From a former ice rink in west London, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop created bespoke music and sounds for the TV and radio. And created is the right word: this wasn’t just a case of playing and recording instruments. Particularly in its early days, the Radiophonic Workshop would synthesize sounds to order using tape manipulation, electronic equipment and techniques from musique concrète.
In 1998, when technology rendered their output redundant, the BBC closed the department down. Today the musicians of the workshop are recognised as pioneers in the field of electronic music – and, what’s more, they were reaching a huge, mainstream audience which only made their influence more potent. The surviving members have re-grouped and are currently getting into gear as a popular touring/recording outfit to be seen at a festival near you this Summer.
Sadly, a few former members have already fallen along the way, not least Delia Derbyshire. Derbyshire was one of the workshop’s leading lights and, among other creative achievements, she made the imperishable original version of the Doctor Who theme, inarguably the workshop’s ‘greatest hit’. Feted by figures from the worlds of rock, pop and theatre, Derbyshire left the Radiophonic Workshop in 1973 but never quite forged a satisfying career outside of the BBC. By the time she died in 2001, she’d drifted away from the world of music almost entirely.
This special event at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation is a celebration of Derbyshire’s work, and though it’s been taken on a short tour hereafter it’s surprisingly appropriate that Manchester should be the home venue since Derbyshire’s personal archive is now housed here, thanks to the sterling efforts of David Butler at the University of Manchester. Butler himself presents the first piece tonight – To an Independent Listener is a handmade mix of excerpts from the archive. Over 40 minutes it goes from stunning to strange to scary to charming, a fitting journey through the work. It comes complete with abstract visuals by video artist Sarah Hill which complement the audio sensitively and beautifully, and thankfully never threaten to overwhelm Derbyshire’s work itself.
PhD student Teresa Winter then shares the fruits of her research into Derbyshire radio drama collaborations with writer Angela Rodaway, even playing a tantalising clip of one of these little-heard plays. The second half focuses directly on performance, with three musicians presenting new pieces inspired by, or responding to, Derbyshire’s work. Now, this could go either way – and it does.
Daniel Weaver’s performance replicates some of Derbyshire’s techniques to create a piece called Complex Futures which taps into the extraordinary blend of warmth, charm and haunting melancholy that distinguished her work. The second piece, Ailis ni Riain’s The Consequences of Falling, seeks to explore the ‘angular robot jazz’ tag which was applied to Derbyshire’s celebrated track Pot au Feu. Though it’s a striking experiment, played live on trumpet and double bass rather than anything remotely electronic, it feels too detached from the spirit and form of Derbyshire’s work to chime right. Finally, Caro C’s Audient, My Dear with striking live visuals by Andrea Pazos is more of a direct modern tribute, being effectively a piece of ambient folktronica with live looped ping-pong ball and plastic ruler percussion. By contrast, it’s perhaps too much of a dry exercise, too slavishly in thrall to the star of the show, to come to life in its own right.
Whatever reservations they may throw up, these annual Delia Days – of which this is the second – are fascinating events and make for a laudable attempt to engage with Derbyshire’s work as well as navigating that tricky line between paying direct homage and forging an inspired contemporary response. And the Burgess Foundation is a perfect, refined, intimate venue for such an evening. We can only wonder, though, what Anthony Burgess – himself a keen composer – would have made of it all.
What: Delia Derbyshire Day 2014
Where: The International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Cambridge Street, Manchester
When: April 12, 2014 and touring
More info: http://deliaderbyshireday.wordpress.com/, http://www.anthonyburgess.org/