Delia Derbyshire: Hacker Goddess and Electronic Music Guru (1937-2001)

Delia Derbyshire at work

It seems fitting on Ada Lovelace day for our group of intrepid hackers to celebrate the life and achievements of Delia Derbyshire.  Born in Coventry in 1937, she has become a quintessential hacker  goddess and one of the early founders of electronic music.  Unsung for many years because of the BBC policy of not crediting by name the Radiophonic Workshop contributors, who were seen as simple “sound effects” people, her work was largely unrecognized for many years by the larger electronic music community.  Famous largely now for her efforts on the instantly-recognizable title music for the “Dr. Who’ television show, her work spanned a wide range of electronic genres, reaching its real heights in moody, ambient soundtracks for a range of BBC shows- the best of which were science fiction.

What many do not realize is how primitive the tools used to compose this music were- often using only  banks of single-tone audio frequency generators and reel-to-reel tape decks.  Delia would carefully cut and paste beat loops of tones and found sounds, and then painstakingly beat-match the loops on banks of recorders, recording the result on other decks.  By doing this over and over, she could get remarkably intricate layered compositions.  It is this spirit of remarkable innovation and craftwork that has has endeared her to many electronic musicians, including Sonic Boom (Peter Kember,) who was collaborating with her during the 1990s until her death, long after she had left the BBC and electronic music.

Inspiration can be found in online collections of her work, and in plays ad performances about her life and times.  With a new generation of electronic musicians strongly influenced by the DIY/hacker ethic, it is not surprising to see a significant rise in interest in Delia Derbyshire and her works.  Her influence will continue to be long lived, and like Ada herself, Delia Derbyshire has proven to be a visionary pathbreaker and an inspiration to visionaries everywhere.