Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Daphne builds it

Daphne Oram was a true musical pioneer, regardless of her gender, regardless of the genre.

Interested in synthetic music since the early 1940’s, Daphne was determined to bring electronic composition to a wider audience and, using her position as a respected studio manager, she teamed up with colleague Desmond Briscoe to lobby the BBC to recognise the possibilities of the new avant garde sounds and techniques emerging from the musique concrete movement.

In 1958, the powers-that-were relented, and the wonderful BBC Radiophonic Workshop was founded to provide unusual sound effects for radio and television shows. In October of that year, BBC bigwigs made the mistake of sending Daphne to the Brussels World Fair, one of the pivotal events in electronic music history, where she heard new works by composers of the calibre of Edgar Varese, Iannis Xenakis, Hank Badings, Pierre Schaefer and Karl-Keinz Stockhausen, and, realising that the full potential of British electronic music was unlikely to be realised under the stewardship of penny pinching, unimaginative and cloth-eared BBC executives, she returned to the UK and promptly handed in her resignation.

Operating out of her own studio, Daphne spent the next 30 years providing new music and sounds for a bewildering array of artistic endeavours: including concert pieces, adverts, jingles, radio plays, theatre productions and film scores (including ‘The Innocents’, continuing this blog’s six degrees of separation to Peter Wyngarde theme), as well as lecturing and providing practical electronic music demonstrations in schools, colleges and universities around the country.

Working at a time when arts council grants were still available for decent stuff, Daphne used the external funding to invent her own ‘Oramics’ machine, an electronic instrument that translated drawings into sound in a way that I don’t fully understand, and can’t hope to explain, and the development and perfection of this fascinating and revolutionary device kept her busy for the rest of her working life.

A mass of archive Daphne material is currently held by the music department of Goldsmith College in London, who are making good use of it with an ongoing programme of events. The original and only Oramics machine is currently in storage in London, awaiting a clean up and a permanent home.

Here are two tracks showing two of the many sides of the estimable Ms. Oram: the experimental ‘Look At Oramics’, and the educational ‘Adwick High School No. 4: The Evil Eye’ recorded at a Doncaster school during one of her electronic music workshops.

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