence unless it’s in death’, it becomes clear that she’s sailing towards the farther shore. The music of Dreams and Blue Veils and Golden Sands has been a premonition of this final state of unanchored drift, and perhaps a hint at what lies beyond. Delia’s declaration of doubt and faith is contained in the statement ‘I don’t know if I believe in God, but I believe in his music’. There is a sense that the play we’ve just heard has been the dream of a life recalled from the hospital bed. The brief snatch of Orbital’s Girl With the Sun in Her Hair which we hear in the background serves both as recognition of her influence, and as an elegy – a blessing on this self-effacing pioneer and sound explorer.


Anonymous said...

an excellent article - thank u.

alan gubby
producer of 'the john baker tapes'

Jez Winship said...

Thanks. And also for The John Baker Tapes, both volumes of which are wonderful.