Power tools (0:44) mp3
Bird of parallax (12:58)
In a jazz style (0:37)
Contrasts esconic (8:15)
Lego builds it (0:56)
Pompie ballet (excerpt) (3:35)
Adwick High School No.1 (0:46)
Look at Oramics (0:38)
Rotolock (1:27) mp3
High speed flight (0:49)
Studio experiment No.1 (1:48)
Four aspects (8:05)
Kia Ora (0:47) mp3
Dr. Faustus suite (9:36)
Adwick High school No.2 (2:17)
Studio experiment No.2 (0:41)
Rockets in Ursa Major (excerpt 1) (4:54)
Food preservation (3:20)
Studio experiment No.3 (1:07)
Episode metallic (5:28)
Studio experiment No.4 (0:39)
Adwick High School No.3 (1:35)
Fanfare of graphs (0:57)
Studio experiment No.5 (1:14)
Mary had a little lamb (2:37)
Incidental music for Invasion (excerpts) (5:04)
Rockets in Ursa Major (excerpt 2) (1:22)
Pulse Persephone (4:02) mp3
Adwick High School No.4 (2:17)
Rockets in Ursa Major (excerpt 3) (3:28)
Studio jinks (6:08)
total time 2hrs 35:47
Cover photo by Brian Worth
Oram is best known for her design of her Oramics system, and also
for co-founding the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1958, but until
now the only easily available piece of music by her on CD has been
the 8 minute long Four Aspects. There was also a 7
EP from 1962 on HMV, released as part of the Listen, Move
and Dance series that was specifically designed to help children
dance. Although the short pieces on this record are very basic it
could be argued that this was the first ever electronic dance record!
Now for the first time is a survey of nearly all the major pieces
that she produced since her departure from the BBC in January 1959
until her final tape piece in 1977. During this time she worked
independently in her home studio, and thanks to a grant from the
Gulbenkian Foundation in 1962 she was able to persue her interests.
In Britain there were no state funded studios other than the Radiophonic
Workshop which in its earliest times mainly existed at the behest
of the drama studio and was not generally seen as a place to develop
personal artistic ideas. There were also no university studios at
this time, so it was necessary for British electronic composers
to be self funded. Throughout this period she devoted her attention
to developing her Oramics drawn sound system, which
consisted of a large machine that enabled patterns drawn on transparent
35mm film to be converted into sound. This system was eventually
fully realised in the late 60s and several pieces here incorporate
The 2 and a half hours of music on this 2CD set covers the whole
range of Orams post BBC output. All of the music is electronic
with some occassional use of real instruments, especially small
percussion and piano frame. There is also some use of musique concrète
techniques. The works fall roughly into the following catagories:
works for TV and cinema advertising, film soundtracks, music for
theatre productions, installations and exhibitions as well as concert
pieces and several studio experiments. Also included are 4 mini
compositions that resulted from an experimental music course given
by Oram at a high school in Yorkshire in 1967.
Daphne Oram might not be a name as familiar as, say Delia Derbyshire
or Raymond Scott, but she is one of the unsung heroes of the early
electronics movement, and even more interestingly was the founder
of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop! Are you impressed yet? Well you
should be, Daphne joined the BBC at a mere 17 years of age back
in 1942 (turning down a place at the Royal Academy of Music) and
from there on she badgered the company endlessly to start investing
in electronic music. She was convinced of the potential of this
new sound and was totally
obsessed with pioneering it, to the point where she would camp out
at the BBC studios for nights on end splicing tapes and working
with various modified machines to create her abstract soundscapes.
Eventually the BBC bent under her pressure and in studio 13 created
the soon-to-be-legendary Radiophonic Workshop, with Daphne Oram
as the director. Sadly this involvement was to be short lived as
Daphne decided she was unhappy to be writing music simply to be
heard in the background of some science fiction television show
or another, and left the compan to start her own studio and pioneer
her own musical instrument. Named the Oramics system, this incredible
device allowed her to 'draw' sound, and had the synthesizer's oscillators,
pitch, volume, vibrato and more controlled by hand drawn slides.
It was an incredibly original way to think about sound creation,
and her work was totally pioneering in the genre - allowing her
to make sounds and compositions totally unlike anything heard before.
Daphne continued to experiment with music using the Oramics system
and then an Apple II computer until she had a stroke in 1994, and
was up until that time totally dedicated to experimental electronic
music. Her work is here presented across two discs and shows
many of her early compositions for film and television and also
some later work (post 1966) which made use of the Oramics system.
Having only managed to hear a very small amount of Daphne's work
before (notably the track 'Four Aspects' on Sub Rosa's influential
'An Anthology of Noise and Electronic Music #2') it is an absolute
revelation hearing this collection. Each track shows just how important
she was on the development of music we know and love so dearly -
Delia Derbyshire for instance was a devoted follower of hers, and
is quoted as saying she was "one of the most important people
in the history of electronic music". This sentiment is clearly
evident as we are taken through a journey of devastatingly complex
electronic and concrete music, music that would give any number
of the more well-known composers a run for their money. Possibly
one of the finest collections of early electronic music we've ever
had through our doors, this is a stunning presentation of a truly
remarkable woman's work - I think we've found our holy grail. Unmissable.
There are many histories of electronic music. Some focus on the avant-garde studios active in Europe, America, Russia and the old eastern bloc countries, and usually mention the work of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Schaeffer, Luciano Berio, John Cage and others. There are other stories that focus on popular music: Kraftwerk, the Human League, Depeche Mode and Aphex Twin. And there are more esoteric studies that mention Raymond Scott, Louis and Bebe Barron, Tom Dissevelt and Kid Baltan. Yet, however hard you look into the history of electronic music, there is one name you'll struggle to find – that of Daphne Oram.
Oram was one of the first British composers to produce electronic sound, a pioneer of what became "musique concrete" – music made with sounds recorded on tape, the ancestor of today's electronic music. Her story makes for fascinating reading. She was born in 1925 when Britain was between two world wars. She was extremely bright, and studied music and electronics – unusual at the time not only because electronics was an exciting new industry, but also because it was a man's world.
She went on to join the BBC, and, while many of the corporation's male staff were away fighting in the second world war, she became a balancing engineer, mixing the sounds captured by microphones at classical music concerts. In those days, nearly all programmes went out live because recording was extremely cumbersome and expensive. Tape hadn't been invented, and cheap computers were half a century away.
Yet when tape did come along, in the early 1950s, Oram was quick to realise that it could be used not simply for recording existing sounds, but for composing a new kind of music. Not the music of instruments, notes and tunes, but the music of ordinary, everyday sound.
After Oram had finished her day's work, and everyone had gone home, she trundled tape recorders the size of industrial gas cookers from empty studios, and gathered them to experiment late into the night. She recorded sounds on to tape, and then cut, spliced and looped them; slowed them down, sped them up, played them backwards. It must have been like working in a laboratory, or inventing new colours – a new world almost impossible to imagine now.
Unfortunately – perhaps inevitably – nobody at the BBC was interested. Still Oram kept going. She badgered senior figures to set up a department producing experimental sound works, only to be told that the BBC had several orchestras capable of producing all the sounds that were needed.
Eventually, however, a committee looking into "Electrophonic Effects" was set up, and Oram shared the results of her experiments. But still they didn't want her to be involved. "They wanted my work," she later said, "but they didn't want me." So she teamed up with another recording engineer, Desmond Briscoe, and in 1958, 16 years after Oram first joined the BBC, the pair were given a spare room in the Maida Vale studios, along with some out-of-date equipment, and left alone to get on with it. To avoid complications with the orchestras, the Musicians' Union and the BBC music departments, they had to avoid the word "music" entirely, so they called the project something else. The BBC Radiophonic Workshop was born.
Within a few months of founding one of the most famous music studios in the world, however, Oram left. There was a clash of ambitions. She wanted to develop an experimental institution, like those in Paris, Cologne and Milan, producing electro-acoustic music by international avant-garde composers of the day. The BBC, yet again, had other ideas: it wanted a sound-effects factory producing jingles for schools programmes and radio drama.
So Oram set up on her own in a deserted oast house in Kent. Here she built an astonishing contraption, the "Oramics" machine, which produced pure electronic sound. It was about the size of a chest of drawers and was constructed from metal shelving materials. Electric motors pulled eight parallel tracks of clear 35mm film stock across scanners that operated like TV sets in reverse. On the film she drew curving black lines, squiggles and dots, all converted into sound. It looked and sounded strikingly modern.
Although she was rumoured to have been visited by members of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Who, as well as the avant garde of the day, Oram was bypassed by the music establishment – at least until now. Her archive is at last being catalogued and cherished at Goldsmiths College in London. Recently, the South Bank Centre devoted a whole day to her work. A double CD has been released, and very soon a digital version of the Oramics machine will be available online. We're 40 years too late, but it seems we might finally catch up with the astonishing life and legacy of Daphne Oram.
- Wee Have Also Sound-Houses, focusing on the life and work of Daphne Oram, will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 this Sunday, 3 August at 9.45pm (Robert Worby)
Daphne Oram is the great grandmother of modern British electronic music. Thanks to her, the Radiophonic Workshop trod a fearless path into the new world of electro-acoustic experimentation. Until now very little of Oram's work has been available, save for a 60s EP and a fragment on a CD compilation. Now, thanks to this lovingly curated double-CD, just about anything that wasn't available is. Straight from Oram's archive come soundtrack recordings, adverts and experiments from the sublime to the ridiculous. She records her cat; makes music for Lego; composes for drama. This may sound throwaway, but it isn't.
In the early 60s she developed 'Oramics' (a method of drawing sound onto film) and several of the cues let us enjoy the results. Also included are more concrete pieces, sound for installations, lecture fragments and a range of oddness from '59 to '77. It's full of naive joy, tempered by a darkish lonely tinge; strangely simple, yet oddly complex. Our one criticism is that there's so much here. We'd have been happy with Disc One and could have easily waited for more. Having said that, it offers over two-and-a-half hours of music that must be heard. Basic and raw, this is the early foundations of our future music. (Jonny Trunk)
At last a record - the first - to celebrate the work of the
elusive Daphne Oram; moving force behind the establishment of the
BBC's radiophonic workshop, author of the first electronic soundtrack
British Television, and inventor of the 'Oramic' system of electronic
sound control through drawing. She soon left the BBC, working over
the next decades on concert presentations, film, ballet and theatre
music, as well (like Raymond Scott) on TV commercials to pay the
bills. All are collected here, with excellent booklet notes and
The collection covers the years 1959 -1977. You can hear, especially
in the early works, the physical processes involved in the discovery
of new sonic forms. It is heartening to see these important but
forgotten works collected and made accessible, filling a small but
vital gap in the record. Perhaps Delia Derbyshire will be next?
Congratulations to Clive Graham and Paradigm Discs for ignoring
fashion and miniscule sales and helping to recover an occluded part
of British musical history.
The SOUND PROJECTOR 16th issue
I'm very grateful for this opportunity to hear the work of Oram, the unique UK composer who is so often talked about and name-checked, so little heard. It seems long overdue. Oram's surviving collections have been diligently archived and curated by her friend and collaborator Hugh Davies; he played some of them on air on Resonance 104.4 in London, some years ago. Paradigm's Clive Graham, who knew Davies, has inherited the collection of tapes. Much work remains to be done in identifying, dating and cataloguing some of the unknown items, but a rescue project like this is very welcome at this time.
Oram was founder, with Desmond Briscoe, of the Radiophonic Workshop; we need to be reminded of some of the basic facts in this very British history, at a time when Delia Derbyshire continues to get most of the attention (though no disrespect to her major talents also). The Workshop, based at the BBC, created electronic music, backdrops and sound effects for radio plays, and later for television. Daphne Oram was always a serious composer and musician (the very antithesis of the sort of person employed by the dumbed-down BBC of 2007), and had her work performed in concerts. She was very much aware of the twin major developments for electronic music in Europe: the musique concrète school in Paris and the WDR school in Cologne. Oram approached the BBC with the hopes of establishing the Radiophonic Workshop with some serious funding; she was refused, while in mainland Europe Schaeffer and Koenig flourished with government support. Ironically, but for the timid and backward-thinking BBC, it seems the UK could almost have been there first with an experimental studio.
However, another of Oram's significant achievements is her unique method of sound production. The Oramics system was not only an original invention, but in reference to the two 'schools' of electronic music mentioned above, it has a fair claim to being a plausible 'third way'. Where the French insisted on the primacy of sounds captured on tape, and the Germans on 'pure' electronic sound generation and synthesis, Oramics involves drawing shapes or graphs with opaque paint on film, and passing the film over a sophisticated device which 'reads' the shapes and renders them as electronic sound. Many readers will know something about the 'optical strip' used on 16mm and 35mm film, for example. Sound projectors used to be equipped with tiny tape playback heads, allowing the soundtrack to play back in time with the film, and emerge as amplified sound from the projector's external speaker. An enlargement of this optical strip reveals interesting visible patterns. The Oramics system was clunky, almost hand-knitted, yet it stemmed from a clear understanding of how magnetic tape works. Daphne Oram simply reverse-engineered the process, as it were; instead of recording sound and observing patterns, she created her own patterns at source. It was Oram's dream to start developing this form of musical language into something repeatable, something that could be notated.
Did it work? There's plenty of evidence here that it did; and if only the system could have been developed further, and she'd had time to complete her work, who knows where we would be today? This collection doesn't exclusively showcase the Oramics system, but even so we can divide things up into a few convenient strands:
Oramics-related pieces. These include 'Contrasts Essonic', a 1968 concert work which was the first such piece to be based on the principle of 'drawn sound'. The dark crashing chords may have been based on the piano, but it sounds like an instrument being mangled by heavy machinery. The 1971 'Pompie Ballet' is interesting for the way it produces a warped Baroque tune on a virtual instrument that seems to be half-harpsichord, half-viol 'Brociliande' is probably the most significant (and longest) Oramics piece, composed in 1969-70 and based on a poem; it's also among the coldest and most miserable of her works. I should say I've found very little on Oramics that provides much warmth, not even the jolly TV commercial jingles.
Narrative compositions. These compositions were used as incidental music for theatre, ballet or documentary films. Unsurprisingly they prove to be quite episodic, atmospheric, and bitty; extensive editing is used, changing the mood dramatically; some of them are almost purely illustrative works. In this class I would include 'Bird of Parallax', which in places sounds like a synthetic string section and woodwind section. 'Purple Dust', with its excellent depiction of desolation through howling and electronic bad weather sounds. 'Incidental Music for an Invasion', a moody and intense work which is edited into eight mini-sections to match the changing moods of the 1958 drama it was composed for. The 1959 'Dr Faustus Suite', a personal favourite of mine, packed with dark shadows, blood-red colour shades, and treated voices to suggest gleeful diabolical spirits and the corrupted soul of Faustus himself. Three excerpts from 'Rockets in Ursa Major', for a Fred Hoyle play in 1962; these are most immediately associative as 'outer space' music. The 1963 'Snow' is ingenious, but somehow uncharacteristic. For this, a tape of a Sandy Nelson jazz drumming piece is slowly speeded up according to an accelerando structure; it was used to illustrate the poor performance of trains in cold weather.
Concessions to conventional music. Oram did not make many such concessions, but perhaps we could single out 'Four Aspects' which is a 1960 study in electronic tone colour. I sense that to her it was just a formal exercise, to explore frequencies in the harmonic series. But it's one of her warmer pieces, arriving at something approaching conventional chords, intensely beautiful, and very dynamic. One to match Pauline Oliveros any day 'Passacaglia' is a realisation by Oram of another composer's work (Ivor Walsworth). I don't know why, but this mixture of feedback and harmonics stands out as one of the most powerful and tough-minded pieces on a sometimes wispy and inconclusive collection.
TV commercials. These commissioned works include very short pieces for products as diverse as power tools, soft drinks, Lego, and washing machines. Here's the closest you'll get to 'pop music' on this collection; 90-seconds long, catchy melodies, and as if proving their worth in the advertising milieu, capable of boring their way into your brain fast. Good place to start if you want to hear something you can whistle (one was designed with that in mind), or something where the composition matches the product exactly; the washing machine piece includes treated water sounds. 'Lego builds it' from 1966 has no tune, but echoed voices that probably accompanied trick photography of Lego building blocks instantly assembling themselves on TV. I find this fragment quite shocking, for some reason; in another context it could be the soundtrack for a scary sci-fi movie, hostile aliens developing their arsenal of rockets, tanks and bridges.
Adwick school works. There are four examples where Oram engaged youngsters at school in the North of England with some fundamentals of experimental composition. We hear the eager pupils announcing their composed results, then playing them. They used percussion, sheet metal, basic electronics and tape loops, giving their works titles like 'Surprise Piece' and 'The Evil Eye'. Great to hear elementary percussion work grating alongside clumsy electronic noise. There is some brio and fun in evidence on their part, but ultimately the results are a bit hesitant and formless. Even so, you have to applaud Oram's attempt to open up the restrictions of the school curriculum.
The rest of Oramics is filled with very short fragments and isolated experiments. But some of them are glorious. 'Purring Interlude' gives a distorted picture of the creator talking to her cats, with electronic echo. 'Studio Experiment No 3' is just an exercise in treating the sounds of percussion and woodwind, yet you're never heard such a haunting 67 seconds in your life. Oramics is filled with moments like this, when we glimpse enormous promise and potential in just a few seconds of a compressed, miniaturised music; and the scope of this compilation shows some of the many avenues Oram followed in realising her ideas. We may feel we're getting a somewhat broken picture of her career, but this may simply be because of the way her heritage has been neglected in the UK by all but a few visionaries (like Davies). Was she a great composer? Perhaps not; a lot of the ideas here are still very narrative, and often unable to sublimate or transcend the context of the story, drama, or TV advert they were composed for. Her music strikes me as extremely interesting, but ultimately cold; she was'nt able to conceal all the hard work that had been poured into it, with the result that we hear more effort than passion on the tapes. Very little of her personality shows in her work; but did she have an original way of thinking about music production and composition? There's no question that she did. (Ed Pinsent)
WIRE (March 2007 - in collaboration with Lily Greenham review)
Two sonic artists, both different in almost all respects other than
being neglected, almost forgotten, both women, and both based in
England; neither of them living, and both now reconstructed through
the fragments of sound that have remained as traces of two complex
lives. As with all archive projects hedged by incomplete sources,
there is a sense of privileged gazing, the battered scrapbook lying
open, the photo album partially revealed, a glimpse through to the
hidden person; and pathos, those few moments when access to the
inner sanctum was granted: a temporary opening of microphones in
a BBC radio studio; a concert in some official palace of the high
Inevitably, the simultaneous release of these retrospectives acts
as a reproach to the flawed utopianism of post-war music. Within
the male technocracy of electronic music and masculine, even combative
world of sound poetry, women were considered rare exotics; their
presence and difference highlighting the pathetic subjectivity of
aesthetic choices that a male majority battled among themselves
to dignify as Theory and Law.
A composer and inventor of the Oramics 'drawn sound' system, Daphne
Oram is currently the better known of the two, if only because the
kind of early electronic music in which she specialised is now fetishised.
Her major work, Four Aspects, composed in 1960 and described
by Hugh Davies as an uncanny anticipation of Brian Eno's Discreet
Music, was a genuine glimpse into one version of the future.
Another futurism, the 1960s techno-paradise, has become insufferably
cute and kitsch, as illustrated by the current use of Raymond Scott's Baltimore Gas and Electric Co ("395") for a TV
commercial by the beleaguered online bank, Egg. Before his unexpected
death in 2005, Hugh Davies had plans to catalogue the Oram archive,
of which he was custodian, and prepare material for release. He
had noted the CD issue in 2000 of Scott's advertising jingles, film
collaborations and musique concrète experiments from the
1950s-60s and believed Oram's largely unknown work to be a British
Having worked within the BBC, first as a balance engineer during
World War Two, then as a founder member of the Radiophonic Workshop
in 1958, Oram had to supplement the financing of her studio by making
short electronic pieces for radio and television commercials. Themes
of machine futurism - leisure through robotics, labour-saving devices
and miracle substances - surface only too easily in her jingles
for power tools, Lego, washing machines, instant tea and Schweppes
Kia-Ora. These were recorded between 1962 and 1966, which suggests
that sonic experimenters of my generation were almost certainly
affected by them at an impressionable age (is our vintage of experimental
music just another side-effect of media manipulation, re Vance Packard's Hidden Persuaders?).
Predictably, these vignettes are charming but rather one-dimensional.
Her music for dramas of a more philosophical nature - plays by Professor
Fred Hoyle and Arthur Adamov - are necessarily episodic, but evident
within the grain and fracture, ominous, melancholy, dystopian, of
these distorted micro-compositions, spread over two CDs, is the
sense of a composer who never found resources or support to extend
her potential. No, the future is not always bright. (David