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Inspiring Pioneers of Electronic Music – Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram #MySTEMrolemodel

20th October 2015
By Guest Author

As part of Digital Science’s celebrations for Ada Lovelace Day, for the month of October we are running a series of blog posts where inspiring women in STEM are sharing their personal role models. Anyone can get involved and we encourage you to share your role model on social media using the hashtag #MySTEMrolemodel. 

ALD2014 PaulClarke 2 lo-res crop
Credit: Paul Clarke

Caro C is a composer, producer and performer of electronic music based in Manchester, UK. Caro co-founded and is project manager for Delia Derbyshire Day – an annual touring event honouring the late Delia Derbyshire and championing the work of female composers past and present. Caro also teaches music technology courses in primary schools in Manchester using Delia’s works as inspiration for the kids to make their own TV themes. Caro produced and has been touring her creative response to the Delia Derbyshire Archive “Audient, my dear”.

I started out as an electronic musician laid up with pretty severe back trouble and living in a double-decker bus. I played about with my then partner’s drum machines and got really into reading synthesiser manuals. It didn’t take long before I was told it was rare that women made electronic music. And when I started performing, this became more obvious until I went to live in Berlin for a couple of years where female electronic acts were a bit more commonplace. I guess I have collected a number of living and contemporary role models along the way of my progression as a producer and performer of electronic music, but these two late, great pioneers of electronic music in the UK (at least) stand out for me and deserve to be recognised as much as possible.

When I moved to Manchester in 2007, someone kindly informed me that the archive of one of the ‘godmothers’ of electronic music lived in the University of Manchester.  This said pioneer was Delia Derbyshire (1937-2001) who, if you know of her at all, is best known for realising Ron Grainer’s score which became the original Dr Who theme in 1963. This was a time before accessible computers, multi-track mixing desks and synthesisers. Upon exploring the archive, I realised Delia also made lots of other music for TV and radio including ambient, industrial, EDM (electronic dance music, ie. Techno without the heavy bass drum) and synth pop way before these genres were even created. For me, Delia’s music was daring, bold and cleverly crafted with a timeless, otherworldly, yet very human feel.

“Blue Veils and Golden Sands” by Delia Derbyshire (1968):

How humbling it is to come across ‘foremothers’ such as Delia who produced such visionary pieces of music without the easy tools and techniques I have at my fingertips – computers, synthesisers, samplers, software/virtual and hardware instruments. Delia was known amongst her peers of clever and creative technicians as particularly adept at ‘crash-syncing’ ie. playing more than one massive reel-to-reel tape machine in synchronisation just by getting the timing just right herself. Like being a mixing DJ without a mixer and hence musicality at its best for me.

From 1962 to 1973 Delia worked as part of a team of sound specialists within the BBC called The Radiophonic Workshop which created music and sound for radio and TV. They were creative and also technically astute with a make-do and mend approach as they made, adapted and tinkered with stuff to create their unique and quite specific sounds. For example, Delia had her favourite green lampshade and a collection of wine bottles which she recorded and manipulated to create melodies and generally catchy tunes.

Another inspiring female role model of this era was Daphne Oram (1925-2003) who was also instrumental (if you’ll pardon the pun) in setting up The Radiophonic Workshop at the BBC in 1958. Daphne was also a clever and exciting composer of electronic music – sometimes sublime, sometimes quite ‘unladylike’ dark and heavy industrial music and also quirky and fun pieces like the one where she records her cat meowing at her. Daphne even created a baffling music composition machine, ‘The Oramics Machine’ which was recently restored. I was lucky enough to be lent a copy of Daphne’s entertaining book “Individual Note of Music, Sound and Electronics” (1972) which uses analogies of cooking and sexual attraction to explain such things as capacitors and electric currents.

Daphne’s Oramics Machine feature:

These women were clever technicians with a solid understanding of the science and physics of sound and electronics and a passion for finding new sounds in the emerging musical language of electronic music.

And they had a sense humour and adventure as they still managed to be so playful and creative even when working to a specific brief and tight deadlines. For example Delia’s electronic dance music theme for a kids’ TV programme in the 1960’s called “Dance for Noah” confounded the electronic music community somewhat when it was discovered in the archive. Some even said it was a hoax as this minimal “Berlin” style of electronic dance music could not have been created by a woman some 50 years ago.

Apparently these women did not see themselves as feminists or particularly rare women of their time, even though they hardly lived up to the stereotypes of women’s careers and I admire them all the more for it. Delia described herself as a ‘post-feminist before feminism even existed’. For someone like me who can sometimes be accused of being a rarity statistically in the fields of music technology and studio recording, it is some comfort to be able to recall these women which place me more in a continuum rather than being part of a random minority. Like Delia, I love using found sounds and non-musical objects in my music – I enjoy the challenge of engineering the sounds so they fit into a piece of music and also the idea of finding magic in the mundane of a sound like a creaking floorboard or a sizzling pan. Also, in my work as a teacher of a music technology in primary schools, I feel visibility is key and I like to make sure the next generation of potential producers of electronic music are aware that this is and can be a path for girls as well as boys.


My creative response to the Delia Derbyshire Archive:

Audient, my dear PHASE 1 from Delia Darlings on Vimeo.

Visual edit and studio recording version of “Audient, my dear”, a creative response to the fascinating archives of the late great Delia Derbyshire (1937-2001).
Music by Caro C –
Visuals by Kara Blake – with extracts/clips from The Delian Mode


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