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On Delia Derbyshire for Ada Lovelace Day

by Richard Elen on 24 Mar, 2010

in Audio Production, Broadcasting, Music

Today, March 24 2010, is Ada Lovelace Day, the day when we cel­e­brate women in sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy and their achieve­ments – typ­i­cal­ly by blog­ging about them. You can find out more about Ada Lovelace Day at the Find­ing Ada web site, but here’s the basic gist:

Ada Lovelace Day was first cel­e­brat­ed in 2009, when over 2,000 peo­ple blogged about women in tech­nol­o­gy and sci­ence and the event receive wide media cov­er­age. This year the hope is to get 3,072 peo­ple to do the same. Ada Lovelace Day is organ­ised by Suw Char­man-Ander­son, who writes:

“Augus­ta Ada King, Count­ess of Lovelace was born on 10th Decem­ber 1815, the only child of Lord Byron and his wife, Annabel­la. Born Augus­ta Ada Byron, but now known sim­ply as Ada Lovelace, she wrote the world’s first com­put­er pro­grammes for the Ana­lyt­i­cal Engine, a gen­er­al-pur­pose machine that Charles Bab­bage had invent­ed.”

And there’s plen­ty more where that came from.

The mar­vel­lous logo shown above was cre­at­ed by Syd­ney Pad­ua and Lorin O’Brien and appears on the for­mer’s won­der­ful 2D Gog­gles com­ic web site.

Delia Der­byshire

I’ve been inter­est­ed in elec­tron­ic music for decades, and I sup­pose one of my great­est influ­ences was the BBC Radio­phon­ic Work­shop, sad­ly dis­band­ed in March 1998 dur­ing the era of the BBC “inter­nal mar­ket” under Direc­tor-Gen­er­al John Birt, when depart­ments had to oper­ate at a prof­it or close. This result­ed in absur­di­ties like it becom­ing cheap­er to nip down the street from Broad­cast­ing House to HMV in Oxford Street to buy a CD con­tain­ing a piece of music to use in a pro­gramme rather than obtain­ing the track via the BBC Record Library.

Delia Der­byshire (1937–2001) was born in Coven­try, my home town, and com­plet­ed a degree in math­e­mat­ics and music at Gir­ton Col­lege Cam­bridge. In 1959, she famous­ly applied to Dec­ca to work at their record­ing stu­dios in Broad­hurst Gar­dens, West Hamp­stead and was turned down, being told that they did­n’t employ women.

After a stint with the UN in Gene­va and with music pub­lish­er Boosey and Hawkes she joined the BBC Radio­phon­ic Work­shop in 1962, which, in those days before syn­the­sis­ers and sam­plers, was main­ly exper­i­ment­ing with musique con­crète tech­niques, involv­ing record­ing sounds from ordi­nary objects like rulers and lamp­shades and play­ing them back at dif­fer­ent speeds back­wards and for­wards, edit­ing them togeth­er into pieces of music. Below you can see Delia describ­ing her work in this respect.

Most elec­tron­ic music of the time was fair­ly abstract, but as the job of the Work­shop was to pro­vide inci­den­tal and theme music for BBC tele­vi­sion and radio pro­duc­tions, their out­put tend­ed to be a lot more melod­ic and acces­si­ble. Der­byshire is prob­a­bly best known today for her real­i­sa­tion – which amount­ed to co-com­po­si­tion – of Ron Grain­er’s theme for the Dr Who tele­vi­sion series which launched in 1963. How­ev­er one could argue that some of her oth­er work was more sig­nif­i­cant in artis­tic terms, such as her music for Bar­ry Bermange’s work on the BBC Third Pro­gramme. Over­all she pro­vid­ed themes and inci­den­tal music for over 200 radio and tele­vi­sion pro­grammes in the eleven years she worked at the BBC.

She also worked on oth­er projects out­side the Work­shop, includ­ing co-found­ing the Kalei­dophon stu­dio with David Vorhaus and fel­low Work­shop mem­ber Bri­an Hodg­son. The best-known work by this group (known as White Noise) – their first – was the sem­i­nal pop­u­lar elec­tron­ic music album An Elec­tric Storm (1968) released on Island Records. The trio also record­ed mate­r­i­al for the Stan­dard Music pro­duc­tion music library, Delia com­pos­ing under the pen-name “Li De la Russe”.

Hav­ing been away from the music scene for many years, her inter­est was rekin­dled in the late 1990s and she was work­ing on a new album when she passed away as a result of renal fail­ure while recov­er­ing from breast can­cer.

You can read a fuller account of Delia Der­byshire’s life and work in this Wikipedia arti­cle.

BBC Radio 4 logoRecent­ly Mark Ayres, BBC Radio­phon­ic Work­shop Archivist, has been going through the col­lec­tion of her mate­r­i­al held at Man­ches­ter Uni­ver­si­ty. BBC Radio 4’s Archive On 4 series is pre­sent­ing a pro­gramme on this work, Sculp­tress of Sound: The Lost Works of Delia Der­byshire, which goes out on Sat­ur­day 27 March 2010 at 20:00 GMT.

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