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  • Thom Holmes

Daphne Oram—A Pioneer Programmer in Electronic Music

Daphne Oram, ca. 1965 (BBC)

The idea for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop was proposed in 1956 by Brian George, chief of program operations at the BBC. The idea came in response to a report by a member of his engineering staff on the technical innovations taking place in the creation of musique concrète in France and elektronische Musik in Germany, both sponsored by nationalized radio corporations. The proposal recommended the establishment of a small operation to be maintained by four employees to create the sounds and maintain the equipment. Those who described the operation were careful to keep it grounded in reality by not suggesting that it be staffed by any musicians, just engineers, “tape editors and devisors of special effects.”[i] After more than a year of dragging its feet over details, the BBC finally opened the Radiophonic Workshop in the Spring of 1958.

Daphne Oram (1925–2003) was among the first staff members. She was a classically trained musician as well as an experienced BBC studio manager and engineer. Oram had, essentially, schooled herself in the techniques of creating tape music by visiting Schaeffer at the RTF in Paris. Even before the Workshop opened, Oram had distinguished herself by composing the music for an original television drama, Amphitryon 38, in 1957, the first piece of electronic music composed for a television program in the United Kingdom. Having no dedicated studio facilities in which to create this work, Oram composed after hours by wrangling the gear she needed from various studios in the building. The tape piece was composed entirely between midnight and 4 a.m. once the other studios had gone off the air for the night. “I could not, of course, use the very special equipment I needed,” explained Oram. “So, I evolved techniques, akin to Cologne and Paris, which could be achieved with the normal broadcasting equipment I had available.”[ii] Oram composed her landmark work using several sine wave generators, a tape recorder, and homemade audio filters.

The excitement over Oram’s electronic music generated much demand for her services even before the Workshop officially began operation. But her personal musical ambitions led to a quick departure from the Workshop in 1959 over artistic differences. The BBC viewed the Workshop primarily as a special effects factory, whereas Oram sought to establish an experimental laboratory for making exclusively musical works like her peers in France, Germany, and the United States. In 1959, Oram established her own independent production company to produce a broader, more diverse range of sonic experiments for music, television, and motion pictures. Among her projects was the invention of an early synthesizer that produced electronic sounds by optically scanning hand-drawn images on sprocketed loops of clear 35mm film. The Oramics machine, as she called it, included ten such film loops that could be synchronously programmed, each equivalent to a recording track with added control functions. Some of the loops controlled the waveform, duration, and vibrato while others controlled timbre, amplitude, and pitch. The sprocketed loops rotated over a bank of photocells. The opaque images on the loops modulated a stream of light that was then transformed into voltages by the photocells. The voltages then triggered sound-generating oscillators, filters, and envelope shapers to create the music. Introduced in 1962, the Oramics machine was extraordinarily complicated to use. Oram was continually making improvements. Only a handful of composers used the instrument before it was overshadowed by a new generation of easier-to-use voltage-controlled synthesizers, such as those made by Robert Moog. But Oram continued to produce music using the Oramics instrument, found success as an independent composer of electronic music, and was working on a digital version of Oramics before she was slowed by a severe stroke in the 1990s. Some of her final projects included outdoor sound installations.[iii]

Oram and her Oramics synthesizer, ca 1965. (Goldsmiths University of London)

Even though the Oramics instrument was not widely adopted, Oram had succeeded in transcending one of the major obstacles to composing electronic music at the time—writing or notating ideas for synthetic sounds that could be faithfully reproduced by a sound-generating instrument. The significance and originality of her contribution was on a par with contemporary attempts at the Columbia–Princeton Electronic Music Center in New York and Siemens Corporation in Munich to pre-program electronic music sequences using punched paper tape as a control medium. Oram’s work was unique, however, in combining the concept of the graphic score—which had been pioneered by such composers as Stockhausen, Varèse, and Xenakis—with a direct means for converting drawn images into electronically generated musical sound. To understand how revolutionary this was, the rest of the world of electronic music instruments did not truly catch up with Oram until the introduction of interactive computer composition in the early 1980s. It was during that time, some 20 years later, that instruments such as the Fairlight Computer Music Instrument provided a means for drawing and editing wave shapes by hand, a routine feature of many software-based synthesizer programs produced since 1990. Oram was an important pioneer during the formative years of European electronic music and a key influence, especially in the United Kingdom. She also prepared the way for other female composers to make their mark in the world of electronic music.

In 2018, Tom Richards of Goldsmiths University of London, revived interest in Oramics by constructing a mini-Oramics machine based on Oram's specifications.You can read an interview with him in Wire 391.

[i] Louis Niebur, Special Sound: The Creation and Legacy of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (London: Oxford University Press, 2010), 35–6.

[ii] “Daphne Oram: An Electronic Music Pioneer,” Goldsmiths and the Sonic Arts Network. Available online: http://daphneoram.org/oramarchive/bbc/ (accessed October 9, 2011).

[iii] Jo Hutton, Radiophonic Ladies. Available online: http://delia-derbyshire.dyndns.org/sites/ARTICLE 2000JoHutton.html(accessed August 2, 2011).



Electronic and Experimental Music

Notes on the development and continuing history of electronic music, its creators, and the technology.