Though electronic composer Delia Derbyshire has been referred to as "the unsung heroine of British electronic music," it wouldn't be a stretch to expand upon the accolade and call her an unsung heroine of music, period -- regardless of nationality, regardless of field. The leading light of the BBC's Radiophonic Workshop throughout the '60s and the first half of the '70s, Derbyshire's most notorious work is the instantly recognizable theme for the infamous science fiction program Dr. Who. But Derbyshire was no mere flash in the pan. She was a great talent and a great mind, and she should be regarded with the likes of Karlheinz Stockhausen and Raymond Scott as one of the key figures to push electronic music forward. Just as important, Derbyshire wasn't secretive with her knowledge and found it necessary to pass it around freely.
Born in Coventry, England, on May 5, 1937, Derbyshire learned piano and violin in her youth and attended college at Girton in Cambridge. Starting out in mathematics, she persuaded the powers-that-were to change over to music and eventually obtained a degree. Upon finishing school, a career counselor suggested to Derbyshire that she ought to work in deaf aids or depth sounding. She began looking for employment in the music industry and was met with its inherent sexism -- Decca Records informed her of their refusal to hire women for work in their recording studios. After finally finding acceptance at the United Nations in Geneva, she discovered a more desirable position at Boosey & Hawkes, a music publisher based in London. This didn't last long either, and by 1960 she was a trainee studio manager at the BBC. Through this, she became involved with the organization's then-young Radiophonic Workshop, an enclave that, from its onset, was intended to be a service for Radio Drama, supplying their productions with incidental music and sound effects.
Early in her stint with the Workshop, Derbyshire recorded the legendary Dr. Who theme with the use of tape loops, filters, and valve oscillators. Unfortunately, she didn't receive any credit for the piece until it was released in re-edited/overdubbed form as a single in 1973. Regardless of the lack of recognition that plagues her (for much of her work) to this day, the Dr. Who theme paved the way for a constant stream of work for the composer. Her skills became very much in demand, and she did work for several programs that required her expertise in crafting music that represented unorthodox settings -- settings where electronically based compositions were favored over orchestras. Programs on arts and sciences -- both educational and entertainment-based -- required Derbyshire's singular creativity and innovation.
The Radiophonic Workshop wasn't completely supportive of her talents. Much of her work was rejected, negatively cast off for being bizarre. Often told that most of her music was either "too lascivious" for youngsters or "too sophisticated" for many adults, she set up a number of studios (Electrophon, Kaleidophon, and Unit Delta Plus) with fellow composers, including Brian Hodgson, David Vorhaus, and Peter Zinovieff, where she could develop in avant-garde circles and delve further into work for film and theater, free of restraint. One of the major works to originate from the Kaleidophon studio was 1969's An Electric Storm, a record made by Derbyshire and Vorhaus under the guise of the White Noise. Somewhat surprisingly, the record was released on Island. She also increased her social involvement as a proponent of electronic music. Along with Zinovieff and Hodgson, Derbyshire organized and performed at the Unit Delta Plus Concert of Electronic Music in 1966, a festival at Bagnor's Watermill Theater that combined electronic music with light shows. During this period, her reach extended into pop music, as she participated in many happenings. She was either associated with or collaborated with the likes of the Rolling Stones' Brian Jones, Pink Floyd, the Beatles, Anthony Newley, and Yoko Ono.
Frustrated with the state of music and the prospect of where it was headed, Derbyshire left the Radiophonic Workshop in 1972 and went to work at museums, bookshops, and art galleries. She also spent some time as a radio operator. However, she poked her head back into music two decades later and found the climate to be conducive again to her ideals. Just prior to her death on July 3, 2001 (in Northampton, England), she had been working with longtime admirer Sonic Boom on MESMA (Multi-sensory Electronic Sounds, Music, and Art), an organization with the aim to hold workshops and festivals in order to increase knowledge of electronic music. Appreciation of Derbyshire's work has continued to escalate through retrospective releases, including Doctor Who, Vol. 1: The Early Years, Doctor Who, Vol. 2: New Beginnings and also in the overt influence upon numerous bands that cite her as a crucial source of inspiration.