It came as no surprise to me that Delia Derbyshire, composer and BBC Radiophonic Workshop maestra, would have created incredibly forward-thinking music in the 60s. But when one track seemed to predict IDM and modern electronica, the story of Derbyshire’s vintage “dance” track spread over the Interwebs, and even aroused suspicion of fakery.
David Butler of the University of Manchester was one of two archivists who started undertaking the work of assembling a library of Derbyshire’s ground-breaking work. He writes in CDM’s comments that this is no BBC special effect: the recordings are very much real. He also clears up some of the confusion about their discovery, and offers more on the tantalizing cut “NOAH’s dance.”
It’s worth reading the whole comment (remember, you can also subscribe to CDM’s comment feed):
Hi everybody – hope you don’t mind me chipping in but I just wanted to reassure you all and Captain Howdy in particular that the rhythm track heard on the PM show is definitely not a hoax, mistake or practical joke!
As gwenhwyfaer said, it wouldn’t be in our interests at all to put out a hoax – it wouldn’t do Delia’s legacy or reputation any favours and would ruin ours.
Captain Howdy is right though to point out that the quality of the recording is cleaner than the majority of the tapes in the archive – but it’s not alone in sounding that bright – there is another track in the archive – a 3 and a half minute pop instrumental called ‘Ron Grainer’s Bread’ that has a similar brightness and also makes use of a drum machine (and synthesizer) for that matter – we’re trying to work out what this piece was actually used for! We do know that Delia worked on a Ron Grainer musical in the late 1960s so that’s a possibility but there’s still a lot of detective work to be done and cross-referencing with other archives.
We were stunned when we heard the rhythm track that you’ve all heard on the BBC site – I’m still knocked out by it! The track in question is from a 10.5" reel that runs for just over 15 minutes – the only identification on the reel is a label that says ‘NOAH’s dance – basic rh."
This label was a great help to us – and many of the reels lack labels so we have much to do to confirm the identity of everything in the archive (and some reels may well remain mysteries).
In the case of the ‘Noah’s Dance’ track we have got some leads to follow up on – there was a BBC production that the Radiophonic Workshop contributed to that links in with the reel’s title (this is where we’ll need to cross-reference with the larger archive of the RW, which Mark Ayres has done outstanding work on).
But there’s another source too – as some of you will know – Peter Zinovieff’s EMS company put out a promotional LP in 1971 and one of the tracks listed on said LP is ‘Dance from Noah’, which – without jumping to conclusions – we’re assuming is likely to be the same thing – if anybody has a copy of that LP to hand then please do check and let me know as that’s next on our trail!
There are three reels in the archive which contain elements that form ‘Dance from Noah’ – and the reel mentioned above contains all the makeup elements so that you can hear them in isolation.
This is where the rhythm track really stands out – when you hear the whole piece in its finished form with the synthesized melody line and various effects, the rhythm is far less striking as it’s buried further down in the mix so on first listening it’s easy not to pick up on it.
But on the makeup tape, after the isolated melody line – and one or two false starts – there’s nearly nine minutes of the rhythm alone, with one interruption about halfway through – and hearing that track sustained for 9 minutes is when it really hits home.
Captain Howdy is right again to point out that this track sounds so different to Delia’s known output or that of her contemporaries at the time – but it’s also worth remembering that – not least following their collaboration as Unit Delta Plus – she did have access to Zinovieff’s fledgling synthesizer the VCS3 and other electronic textures – and much of what we know of her output is limited to a relatively small body of work – but she was active in all kinds of contexts throughout the 1960s and there are several pieces in the archive that expand our understanding of what is characteristically ‘Delian’.
This is where the PM piece unitentionally created some confusion – I thought they did a great job to fit everything they did into 5 minutes but inevitably some clarity was lost – and much of what I said was cut (I don’t blame them!) where I tried to explain a bit more about the archive and the extracts heard in the piece – quite a bit of what I said was edited and placed slightly out of context – so when I was discussing Delia’s amazing rhythmic precision and beat matching pre-synthesizers or multi-tracking software, we’re actually listening on the PM item to a piece that does use synthesizers! These things happen I guess – I was really pleased that PM acknowledged Ron Grainer’s vital contribution to the Doctor Who theme but elsewhere a lot of the other coverage I’ve seen described Delia as ‘Dr Who composer’ which isn’t quite the full story as we know! I know it’s word counts and sound bites so it would be naive not to expect these things to come in.
There are two things to clarify about the rhythm track up on the BBC site – the first relates to Delia’s voice saying ‘forget about this, this is for interest only’ – that bit of speech is from a different reel in the archive (one of the several reels relating to her music for the Tutankhamun’s Egypt series).
When the BBC asked for something from the archive to include in the PM item I put together three brief extracts in consultation with Mark Ayres. I wanted to give them a range of elements to incorporate as they saw fit and a flavour of the different kind of things the archive contained – it was important to include something demonstrating Delia ‘at work’, so I offered them the extract from one of the Blue Veils makeup reels; then some of her freelance work for theatre (there’s quite a bit of this aspect of her work in the archive – and just to clarify, the archive generously [there’s an understatement if ever there was one] donated to Manchester by Mark Ayres, in agreement with the Derbyshire estate, contains principally Delia’s freelance work – most of the pieces for BBC productions were assimilated into the larger archive of the Radiophonic Workshop) and then lastly the ‘Dance from Noah’ piece.
At this stage I had no idea what else they were going to include in the PM item and didn’t until I heard the piece on iplayer on Friday! I knew they’d spoken to Paul Hartnoll (they interviewed me on Wednesday the day before the piece went out and already had the Hartnoll interview in the can by then) but didn’t know what else was going in there i.e. all those other Delia tracks and Delia talking about the DW theme tune.
It seemed important to me that Delia’s voice also be heard so when I put together the extracts for the BBC I added on the bit of her saying ‘forget about this’, which I thought was reflective of the way she might often self-deprecatingly play down her music or giggle with delight – there are moments on the archive reels where you can hear her doing this (especially on the Egypt masters where she introduces each cue) – but also relate to how her music was often unacknowledged in terms of her receiving a credit and she often was ‘forgotten’ off credit lists. It wasn’t intended to imply that she was referring directly to the ‘Dance from Noah’ track!! Again, this is due to elements being used out of context.
The second aspect that needs to be clarified about the rhtyhm track on the BBC website relates to the long high-pitched ‘ambient’ notes slowly fading out of the clip as the rhythm track fades in – these are from a different reel in the archive and are the vestigial remains of a 45 minute in-house presentation at the University about the archive after the initial digitisation had been completed (mainly to reassure the University about what we’d been working on and how their initial funding to help get the archive up and running had been spent!) – for this presentation several extended pieces from the archive were played in succession with slow segues between them, as one piece faded out another faded in – and it’s the remnants of that which you hear at the beginning of the PM extract.
Once those notes fade out on the extract heard on the PM item, you have the rhythm track on its own before it too fades out (as said earlier, there’s around 9 minutes of this on the makeup tape).
The reason for the fades in and out were purely to protect the integrity of the archive. We were limited – for copyright reasons – as to what and how much we could offer to the BBC – we still need to identify all the pieces in the archive, including in what context they were broadcast/used and whether there are any outstanding copyright issues, so the extracts offered had to be fragments, makeup elements or freelance work.
Please rest assured, we’re not going to hoard these sounds away!! We are bound though by an agreement with Mark and Delia’s estate that no commercial exploitation of the archive is done without discussing it with them and receiving their full approval (CD releases will almost certainly be produced by Mark in keeping with the releases of Radiophonic Workshop material that he has produced and overseen) and we cannot break that trust – the fades on the extracts released to the BBC were put in to make sampling difficult – which I know will sound harsh to many people (and is hypocritical of me given the amount of stuff I’ve sampled over the years!).
Long term I should stress again, we’re not going to lock these tapes away – we’re applying for funding to commission new pieces of music inspired by Delia, her life and work and so one of our plans is to be able to invite composers to come and work with the archive, so that it continues to live on and generate new music – but at this early stage we had to be careful and I hope people understand the reasons for that – in time though the archive will be open for people to come and listen to and read its contents.
So many apologies for the lengthy spiel, but I hope that explains things and reassures you all – there’s no hoax at work! The rhythm track on its own, isolated from the rest of the piece, is quite remarkable and is a genuine part of Delia’s archive – as I say, the tape that it’s on has all the other elements of the final piece as well as several false starts on it – but when we heard that rhythm sequence we were amazed and I really wish I could release the unedited 9 minutes of it so that you can all listen to the whole thing and fully quell any concerns (I don’t blame Captain Howdy for being suspicious at all).
Please do email me if you have any further questions – I know just how important Delia’s music is to so many people and what an inspiration she continues to be – the response since the BBC piece last week has been overwhelming and I have a *lot* of emails to write in the next few days to people before I can go away on holiday next week – so replies might take a while but they should arrive eventually!
One or two people in the thread mentioned that the story of how the archive came to Manchester remained a mystery – it’s not been a mystery on our part – again, any mystery is a result of tight word counts in the media coverage. There’s a brief piece about how we got the archive here:
The absolute priority had to be to make digital transfers of the reels – and this took a lot of time as it had to be worked around other teaching, admin and research duties. We were helped massively by Louis Niebur – a US academic specialising in British electronic music – who spent the summer with us on the archive. Given the age of the tapes and the condition they’d been stored in (they were passed on to Mark in cardboard boxes, one of which was a box of Kellog’s All Bran I seem to remember!), the vast majority played remarkably well – but a number were problematic with the splices coming apart as they were played on the Studer and requiring careful reconstruction. One tape in particular was in such a fragile condition that we have still not done anything with it yet. Another major problem was determining the correct playback speed on the Studer – several tapes spliced between 7.5 ips and 15 ips – so it was often not a case of a straightforward playback as we had to adjust the playback speed accordingly – but in some cases we couldn’t be 100% certain what that speed should be (often a helpful clue was a human voice introducing the next cue on a tape).
The vast majority of this was completed and the files bounced by the end of September 2007 – then the academic term started up again! Over the next months I found it difficult to give the archive the extended time it needed alongside all my teaching and admin duties (plus finishing a contracted book!) – and it wasn’t until the academic year was over that I was able to give the archive some quality attention again – all of which coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Radiophonic Workshop so the timing seemed right at last to make a formal announcement -hope that explains the time lapse gwenhwyfaer!
The archive ultimately should be available to anybody with a genuine interest in Delia’s work – it’s not just to be coveted by academics – Delia made music for everybody to listen to – one of the many beautiful qualities about her work is its combination of the experimental and the popular, drifting into and filling our homes (whether invited or not!) and, in the case of *that* theme, being the sound of so many peoples’ Saturdays for the best part of two decades – and so once the archive is fully catalogued and identified (or as fully identified as it can be!) it will be opened up.
Apologies again for the ramble and hope the above has clarified things a bit more.
All best wishes,
I hope we’ll keep in touch, David, on the development of the archive! Stay tuned to CDM for more, dear readers…