A Delian Mode: Dear Delia
On ViewShoot the Lobster
The British science fiction TV show Doctor Who, which has aired intermittently on the BBC since 1963, is such a staple within British culture that one might consider it an institution. Its opening theme song has long been described as eerie—something captivating yet frightening and altogether out of place, so much so that younger viewers hid behind the couch at first listen. Composed before the advent of synthesizers, some of the sounds in the theme had likely never before been heard by most of the program’s viewers.
Realized through the BBC Radiophonic Workshop—a group of technicians employed by the station to score programs—the original Doctor Who theme was written by composer Ron Grainer, with a woman named Delia Derbyshire working as the main assistant on its realization. As company policy, the BBC employed “assistants” rather than composers, so in the eyes of the station these people weren’t making music per se, but simply executing what others had composed. Because Derbyshire wasn’t considered a composer or musician she was never given a co-writing credit, even with Grainer acknowledging that Derbyshire’s composition was one unto itself. It wasn’t until recently that she has been widely recognized as working on it at all. Outside of the BBC she was definitely a musician and a composer and subsequently went on to create a large catalog of electronic music.
Derbyshire made the Doctor Who theme mostly by sampling sounds or making field recordings, creating ambient white noise, and utilizing test-tone oscillators to produce harmonic waveforms. Recording all of this to analog magnetic tape allowed her to pitch the sounds up or down, alter their speed, and cut up the tape to make loops. All of these actions are akin to the genre musique concrète.
Fast forward to today. The group show Dear Delia at Shoot The Lobster puts forth Derbyshire’s creative contribution and builds off of it by presenting work by six artists: Whitney Claflin, Nikita Gale, E. Jane, Alima Lee, Maggie Lee, and Sara Magenheimer. The presentation is varied in medium but all of the pieces use some form of sampling, collage/cut and paste, or affect material through different kinds of production. Maggie Lee’s Sugar (2020) is a de facto painting made of mirrored multi-lens film, a material that reflects and distorts any person or object in front of it. Cut and pasted on top of that are repeated, printed letters of the word “sugar,” which creates a stuttered, almost rhythmic, yet free-form, sprinkled concrete poem: “S u g a r / S ss su u u g a g gaga r r r rrr …” The letters echo Derbyshire’s use of cut-up magnetic tape loops, while the mirrored aspect is comparable to sampled ambient sound.
E. Jane, Alima Lee, and Sara Magenheimer all contribute video work, each with their own Delian-esque aspects. E. Jane’s mood 06 (practicing) (2015–17), shows the artist triggering different digital music samples while recording themself through the computer program Photo Booth. Using a visual effect in that program that allows them to key out certain pixels of the video and embed other images within, they present a digital collage of image and sound. Alima Lee also uses video effects to create layers in her piece Meditation on Madness (2019), but in this case she adds a digital layer of pure color that copies and abstracts the video below it. Sara Magenheimer’s SAFE (2020) splices together appropriated video clips of people shooting a security safe with high powered guns and flamethrowers, zooming in to crop out any humans, and adding her own written text atop the visuals.
Nikita Gale and Whitney Claflin’s contributions are also quite Delian, augmenting and abstracting things that already exist. Gale’s KNOW YOUR CAR (2020) is a spectrogram of Delia Derbyshire’s song of the same name—a visual resampling of Derbyshire’s sound piece, presented as a segment of floor to ceiling wallpaper. This same re-presenting logic is seen within Claflin’s text piece untitled (2018) which displays a three-line poem that reads, “i listen to ads on the / radio / about fights.” What looks to be typewritten text has actually been transferred from typewriter to paper via carbon copy, creating a layer of remove. One imagines Claflin listening to the radio while working, letting the sounds she’s hearing inform the information she’s transcribing onto the page, the final product a copy of a field recording that abstractly reflects the times we’re living in.
Whether through company policy or more nefarious intentions (involving many levels of discrimination), Derbyshire did not receive due recognition in her lifetime for catapulting Doctor Who to the place in culture it now occupies. Her contributions to the history of musique concrète and English electronic music have just been recently acknowledged as well. Despite her lack of recognition, Dear Delia shows that there are artists paying attention to her work and that history is layered and looping. Maybe through the cutting, stretching, sampling, and splicing of material and information, one can begin to create a more accurate look at the past as well as the present.