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  • Writer's pictureThom Holmes

Women in Synthesis, Part 1: Managing their Musical Identities

My blog for the Bob Moog Foundation.

Women have always played an important role in the technical and artistic development of electronic music. However, for several decades of the earlier timeline of electronic music history, women were seldom recognized for their contributions to composing, performing, and producing in this field. These accomplishments went largely under-reported from the dawn of electronic tape music in the 1950s through the 1970s, a time when equipment and studios became affordable to independent musicians. Prior to that, women who pursued careers in electronic music were often held back and left unrecognized by the male-run institutions that directed the electronic music studios, ran the record companies, produced the music, and booked the performances. This happened in jazz, it happened in classical music composition, and it certainly happened in the field of electronic music during the post-World War II era of electronic music studios.

There are some truly remarkable exceptions, of course. Wendy Carlos, Ruth White, Eliane Radigue, Daphne Oram, Teresa Rampazzi, and Delia Derbyshire all achieved recognition for their remarkable work in the late 1960s and early 1970s, long before such recognition for women in electronic music would become more usual.

In a sense, we have two histories of women in electronic music. There was the pre-1980 era when recognition was guarded by the male infrastructure that dominated the field. But then the doors began to widen. In the period since the late 1980s, after technology was liberated from the cost constraints of earlier eras, the world of electronic music was freed of the institutions and practiced by largely independent musicians, performers, composers, and producers from every walk of life.

In this first episode of a series with several parts, I want to feature three of the pioneers of women electronic music: Daphne Oram from the UK, Teresa Rampazzi from Italy, and Ruth White from the United States. What these three women have in common is that they forged their own singular careers by establishing production companies and studios around which they could establish their own musical identities.

While we will listen to several works by each of these three women, my more extensive notes about their careers and accomplishments can be read on my blog for the Bob Moog Foundation.

Daphne Oram

Daphne Oram was born in 1925 and passed in 2003. She was a classically trained musician who was employed by the BBC in the late 1950s as a studio manager and engineer. Oram had schooled herself in the techniques of creating tape music by visiting Pierre Schaeffer (Pee-air shay-FAIR) at his musique concrète in Paris. Even before the BBC Radiophonic 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. Oram composed her landmark work using several sine wave generators, a tape recorder, and homemade audio filters.

Oram’s 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 founded her own independent production company to produce a broader, more diverse range of sonic experiments for music, television, and motion pictures. Her Oramics Studios for Electronic Composition, located in Kent, immediately took on many media and film-related projects such as sound effects and music for science fiction movies. Among her personal 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. TheOramics 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. 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 continually made 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. Oram’s work was unique, however, in combining the concept of the graphical 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. This was so far ahead of its time that the rest of the world did not truly catch up with Oram until the introduction of interactive computer composition in the early 1980s.

We will hear several works created by oram using the Oramics machine.

Teresa Rampazzi

Teresa Rampazzi was born in 1914 and passed in 2001. She was a contemporary of Oram who worked in Padua, Italy. Italy had one of the leading institutional electronic music studios in the late 1950s, the RAI Studio di Fonologia Musicale in Milan. The RAI studio was dominated by male composers and directors, essentially offering its facilities to established male artists so they could dabble in electronic music. Women and men who were interested in exploring aesthetic paths of their own, with little artistic interference from the national broadcasting system, began to open their own private studios. Rampazzi organized a concert of electronic music in 1963 and next founded her private studio, Nuove Proposte Sonore (NPS) (new-OVAY prro-POST-ay SON-oray) in Padua, with visual artist Ennio Chiggio. Equipped with little more than an audio oscillator and monophonic tape recorder, they began to explore the development of organically complex collage pieces and experimental music. The work of this studio was quite varied and often associated with exhibitions and the work of visual artists, showing the growing consolidation of efforts by avant-garde artists in a variety of media. Rampazzi continued to compose and work there until 1972 when she took a teaching position as professor of electronic music at the Padova Conservatory, one of the first electronic music courses offered in Italy. Rampazzi was also associated with the Institute of Sonology in Utrecht, at Catholic University in Washington, at the electronic music studio in Stockholm, and at the department of computer music at the University of Pisa at the CSC Computer Music Center where she explored the use of a light pen to compose music.

Unlike her male composer friends at the RAI and other studios in Italy, Rampazzi’s electronic music more freely explored sound densities, drones, textures, and the possibilities of treating sound sources through many variations. Her legacy of music, composed primarily between 1960 and 1980, is surprisingly timeless stylistically, sounding entirely contemporary in its contemplations of slowly changing sonorities and timbres.

Ruth White

Ruth White was born in 1925 and passed in 2013. She was a gifted musician, trained in piano, violin, cello, harp, clarinet, and horn. But composing was also a strong suit with White and she sought to break some of the traditional rules of musical form that had been established in classical music. She found an outlet for this creativity in electronic music. Her career is framed by the production of educational records for children, although from the years 1968 to 1970 she produced three totally original albums for the Moog Synthesizer in her own studio. After that, she founded her own film production company called Ruth White Films to explore the emerging market for videotape productions and continued to work on educational books and records under the names Tom Thumb Productions and Rhythms Productions.

Ruth purchased her Moog Modular Synthesizer in February 1968, about two weeks before Mort Garson. It was the 29th Moog sold by that time and the vast majority of sales by that time were to universities, advertising agencies, and commercial recording studios. White was among the first 9 individual artists to invest in a synthesizer, a short list that also included Wendy Carlos, The Monkees, Gershon Kingsley, and Emerson Meyers among others.

Her first two albums were self-produced and released on the Limelight label, a division of Philips in the United States that had already released collections of European music and pop electronics from the era before the synthesizer. Her third album was released on the Angel Records label, the multinational brand associated with classical music. White did everything to produce these albums but design the record covers. She produced, engineered, played the instruments, operated the tape recorders, and wrote the liner notes. We will listen to three works from her first Moog album, 7 Trumps From The Tarot Cards.

Episode 98

Women in Synthesis, Part 1: Managing their Musical Identities


1. Daphne Oram, “Four Aspects” from Oramics (2007 Paradigm Discs). This piece was composed in 1960 after Oram left the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and was running her own start-up. Four Aspects uses the Oramics instrument that she invented. It demonstrated her interest in creating works that were longer than the short snippets of music that she had produced for radio and television themes. The piece was patiently crafted and is strikingly harmonic, exploring a rich tone field that lacked the herky-jerky nature of other tape music of the time. You will hear the development of musical chords and harmonic fields from monophonic tone generators that she combined during mixing, developing gradually shifting texture employing filtering and loops. 8:06

2. Daphne Oram, “Pulse Persephone” (1965) from Oramics (2007 Paradigm Discs). Composed, realized, and produced by Daphne Oram. This was produced for the Treasures of the Commonwealth exhibition at the Royal Academy of the Arts. 4:03

3. Daphne Oram, “Costain Suite” (1965) from Oramics (2007 Paradigm Discs). Composed, realized, and produced by Daphne Oram. Music for a film production, circa 1970. 13:17

4. Teresa Rampazzi, “Immagini Per Diana Baylon” side a (1972), from Immagini Per Diana Baylon (2016 Die Schachtel). Music realized using analogue equipment, Teresa Rampazzi. One of her three known soundtracks for art installations. The analog work she completed at her Nuove Proposte Sonore (NPS) studio had striking parallels to the work of Daphne Oram in the UK. This piece was intended to be looped for 180 minutes while visitors perused an exhibit of abstract sculptures by Diana Baylon. 16:15

5. Teresa Rampazzi, “With the Light Pen” (1976) from Musica Endoscopica (2008 Die Schachtel). Composed and realized by Teresa Rampazzi at the Centro di Calcolo di Ateneo, Università di Padova. This was the first work realized with the Interactive Computer Music System (ICMS), in real-time. “The timbre, made by additive synthesis, adding frequencies in algebraic sequence, was sometimes acoustically harsh. On the other hand train pulses with regular rhythms were sweetened by long harmonic, dissolving tails.” (Rampazzi). 8:43

6. Teresa Rampazzi, “Atmen Noch”(1980) from Musica Endoscopica (2008 Die Schachtel). Stereophonic version (quadraphonic original) realized at the CSC (Centro di Sonologia Computazionale dell'Università di Padova). Composed in 1980 at the CSC Computer Music Center in Padova. Winner of the second prize at the VIII Concours International de Musique Électroacoustique, Bourges. Based on the mathematical analysis of “intersection sets, the elements of which were timbres. It was preceded by five months of research on timbres that were obtained from multitudinous ratios between the carrier and the modulating signals and inverted relationships with the ICMS program by Graziato Tisato.” (Rampazzi). This work will not immediately strike you as computer music, which is part of its beauty and uniqueness for all time. 15:16

7. Ruth White, “Wings Clipped (Too Many External Involvements / Flight Stopped” from 7 Trumps From The Tarot Cards And Pinions (1969 Limelight). Produced and realized by Ruth White. Clavichord, Harpsichord, Organ, Piano, Moog Modular Synthesizer, tape operations, Ruth White. 6:04

8. Ruth White, “Wanting Wings (Limited Capacity / No Flight Possible” from 7 Trumps From The Tarot Cards And Pinions (1969 Limelight). Produced and realized by Ruth White. Clavichord, Harpsichord, Organ, Piano, Moog Modular Synthesizer, tape operations, Ruth White. 3:42

9. Ruth White, “Love Gives Wings (With Wings)” from 7 Trumps From The Tarot Cards And Pinions (1969 Limelight). Produced and realized by Ruth White. Clavichord, Harpsichord, Organ, Piano, Moog Modular Synthesizer, tape operations, Ruth White. 8:48

Opening background music: Daphe Oram, “Introduction” and “Power Tools” from Oramics (2007 Paradigm Discs). Voice and electronic realization, Daphne Oram. Ruth White, “The Litanies Of Satan” from Flowers of Evil (1969 Limelight). Ruth White, all instruments including the Moog Modular Synthesizer. Realized by Ruth White. 6:56

Opening and closing sequences voiced by Anne Benkovitz.

Additional opening, closing, and other incidental music by Thom Holmes.

See my companion blog that I write for the Bob Moog Foundation.

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Electronic and Experimental Music

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

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