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On Delia Derbyshire for Ada Lovelace Day

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.