The woman who could ‘draw’ music

Published in BBC Culture on May 30, 2017

Few people know Daphne Oram, but she helped shape the sounds, and songs, we listen to today. A pioneer of electronic music, she wrote Still Point – thought to be the world’s first composition which manipulates electronic sounds in real time – in 1949. In 1957, she set up the famous BBC Radiophonic Workshop. The same year, she began working on her Oramics machine, which turned graphical gestures into music: the user could ‘draw’ the sounds they wished to hear.

Her accomplishments helped revolutionise music. But only in recent years have her achievements begun to be celebrated – and the composer is still hardly a household name (unlike her Radiophonic Workshop colleague Delia Derbyshire, who used the studio to create its best-known work, the Dr Who theme). Now, she is receiving overdue recognition – including in a new play, Daphne Oram’s Wonderful World of Sound. Live-scored by electronic sound artist Anneke Kampman, the show is currently touring Scottish theatres.

When the playwrights Isobel McArthur (who also plays Oram) and Paul Brotherston began to investigate Oram, they were blown away. “We immediately saw this was a fascinating, almost unbelievable life story. And we were concerned that we hadn’t heard of this person before and started to recognise that very few other people had,” Brotherston says. “There seems to be a dedicated core of musicians and technicians – but on a wider scale, she’d been forgotten about.”

Oram, who died in 2003, has a biography as unexpected as one of her compositions – and not just because she worked in the masculine world of sound engineering.

The play begins with Oram’s childhood in Wiltshire and features the early, life-changing séance which launched her musical career. When she was 17, Oram’s father invited famous medium Leslie Flint to the house. Quite the celebrity in 1942, Flint later was debunked. But his assertion that a voice from beyond foretold that Oram would be a great musician was, well, instrumental in her father’s decision to allow her to ditch training as a nurse in favour of a career in music. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, this also would spark Oram’s life-long interest in mysticism; she even developed her own, often eccentric theories about connections between soundwaves and the soul).

But even in music, Oram veered from the well-trodden path. At age 18, she turned down a place at the Royal College of Music in order to work as a music balancer at the BBC. Within a few years, she was a studio manager, and began the fight to establish a studio for the production of electronic sound effects – and music.

“Just as the camera and cinema film have exploded ideas of time and space in telling stories, surely the microphone and tape could do the same for music,” Oram wrote in 1952. She saw the potential of tape manipulation when the technology arrived in the early 1950s – such as speeding or slowing, splicing or layering recordings to create new sound effects and musical compositions.

Such experiments were radical at the time. But while avant-garde experimentation was government-funded in other European countries, in the UK, such ideas were not taken seriously – especially when they came from a young woman. While Oram, along with Desmond Briscoe, did eventually persuade the BBC to set up the Radiophonic Workshop, it was small and ill-funded, using cast-off equipment from the Royal Albert Hall.

Oram was largely tasked with providing whizzy sound effects for radio dramas. While some of these were innovative – soundtracking Samuel Beckett’s All That Falls, for instance – the potential for a whole new musical language remained untapped. Oram, undaunted, would work alone at night, pushing around tape recorders to create her own multi-track studio for producing symphonic works.

But then Oram was told to take six months off; her bosses said they were concerned about the effect of radiophonic equipment on the human body. Or should that be the female body? (Her male colleagues were fine, it seems). Deeply frustrated, Oram quit. Despite years of fighting for the Radiophonic Workshop, she barely saw it past its infancy.

“The BBC was an institution run by men, in a world that was more sexist,” says McArthur of Oram’s time. “This is not to say she was perfect or everyone around her was villainous, but she was standing up for something she felt was undervalued. And she was met with the attitude: this woman is very difficult, and willful, and stubborn, and these are all bad things for a woman to be.”

Oram set up her own studio at Tower Folly, a converted oast house (hop-drying barn) in Kent. There she composed trail-blazing concert works using tape manipulation; these included Four Aspects (1960), whose twirling melodies, sludgy rhythms and ambient sound-washes were heard at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1968, and the heady, echo-sodden Pulse Persephone, a commission for the 1965 Treasures of the Commonwealth exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. Commercial work (including jingles for Lego and Nestea) helped fund her.

Legend has it that Oram also received some well-known visitors, including The Who, Mick Jagger and The Beatles. Tantalising as it is to imagine The White Album with Oram in the studio, it was not to be. “She was heard to say that these boys with long hair had come to visit, but it was not really her thing,” says McArthur.

In the 1960s, though, Oram was taken up with her own invention: the Oramics machine. She had encountered a Cathode Ray Oscilloscope – which shows a visual image of sound waves – during her BBC training. Why not reverse it? If you paint in waves the ‘shape’ of the sound you want to hear on 35mm film, determining the pitch, vibrato, timbre and so on, scanners can read and convert that into layered sound. It was, in essence, an early sequencer – and more advanced than those that initially would become available in the 1980s.

The idea of a ‘graphical music’ system consumed Oram. It typifies her view of electronic music not as a soulless, mechanically-controlled thing, but as organic, human and joyously imperfect as any other music.

“It’s quite a democratic view: on something like the Oramics machine, you can just draw,” points out McArthur. “That gestural interface means all people become composers, conceivably, which ties back into her philosophy which says that, at a molecular level, we are sounds. We are all made up noisy atoms and vibrations – sound is at the core of who we are. I find that really inspiring.”

In 1972, Oram also published her manifesto (of sorts): An Individual Note of Music, Sound and Electronics. It is a deeply odd but fascinating work. Oram may explain how, say, electric circuits work, but will then go on to use them as far-reaching analogies for the human body and psyche. Much of it would prompt scientists to snort, but there’s compelling conviction and playful imagination in her ideas. She considers humans as instruments, featuring “a whole spectrum of resonate frequencies which are never at rest, never in a steady state, but are vibrant with pulsating tension” – right down to our very cells and atoms.

Despite her eccentric ideas, Oram was no tortured genius, says McArthur: “She had friends and a social life; she was charming, personable and happy.” And if it seems a tragedy that Oram was rejected by the establishment, written out of the male-heavy history of electronic music, recent years have started to throw new light in her direction.

The Oram Award was launched this month in her honour by the PRS Foundation and the New BBC Radiophonic Workshop to “celebrate women innovating in sound and music”. An Individual Note was reprinted recently as a coffee table book and her archive is available to study at Goldsmiths University in London. The Science Museum exhibited the original Oramics machine and Apple has released an Oramics app. Last summer, her mythical composition Still Point – conceived in 1949 but never performed – finally came to life thanks to Shiva Feshareki, James Bulley and the London Contemporary Orchestra.

Oram was only 23 when she wrote Still Point. A wildly ambitious piece, it predates equivalent experiments by the likes of Pierre Schaeffer and Karlheinz Stockhausen. The piece is a sort of warped call-and-response between the orchestra and 78rpm records, using turntables and microphones to live-manipulate the sound. Its long-delayed debut was hailed as a triumph, Oram’s visionary take on electro-acoustic composition finally unleashed.

And with Daphne Oram’s Wonderful World of Sound now touring, the hope is that many more people will get to know the godmother of electronic music. “She achieved so much for someone who’s more or less been lost in the annals of history,” says McArthur. “It was a story we wanted to tell.”

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