There is a somberness and a sparseness to Derbyshire’s music.
In 1964, BBC Radiophonic Workshop associate Delia Derbyshire embarked on a series of collaborations with the playwright Barry Bermange meant to create musical dramas based around the idea of dreams. The first and most famous of these, The Dreams, is receiving a proper vinyl reissue, one of the first and most comprehensive to date. About time, too, as the piece has, until today, existed in relative obscurity on low-grade YouTube streams and through information on Derbyshire’s fan wiki.
At first listen, The Dreams is immensely unassuming. While experimental electronica was fully formed enough by the mid-’60s to have a variety of styles and languages – musique concrète, early synth experimentation, Stockhausen – there is a somberness and a sparseness to Derbyshire’s music that sounds years ahead of the typically janky, wide-eyed chaos of her contemporaries. The record’s core concept of building musical pieces around interview fragments of people recounting their dreams always takes precedence, with the electronic sounds playing more of a supporting role to the piece’s grander narrative.
Still, the musical choices Derbyshire does make are extremely potent. A repeating thump on the opening segment, “Running,” perfectly conveys the feelings of paranoia and helplessness conveyed by the dream recollections of being chased or cornered. As the speakers tell tales of falling into pits or oceans, Derbyshire employs a series of rudimentary descending Shepard tones. She also increases the space between each vocalization, giving the segment a looser and more crawling feeling than the hyperventilating anxiety of “Running.” A quick note on the track titles – there seems to be seems to be a misprint, as the segment titled “Land” is clearly about falling, and “Falling” features observations on the geography of spaces inhabited in the speakers’ dreams.
Perhaps a publishing error, perhaps a conscious choice on Derbyshire and Bermange’s part to further alienate their surreal music from logic, but it nonetheless speaks to the necessary unity of The Dreams. To listen to this piece in anything other than its entirety is to miss out on its all-consuming, totalizing nature. There’s even an effort to feature similar musical material in the piece’s opening and concluding moments, as if purposefully lending itself to continuous looping. Rather than point to a single track (the divisions of which are mostly arbitrary splicing points, as evinced by the range of choices in different streams across the internet), The Dreams is best appreciated as a lengthy, potentially unending claustrophobic hellscape.
One spot, however, offers a respite from the record’s overall grimness. The semi-consonant tones on “Colour” don’t just sound agreeable against the surrounding dissonance – they sound nearly euphoric. It’s a welcome break from the music and text that is literally the stuff of nightmares, as both the sound and the speakers shift into something more impressionistic and wandering. The outro of the segment is also one of the longest solely musical stretches. While the choice to so heavily feature vocals does help drive the piece’s narrative, this small moment of instrumental sound is a reminder that Derbyshire’s electronic work more than stands alone. If anything, The Dreams simply reignited my interest in some of her purely sonic works.
Just as much as Derbyshire (and Bermange) succeeded because of what they did do, there’s a deep sigh of relief that accompanies considering the paths they consciously chose not to take. There’s another version of The Dreams that indulges in nascent hippie drug culture, another that bogs itself down in Freudian minutiae. Against these could’ve-beens, the honest simplicity of what this duo delivered is marvelous. To embark on such a concept in a short-form piece is one thing,;to turn this simple idea into a 40-minute, multifaceted drone work takes unparalleled musical know-how.