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Deliaphonic

Coventry Cathedral & Drapers Hall, Coventry, UK

Deliaphonic celebrates the life, work and legacy of pioneering electronic musician and Coventry native Delia Derbyshire. Prior to her death in 2001, Derbyshire envisioned creating an event – along with Spacemen 3’s Peter Kember – called Multi-sensory Electronic Sound, Music and Arts. Its function aimed to go beyond the typical music festival format and incorporate workshops where participants could try out various instruments such as the VCS3 synthesizer or theremin. The idea was to make sound making technology accessible to everyone. This fourth edition of Deliaphonic, which is part of the Coventry UK City of Culture initiative, attempts to realise Derbyshire’s family-friendly vision.

Inside the cathedral, which serves as the principal venue of this four-day festival, can be found various multisensory installations and workshops. Many are aimed at children, who are actively encouraged to interact. In the undercroft, festival co-founder Alex Miles demonstrates a collection of devices that convert light vibrations into sound, while upstairs Dan Mayfield’s School of Noise project invites attendees to play vegetables connected to an ototo, an instrument which allows any conductive material to generate sound. Another highlight is Caro C’s Coolicon Lampshade Installation. Eight lampshades, suspended inside a tent, can be played by the public with beaters. The lampshades’ enamel-coated steel bodies resonate like bells and are said to have been Derbyshire’s favourite sounding objects.  

A screening of the film Delia Derbyshire: the Myths and the Legendary Tapes puts the proceedings into context. Directed by Caroline Catz, who also stars in the leading role, the film is somewhere between a documentary and Brechtian theatre. The aesthetic language of the movie is saturated with what Julian House of Ghost Box Records calls the “background of tape”, by which he means Op Art, BBC title cards, and magnetic tape effects. Aside the festival logo designed by House, this flirtation with 1960s modernism is also present in the creative direction of a number of artists at the festival. Vanishing Twin’s waltzy interplay of bass, melody and synthetic textures is the most prominent example of this. Their sound is heavily indebted to Broadcast and, by extension, early electronic psychedelia such as Derbyshire’s band White Noise. 

For others, the link to modernism is less apparent. For example, both the warped footwork of Friday headliner Loraine James and The Specials founder Jerry Dammers’s dissonant soundtrack to George Shaw’s hyperrealist suburbia paintings feel very contemporary in the alienation they espouse. Future Rave Memory by Richard Fearless, meanwhile, uses treated double bass to create brooding dystopian atmospheres. The piece works well in the acoustics of the cathedral and a fitting antithesis to the Radiophonic Workshop’s playful reworkings of Derbyshire’s signature Doctor Who theme. 

Marra! by Natalie Sharp (formerly known as Lone Taxidermist) rises above all other performances in terms of its subject and originality. The theatrical piece examines the dialect, ceremonies and rituals of Cumbria, which has been home to both Sharp and Derbyshire (in her post-BBC years). Footage of cattle auctions, champion gurners and pub folk singers are juxtaposed with recordings of Seychelles moutya drum rituals, car alarm loops and discordant electronic noise. Through her immersive exaggerated theatrics (there are four costume changes during the set and a butcher-led crowd intervention) Sharp, a first-generation immigrant, portrays how strange local customs can appear to an outsider. Marra! not only feels relevant, but also aligns itself with Derbyshire’s experimental spirit and outsider myth.

Ilia Rogatchevski
Originally published by Wire, April 2022

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