Reading the Reels […]

Reading the Reels; An Arrangement for Artist and Archivist (Featuring a fragment from the text Draft version of Delia Derbyshire track listings Preliminary Comments (unedited) of Archive, Louis Niebur Aug 23, 07.)

The starting point for this work, created as a response to the Her Noise Archive at LCC, was an exploration of the “map” used in the Her Noise exhibition catalogue. This diagram presents a partial overview of groupings of women musicians and artists using sound, both living and dead who warrant, in the opinion of the Her Noise curators Lina Dzuverovic and Anne Hilde Neset, a place in the musical / artistic canon(s). It includes a small group of ‘radiophonic’ composers: the Danish composer Else Maria Pade and two BBC Radiophonic Workshop composers Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire. I was particular keen to explore material in relation to Derbyshire because of a personal interest in her work, but discovered that there is no material on her within the Her Noise archive.

Through online research I found the Delia Derbyshire archive in the John Rylands Library at the University of Manchester. One part of this archive is a large collection of Derbyshire’s reel-to-reel audiotapes discovered after her death. Another part is Derbyshire’s papers including composition notes, scores and internal communications from her time working at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. The digitised audio from reel to reel tapes is not available online or published anywhere else. To access it you must use a “listening device” (a laptop computer and headphones) within the Special Collections Reading Room at the John Rylands Library. So I planned a trip to Manchester.

The Bible Room
The Bible Room c.1920

I made an audio recording of the current archivist with responsiblity for the Delia Derbyshire archive, Janette Martin, reading the only available written description of the audio archive: “Draft version of Delia Derbyshire track listings. Preliminary Comments (unedited) of Archive, Louis Niebur Aug 23, ’07.” (Louis Niebur is a musicologist, now based at the University of Navada, who had been involved in digitising this material). The acoustics and incidental noise captured in that recording, made in the John Ryland Library’s Bible Room, suggests the space and the city beyond. I also filmed this recording space, mounting a video camera on a motorized head to produce 360-degree pans of the room. The footage used shows me alone in the room with the recording kit listening back to the just-made audio recording of Janette. Later that day in the Special Collections Reading Room, whilst examining the Delia Derbyshire paper archive, I made an audio recording of myself whispering the extended email conversation between myself and a number of individuals with responsibility for the archive (including Louis Niebur) that formed a prelude my gaining access to the archive and Janet. My voice is so quiet that in parts of the recording I am less audible than other sounds in the Reading Room.

For the final piece, these recorded elements and a number of other items were combined into an audio-visual assemblage. Janette’s voice plays into the surrounding space from a reel-to-reel tape machine. The recording of me reading plays through a set of headphones connected to a iPod. The 2.5 minute video loop of me listening to Janette’s recording is projected on the wall behind the table. The installation uses both old ‘redundant’ and new domestic technology combined with objects related to Derbyshire’s own production. The descriptive text Janette reads makes a number of references to “Lampshade” as a sound source. The work incorporates two Coolicon lampshades (the standard lampshade at the BBC during Derbyshire’s time there); one on the table paired with a percussion mallet; the other performing a more conventional role, as the lamp illuminating the tabletop. Sitting on one of the trestles below the tabletop a 1970’s portable TV plays visual and audio white noise.

Overall there are a series of looping references and cross-references in both the process and presentation of the work. A number of absences are also alluded to; most obviously the sonic artifacts of the unheard archive.