Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Delian Moods

Delia and Des

The BBC Archive Hour on Saturday provided an airing for Matthew Sweet’s documentary on Delia Derbyshire, Sculptress of Sound, presumably in anticipation of the new series of Doctor Who arriving on our screens this weekend (in Britain, at any rate). This was originally made to mark the donation of a collection of Delia’s personal tapes, correspondence and writings to Manchester University, and provided a first chance to hear some of these long lost sounds beyond the vaults of academe. The documentary centred on a roundtable discussion chaired by Matthew Sweet and featuring Delia’s fellow radiophonicists Dick Mills and Brian Hodgson, White Noise collaborator David Vorhaus, and official Radiophonic Workshop archivist and ‘custodian of the loops’ Mark Ayres. We also hear the voices of her ex-boss and Workshop co-founder Desmond Briscoe, and one of her successors, Elizabeth Parker.

Delia herself is heard throughout via archive recordings. She was possessed of a beguiling voice, which contained the requisite elements of BBC received English, but tempered with an individual quality which erased the overtones of assumed authority with which many such accents were imbued (and which was perhaps the reason for their cultivation in the first place). There is a certain hesitancy in her speech at times, but rather than marking an awkwardness arising from introversion, it comes across as the deliberation of someone searching for the most concise way in which to voice her ideas. A facet of what she herself describes as her ‘analytical mind’. Brian Hodgson, Dick Mills and David Vorhaus are all unequivocal in their affection for Delia and their admiration of her work, but they are all also open in admitting that she could be a spiky and emotionally unpredictable person at times. Dick Mills describes her (and not necessarily in a wholly negative sense) as ‘fiery and a bit crazy’. The impression is given of a woman whose mind was constantly firing off in all different directions, following its own thread through mental mazes (sparks in electrical jelly indeed!)

She certainly seems to have cut a dash through the 60s and early 70s. Elizabeth Parker recalls her first encounter with Delia, instantly recognisable in cloak and large hat, with her ‘distinctive voice – very elegant, very beautiful’. She was someone who could become utterly absorbed in her work when the spirit took her, to the extent that the external world (as opposed to the ideal world of mental process) was perceived only on the level at which instinctual reactions were required. Brian Hodgson recalls one incident in which she was cycling from the Maida Vail studios (home of the Workshop) to her adjacent flat whilst beginning to process some ideas for a new piece in her head. Before she knew it, she found herself in Vauxhall, way across town and on the south side of the Thames, with no recollection of how she’d made her way there through the busy streets of central London.

There is an extract played (from one of her tapes) of an early 60s viewers’ questions radio programme called Information Please in which Delia is given the opportunity to give a brief insight into her methods. David Vorhaus notes how irritated she would have been at the patronising tone of the interviewer, and by the simplistic nature of his questions, all of which would have been enough to ‘set her off’, in his words. There is an interesting comparison made between the conservative nature of the light music theme used to introduce the programme, a style which was fairly standard across the station, and which was redolent of pipe smoke and wooden wirelesses, and the electronic music which she and others were producing at the Radiophonic Workshop. This was radical both in its form, the context into which it was placed, and the means of its production. The work of the Radiophonic Workshop was often reduced to the status of sound effects, the collective name under which its anonymous contributors were gathered suggesting a place of artisan labour rather than artistic endeavour. Desmond Briscoe, at the start of the programme, describes them as ‘specialists in sound’, but goes on to make the very John Cage-ian observation that any organised sounds can be regarded as music. This philosophy pointed the way to a very different approach to that of the Worker’s Playtime style of light music, a new soundworld which marked a divide from the post-war continuities with the past and set its sights on the future. This was, in many ways, more of a soundtrack to Wilson’s era of the white heat of technology than the Beatles or the Stones, and the perspicacious Paul McCartney certainly took an interest, sharing a stage on the same bill as Delia at the Roundhouse as he took his own tentative steps into the worlds of electronic music.

Delia’s rather chaotic way of living in her later years, her feeling of being in a constant state of transience, resulted in many of the tapes which eventually found their way to Manchester University remaining unpacked from the various boxes in which they’d been stored when she left the Workshop. Some were even found filed away in corn flake packets. This is a detail which provides a neat metaphor for the way in which her music and the everyday modernism of the Workshop in general was surreptitiously fed into people’s lives, consumed with the radio programmes which served as the background ambience to the daily round. Given that the daytime audience would at this time still largely have been composed of women defined as housewives, the prominence of women composers within the Workshop was entirely fitting. From co-founder Daphne Oram, through Maddalena Fagandini (aka Ray Cathode), Jenyth Worsley, Delia and later Elizabeth Parker.

Electrosonic sounds
The contributions of the Radiophonic Workshop composers always remained anonymous in Delia’s time, something which probably rankled considerably. David Butler, the curator of the collection at Manchester University, reads out a part of a letter written by the head of BBC drama in which he singles out Delia’s contribution to a play called the Talon fro the highest praise, whilst recognising that the quality of her work will of necessity (or the dictates of Corporation policy) go uncredited elsewhere. Such anonymity may have suited Delia to some extent at the time. It meant, as a corollary, that she was by and large left to her own devices and had the run of the studio at night. David Vorhaus recalls how he sneaked in during these after hours sessions and worked with Delia on some of the songs which would go to up the White Noise LP (some of which would go on to soundtrack a black mass in the late Hammer farrago Dracula AD1972! – an implausibly entertaining movie, it has to be said). Delia managed to work her way around the Beeb’s proprietorial strictures in other ways, her naturally rebellious individualism leading her to seek other outlets for her creativity. Her thinly disguised pseudonym Li de la Russe (the last probably a reference to her auburn hair) was used for library recordings, such as the one recently reissued as Electrosonic.

Various pieces of music are analysed by the guest panel, both in terms of their content and the cultural and personal context in which they were made. The elements of what’s widely regarded as one of Delia’s best pieces, Blue Veils and Golden Sands, are revealed (not exactly for the first time, admittedly). There is the heavily filtered sound of her own voice providing the sense of the slow progress of a camel train through the desert sands, and shimmering sound gained from striking the green shade of a BBC lamp, with the attack of the initial impact removed leaving only the ringing resonance which followed. As Dick Mills points out, it’s the sound of a mirage. Radiophonic Workshop archivist and curator (and composer in his own right) Mark Ayres gives the same clear analysis of the component parts of the Dr Who theme as he did for the BBC4 documentary Alchemists of Sound. There are 5 basic elements which comprise its layered sound. Firstly, there are a series of upward bass swoops, which give a skidding rhythmic underpinning. These are overlaid by the main bass line, the train-like pulse which drives the music. On top of this dual layer lies another in the upper register. There is the melody, created with the help of the wobbulator, the knocked-together oscillator set-up which gives a tremulous quality to the pure tones which it, er, wobbulates. This is probably pretty much all that remains of Ron Grainer’s original composition. Above this are thrown the sparks of high harmonics which serve as an aural halo to the melody, giving the whole piece the feeling of possessing its own acoustic, as if it is sounding out a particular space, describing imaginary volumes. Finally, the whole is enveloped in the miasma of a twin track of white noise. This is the whooshing wind which creates the feel of motion for which the rushing tunnel of the opening credits is the perfect accompaniment. Dick Mills describes these sounds as an attempt to create an aural Doppler effect. With one track played forwards and the other backwards (a reversal of the polarity?) and the judicious application of various echo and reverberation effects, the disorientating feeling of being carried along on a wave of motion which proceeds in all directions simultaneously is created; The sound of travels in time and space. Delia’s pride in this, her most famous creation, is evinced by her evident frustration with the constant tinkering to which her piece was subjected. The infamous EMS Delaware version receives short shrift from everyone. Dick Mills makes the point that one of Delia’s skills was her ability to keep things simple, to not needlessly complicate a piece merely because she had the technological means to do so. It is with weary retrospective resignation that she professes to have been ‘shocked by what I had to do in the course of so-called duty’. As Brian Hodgson points out, the theme is so memorable because of its imperfections; it has the sound of performed music because of the nature of its construction, and because it hasn’t been sequenced or quantised into ‘perfect’ uniformity.

Malcolm Clarke wrestles with the Delaware
The final track which is discussed is the dance from Noah, a school’s ‘drama workshop’ production from 1971. This represents Delia’s imaginative use of early synthesisers, in this case the EMS VCS3, a rather more portable and responsive beast than the room-sized monster of the Delaware. The rhythm track is played in isolation and is strikingly modern in its sound. Orbital brother Paul Hartnoll observes that it could be a track off a current Warp release, say an Autechre record. It is placed as the final track on the recent 2CD Radiophonic Workshop Retrospective, a compilation which is otherwise strictly chronological in its approach, emphasising its contemporaneity some 37 years after its composition. It certainly sounds way ahead of its time, particularly in the company of some of the more time-locked sounds on that second disc, which reflect the Workshop’s (and to be fair, most musicians’) wholesale adoption of the programmed sounds of the latest synthesiser technology (such as the Fairlight). It was a direction which Delia eventually decided she had no real interest in following, and its clear from the portrait which has been painted that she was someone who was able to create only if she felt wholly engaged with the work at hand. Its hard to imagine how she could have built something which ‘sounds like a gothic altarpiece’, as she had done at the behest of Barry Bermange for their Inventions for Radio series, from such unmalleable material as synthesiser technology offered. It was all too conventionally musical in some ways, a retreat from the notion of sound itself as sculptural matter. As she is heard saying earlier, ‘any sound can made into a radiophonic sound…we have to shape and mould them’.

Now, with the archive safely stored and being carefully digitised for future study, it seems that her reputation and her place within the wider musical and cultural continuum is assured, and can only grow. Let’s hope that these treasures aren’t hoarded by the academics (good work though they are evidently doing) and find their way out into the wider world. Perhaps they should invite Johnny Trunk in to have a delve and produce something along the lines of his excellent two volume collections of The John Baker Tapes. Or a release of the quality and diversity of Paradigm Discs Daphne Oram collection would be wonderful. After the programme, I listened to the CD of music by Delia and Brian Hodgson (along with Dudley Simpson and David Vorhaus) originally released as the library LP ESL104, but here put out by Trunk Records under the title The Tomorrow People, that being the programme where most of it was released (and like Johnny, I didn’t see it at the time, because it was on ITV). Mr Trunk, in his entertaining liner notes, recommends listeners to go and read Brian Hodgson’s obituary of Delia online, so when I turned on the computer the next day I did just that. It’s an insightful, personal and heartfelt piece, and I echo his recommendation. You can find it here.

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