Delia Derbyshire Day: Caro C.

Aisling Kiely

Best known as 'the woman behind the Dr. Who theme', Delia Derbyshire was a pioneer in electronic music, and has been referred to as one of the "godmothers of electronic music".

We recently sat down with Caro, current project manager of the 2019 Delia Derbyshire Day to discuss this year’s event, what Delia Derbyshire Day symbolises, and why Delia is still making waves 50 years later.

Caro is a Spirit Studios Alumna, having graduated from the Audio Engineering Diploma course in 2008. Working as a freelance artist, engineer, and facilitator in music and sound, she has been called a “Sonic Enchantress” by BBC Radio 3.

With 3 albums under her belt, and having performed in most of the cultural hotspots in Manchester including Bridgewater Hall, Manchester Art Gallery, and Band on the Wall, Caro also provides music and sound design for film, theatre, dance, and sculpture pieces. Caro is an instigator of Delia Derbyshire Day, and is always more than happy to give advice, often acting as a mentor for women starting in the (electronic) music industry.

Thanks for sitting down with us today Caro. Just to start, can you tell us a little bit more about Delia Derbyshire for those who may not know who she is?

Delia Derbyshire was a composer, musician, and an electronic music producer who was a pioneer in the development of electronic music in this country. She was born in 1937 in Coventry and evacuated to Preston during the war. For Delia, the air raid sirens and all clear sounds were the beginning of her interest in electronic music.

After studying maths and music, Delia decided to pursue a career in music, and worked for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop department from 1962-1973. She was one of the longest standing members. 11 years was a considerable amount of time working in a department where people were only meant to stay for 6 months due to lack of ‘real instruments’!

At the time they used a multitude of technical and creative techniques to produce music and sound effects. It’s been said that Delia’s favourite instrument was a green lampshade that had a lovely ‘gong’ quality. She used to sample it and use it in compositions, studying its harmonics to create ambient sounds.

Basically, Delia was sampling before samplers, mixing without a mixing desk, and synthesizing pre-synths. She was renowned amongst her radiophonic colleagues for being a ‘whizz’ at crash syncing: getting tape machines to sync together, which is like dj-ing with no mixer.

Wow. So, not only was she a pioneer for electronic music, but she was also a female pioneer in the 60’s. Do you think the attitudes towards women in the industry have changed much since then?

I think our work environment reflects society, so in terms of equal opportunities we still have a way to go, but I’ve definitely seen progress.

There are initiatives now and there are also lots of women doing it themselves, saying ‘we’re here, we’re making ourselves visible, we’re making ourselves heard’, so I think media organisations are doing a lot more to show women that are starting out that there are loads of us.

It’s really interesting because you’ve mentioned the role the media plays in helping women be more visible in the industry, but do you think there’s something more they could be doing?

There’s more to be done but I am heartened by actions like Vanessa Reed’s PRS Foundation’s work with an initiative focused on having a 50/50 gender balance in the industry by the year 2020. And, most importantly, just generally informing students of these organisations and initiatives like “Normal Not Novelty” that aim to help women in the industry and provide support and guidance.

That’s really cool. Delia is usually known as the woman behind the Dr. Who theme, but she’s done a lot more than just that. Can you elaborate on other projects she’s worked on?

Yeah, so Ron Grainer actually composed the track. He knew he wanted to work with the BBC Radiophonic, so he brought Delia and Dick Mills his notes, who created the music in a little room in 40 days.

She also did a lot of other TV themes, incidental music, and music for radio. Beyond the BBC, she also created music for theatre and sound design for varying projects including The Royal Shakespeare Company.

In addition to this, Delia is also a key member of White Noise whose seminal album ‘An Electric Storm’ is an electronic classic. Although the album was not massive on its initial release, it is now considered a visionary and influential work for its time in 1969.

Given all that she’s done, how would you say Delia’s work is influencing people nearly two decades later?

I’ve worked in over 30 primary schools across Manchester delivering an ‘Introduction to Electronic Music’ course to students, and the Dr. Who theme is always a great starting point. The students are amazed at what she produced ahead of her time, especially when they appreciate this was a time before undo buttons.

One young girl told me Delia was inspiring because she didn’t give up despite the sexism and barriers she faced. So that was cool that she worked that out for herself.

So, how did the idea for Delia Derbyshire Day come about?

When I was studying Studio Engineering at Spirit Studios, back then it was SSR, my artist liaison person Tullis Rennie at the then Futuresonic festival told me that Delia’s archives had just arrived at the University of Manchester. These archives were her personal collection of tapes, working notes, correspondences, school notebooks, and more. I was immediately intrigued.

Considering she is referred to as one of the ‘godmothers of electronic music’, I knew I would have to listen to some of this work. So I approached Dr. Butler at the University about the archive and the possibility of setting up a project where women composers could look back at the archive, see how Delia worked, and be inspired to produce new work informed by her work, tools and techniques.

I then invited composer Ailis Ni Riain and artist Naomi Kashiwagi to be involved, and it was Ailis who came up with the idea of a ‘Delia Derbyshire Day’: a symposium and live event where we could present our creative responses to the archive. We worked together as ‘Delia’s Darlings’ to produce the first event, which was held at Band on the Wall in January 2013. It was funded by Arts Council England and the PRS Foundation (Women Make Music Fund), and was sold out with features on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4.

The interest and demand for our work only grew, so I took it forward, producing more Delia Derbyshire Day events, developing an education stand, and in December 2016 we registered Delia Derbyshire Day as a charitable organisation. David Butler, who I first approached about the project, is now the chair of our board of trustees and we have the support of the Delia Derbyshire Estate, which is crucial to the integrity of the growing organisation.

That’s very impressive! What are you most excited for this year’s event ?

This year’s activities honour the 50th anniversary of ‘An Electric Storm’ by White Noise.  We are looking forward to shedding some more light on Delia’s work beyond the BBC. David Vorhaus will be involved. He worked closely with Delia on this album and talks of Delia as his teacher in terms of tape manipulation and bringing together the worlds of physics and music, so that’s going to be really amazing to hear from him.

We have commissioned artists to create their own audio-visual “electric storm” inspired by White Noise’s album. We are about looking back, but also about the now and looking forward, showcasing the exciting potential of being creative with technology now. I’m also excited to see what comes from our “Create Your Own Electric Storm” workshops.

Delia Derbyshire Day seems to be going from strength to strength with further funding support from Arts Council England, The Granada Foundation, and Musicians’ Union, as well as sponsorship from Sound on Sound magazine, and of course Spirit Studios.

That all sounds very exciting. Before you go, can you tell us your favourite piece of Delia’s work?

That’s a hard one. I guess if I had to choose only one, it would be ‘The Dance from Noah’ a four on the floor minimal techno kind of thing from 1971. I came across it via the archive and it was created for a kid’s programme. Ace!