The sound of inspiration: Introducing MA Music Students to Special Collections

Dr Janette Martin
Special Collections
4 min readAug 5, 2022


antique gas mask
Gas Mask belonging to Delia Derbyshire

A blog post by Dr Janette Martin (Research and Learning Manager) and Dr Joshua Brown (Lecturer and former Artist in Residence at the John Rylands Research Institute and Library).

On 25 February 2022, The John Rylands Library hosted a group of post graduate students and their tutor Dr Josh Brown from the University of Manchester’s Music Department. Students enrolled on the Composition Project Course, MUSC40102 spent an afternoon getting to know the magnificent neo-Gothic library (with its incredible acoustics!) and learning more about our world-class collections that span five millennia and are written on every medium from papyri to pixels. They also learned the practical stuff too, from how to book appointments and navigate the various catalogues to learning about our music and creative arts collections.

The final part of the workshop was an opportunity to handle a group of objects and artefacts selected by the curators to show the wide range and chronology of sources available to researchers. The students had been tasked with writing and performing a creative response to the the Library’s rich Delia Derbyshire Collection. Jane Donaldson, the Creative Arts Archivist, spoke of the musical legacy of Delia Derbyshire (1937–2001) and brought out some evocative parts of the collection from graphic scores and childhood exercise books to a gas mark that belonged to Delia. Judging from the feedback forms seeing the Derbyshire collection was a highlight.

Infectious enthusiasm of the wonderful staff … great information on our research topic on Delia Derbyshire.

Group of students leaning over special collection table looking at objects
MA Composition students examining the Delia Derbyshire Archive

This visit was only the beginning. The students were invited back to perform their assessed compositions in the Historic Reading Room on Friday 6th May 2022 at a public performance billed as ‘Composing Collections- Musical responses to Delia Derbyshire’. Over 800 visitors experienced the student performances.

AV kit, head phones — room set up prior to performance
Setting up the sound equipment

The concert on the 6th May 2022 was a really inspiring collaboration between the John Rylands and the music department, that showed the enthusiasm and skill of our student composers (and performers) in a unique and beautiful setting. The compositions were varied and diverse, and treated the audience to an array of individual responses to the Delia Derbyshire archives. From the Ad Solem choir surrounding the audience, to onstage choir accompanied by a saxophonist on a balcony framed by stained glass, to choir and electronics, to purely electroacoustic compositions, there was something for everyone.

Saxophonist plays on a balcony with a fine stained glass window behind him
Saxophonist practising on the balcony

The response of the students to this project, and the collaboration with Rylands specialist engagement team and archival staff was remarkably positive. Student comments after the course showed great enthusiasm for the opportunity to explore archives as part of the module, as a route for developing artistic practice.

Most important of all, the audience reaction to the student composers was so open and so positive. Their curiosity about our students’ work, and the ground-breaking work Delia Derbyshire that inspired our students, was inspiring in itself. Not only does it show that Manchester audiences are hungry for the new and the experimental, but that collaborative projects between the John Rylands Special Collections teams and the university as a whole can have real impact in the city.

Additional Resources on Delia Derbyshire

For a top level description of the Delia Derbyshire Papers held at The John Rylands Library and a link to the detailed catalogues please click here

Other musical inspirations



Dr Janette Martin
Special Collections

Research and Learning Manager (Special Collections) interested in developing online learning resources drawn from the spectacular collections held at the UoM