Janette Martin writes:

Even if you don’t immediately recognise her name you will most certainly have heard the work of Delia Derbyshire. Her most well-known achievement was the electronic realisation of Ron Grainer’s theme tune for Dr Who (1963). During the 1960s and 1970s Delia worked for the Radiophonic Workshop, the avant-garde wing of the BBC’s sound effects department.  Here, in a pre-synthesiser world, she pioneered electronic music using ingenious analogue techniques including oscillators, ‘found sounds’, and even a tatty metallic lampshade which had pleasing percussive qualities. Delia’s innovative work with sound can be heard on many popular programmes in this period.  She also contributed music for theatre, film, festivals and ‘happenings’, working with high-profile figures such as Yoko Ono, Peter Maxwell Davies, Ted Hughes, Paul McCartney and George Harrison.

The John Rylands Library houses the Delia Derbyshire papers and sound archive. The collection ranges from childhood ephemera such as school exercise books, drawings, and cards to adult working papers and sound recordings (sadly we don’t have the theme tune of Dr Who) as well as further donations from individuals who knew and worked with Delia, including Brian Hodgson, Madelon Hooykaas, Jo Hutton and Elisabeth Kozmian. Within the archive there are a small number of objects such as 3 gas masks which presumably belonged to Delia and her parents who left Coventry in the blitz. The experience of bombing and the Derbyshire family’s subsequent evacuation to Lancashire had a profound influence on the music she would compose in later life.

The sound archive includes approximately 267 tape recordings, mainly dating from the 1960s and 1970s, along with papers which document her composition practices. The tapes have been digitised by Dr Louis Niebur (author of Special Sound: The Creation and Legacy of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop) from the University of Nevada, Reno and Dr David Butler, from The University of Manchester’s School of Arts, Languages and Cultures. The recordings relate primarily to Derbyshire’s freelance work but some BBC productions are represented amongst the tapes. Projects featured prominently in the tape collection include Peter Hall’s 1967 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Macbeth, Tony Richardson’s Roundhouse production of Hamlet, Caroline McCullough’s film Lowell, Ron Grainer’s musical On the Level, the first edition of the Brighton Festival, the first two Inventions for Radio (The Dreams and Amor Dei) and the factual series Tutankhamun’s Egypt. Other tapes within the collection contain off-air recordings of interviews with Delia as well as music not composed by her. Thanks to a listening device funded by the Library’s Innovation Fund, Delia’s work can now be heard in the reading room of The John Rylands Library by researchers and anyone interested in her work.

One of the many fascinating aspects of working in the Special Collections at the John Rylands Library is finding how collections speak to each other. The archive of the important Chinese artist, Li Yuan-chia, is shelved on the same floor as the Delia Derbyshire archive which is fitting as the two were great friends in life.  After Delia left the BBC Radiophonic Workshop she spent some time in the mid-1970s living and working at the LYC Museum near Hadrian’s Wall. Here she helped Li Yuan-chia run the gallery and printing press and exhibit the works of artists and poets. 1977 Artist Book No. 4, an artist book issued to LYC friends and supporters, bears the signature of both Li and Delia.

LYC Artist Book no 4
1977 Artist Book No. 4, signed by Delia Derbyshire and Li Yuan-Chia. LYC Archive.

The Delia Derbyshire collection is proving popular with artists, researchers and students. Holly Coutts, a Fashion, Design & Technology student at Manchester Metropolitan University, was one of the first readers to access the Delia Derbyshire Sound Archive on the new listening device. Holly, who is also a professional opera singer, used the collection for her final-year project which explores how sound affects mood and the senses.  Of particular interest to Holly is the way in which Delia visualised sound, most probably influenced by her mathematical training.  Besides listening to the sound archive, Holly also consulted Delia’s school exercise books which document her longstanding interest in how sound can be represented outside the conventions of musical notation. Holly’s friend, Bethany Moran, who is also an opera singer, similarly found inspiration from listening to Delia’s sound archive.

Students listening to Delia Derbyshire
Bethany Moran (left) and Holly Coutts (right), students from MMU.

This blog is not only about publicising the new listening device but also to highlight the recent completion of a second catalogue for the adult working papers of Delia Derbyshire which can be found on Elgar here.  The catalogue for the juvenile papers of Delia Derbyshire, which were purchased by the University of Manchester Library in 2011, is available here.  Access to these collections are by prior arrangement only and users should note that the collection is subject to copyright restrictions. If you would like to use the Delia Derbyshire Archive please contact the curator, Dr Janette Martin (email: janette.martin[at]manchester.ac.uk).