Delia Derbyshire and “Blue Veils and Golden Sands”
If you’ve heard of anyone from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, you’ve heard of Delia Derbyshire. If nothing else, you might have heard her referred to as the “composer of the Doctor Who theme”—not strictly true, but we’ll get to that in a bit. You’ve probably also seen the iconic photo of the lady: a delicate-featured young woman wearing a cardigan, bent over a reel-to-reel tape deck, her thick auburn hair held back by an Alice band.
Derbyshire was a graduate of Girton College, Cambridge, who came to work for the BBC after being told by Decca Records that they didn’t hire women. She joined the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1960 and quickly made her mark, beginning a prolific career both within and without the confines of the BBC. You can hear her contributions in the special sound for Four Inventions in Radio, beautiful, haunting sound collages composed in collaboration with playwright Barry Bermange. If there is a complete list of her credits for the BBC, it remains to be found or compiled; her known corpus includes such works as 1963’s “Know Your Car (Get Out and Get Under)”, a peppy circus-like melody punctuated with the sound of a car backfire; the titles and incidentals for a 1962 documentary on increased leisure time in an automated world (!) called “Time On Our Hands”, which start out loose, ethereal, and suggestive of technologically-induced ennui and soon turn harsh and anxious; and “Science and Health”, the titles for a 1964 radio sex education programme. (The last was deemed “too lascivious” by a producer; it’s hard to imagine how the cheery harpsichord-like melody could have received that verdict. Maybe it’s the bouncy, reverb’d rhythm line, which has just a bit of a saucy wobble to it.)
“Blue Veils and Golden Sands” was composed for a documentary on the Tuaregs. Derbyshire began with the sound of an industrial green metal lampshade being struck: a sound she analyzed and re-synthesized through the Workshop’s oscillators and sound equipment. The oscillator sounds were looped and woven back together; there’s a sound in there that Derbyshire referred to as her “castrated oboe”, and also the sound of her voice, cut-up and re-sampled out of all recognition—I challenge any listener to find it. It’s a deceptively simple piece, but there are subtle depths to it, and it rewards repeated listenings.