Nicola McCartney’s Standing Wave is a portrait of and tribute to the wonderful Delia Derbyshire. If, like me, the only Derbyshire you were aware of was a county in England, then this play will surprise and astound you.
It was delightful to discover this remarkable English woman through Nicola McCartney’s writing. Delia worked in the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, creating sounds, splicing tape and making music before synthesizers were invented. She created all the sound effects and the recording of Ron Grainer’s ‘Doctor Who’ theme. “Did I really write this?” he asked when he first heard it. Apparently he was so impressed that he suggested she should get half the royalties. But the BBC insisted on no staff names being attached to any work, so that never eventuated.
Nicola McCartney makes this more than a straightforward biographical work by creating two Delias in her play. One is Delia Derbyshire in 1964, working at the BBC, the other is Delia Hunter (her married name) in 1973, two weeks married and escaping her husband to stay at the gallery home of artist Li Yuan Chia. The two Delias overlap, feed into each other and reflect the times and the amazing mind of a woman who saw music as equations and heard maths as music.
DELIA DERBYSHIRE: Mathematics is the music of reason; music, the mathematics of the sense. Yeah?
There is a third actor on stage, a male actor who plays a character much like Doctor Who, taking Delia Hunter back in time, and who also plays the men and women in Delia’s life. And her list of lovers and friends is a little like a who’s who of the 60s and 70s. There was Brian Hodgson (her dear friend and work colleague), David Vorhaus (her lover and musical protege), Paul McCartney and many more.
BRIAN HODGSON: It’s a wonderful idea… I love it that you’re collecting sounds from the pyramid artefacts. Beautiful. Simple. Genius.
DELIA HUNTER: Oh, it’s obvious. What else was I going to use? You can’t create the sound of Tutankhamun’s tomb with a sine wave generator! And the sound of the ram’s horn… Exquisite… Like this… It’s the equation for it… the shape of a ram’s horn. I sent it to Angela on a postcard… Beautiful…! That’s how it feels – the sound of… Of blackness… Isn’t it…? To die so young…
When Delia created music she used everything at her disposal in the most imaginative and artistic ways. In the play she describes creating the music for moment when camels ride off in a film. She recorded her own voice and broke it up for the ‘hooves’ and used the sound made when she struck her lampshade.
DELIA HUNTER: So the camels rode off into the sunset with my voice in their hooves and a green lampshade on their backs…
In McCartney’s portrayal Delia drinks much too much and is obsessed by sound and recording. She practically lives at the BBC, staying up all night to perfect the pieces on which she’s working and drinks wine through a straw while riding her bicycle to and from work. She is a marvellously eccentric and brilliant character and I’m grateful to McCartney for making me aware of the incredible Delia Derbyshire.
As the two Delias say: The best thing about having rules is that when you break them it makes something beautiful.
Standing Wave is currently unpublished. (The title comes from the term for when sound bursts between two reflective surfaces.)
Cast: 2F, 1M