Last night was aired one of the best TV arts programmes I've watched in recent years. It was like something from the good old days when the BBC took risks, rose to its subject matter and didn't dumb down to an audience only thought to be interested in cake-baking, auctions or murders. Guardian review.
So often, musical documentaries turn into a gushing frenzy of personality-back-scrubbing, even if the subjects are dead, whereas this portrait of a little-known pioneering composer brought her and her talents realistically to life and gave much food for thought.. A musician and a Cambridge mathematician, Delia Derbyshire succeeded in joining the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and became the creative producer behind many startling sound effects and theme tunes on TV and radio for the next ten years, most notably, of course, for Doctor Who. The Radiophonic Workshop was regarded as the nadir of the BBC - its occupants weren't 'composers' but technical assistants - and I wondered why she didn't escape instead to Paris, a centre of electronic music at the time, since she was bilingual too.
In 1967 I was a teenager and interested in electronics and the crossover between science and music. My school was enrolled on a trial A-level scheme called 'physical science' (counting as two A-levels!) and as a major part of the course, we were to develop a project on our own initiative: my subject was musical synthesis. On the back of this, I arranged a 'research' visit to the Radiophonic Workshop and met Desmond Briscoe, its head. Deciding against an immediate career at the BBC (aged 16, I was offered a traineeship) I went on to Oxford where acoustics became the special subject for my degree.
The documentary brought this period back to me and I realised I could identify with Delia Derbyshire in one major respect: as the technology improved, musical synthesis became less intuitive, more technical and eventually, of course, computer-driven. Derbyshire's creativity, it seemed, emerged out of the limitations of tape manipulation and I reflected that 'primitive' methods can achieve sophisticated results.. A comparison of her original Doctor Who theme tune with a later re-make by others using more 'advanced' synthesis illustrated the point convincingly. Faced with an ever-expanding palette of hardware, she lost heart and left London. It must have been at around the same time that I visited the computer music department in Aarhus where transformations by then could be processed in real time. But I remember thinking "so what?"
Self-evidently, these processes opened up new worlds of sonic possibilities. But I soon saw that this kind of exploration for its own sake didn't appeal to me, nor did new sounds necessarily result in interesting music. On the contrary, it's the comparatively finite possibilities of musical instruments and the voice which yield more complex and nuanced sounds, especially in live performance.
Against all the odds, Derbyshire succeeded in breaking into the men's world of the 60's and her achievements deserve this belated recognition. But her tragedy is that in the 70's and 80's the world of musical composition was dominated by the cliques of the (still male dominated) ultra-cerebral avant-garde leaving more intuitive creators out in the cold. I could well imagine how Derbyshire became disillusioned and sought solace elsewhere.
Composer and musician