Daphne Oram was a pioneering English composer of electronic music and musique concrète and inventor of early synthesizers. Oram was an eccentric, too, interested not just in experimental music but in esoteric knowledge, time travel, plant intelligence, and mysticism. She was a member of the Research Into Lost Knowledge Organisation and student of New Age founder George Trevelyan.
Daphne Blake Oram was born to James Oram, an Irish immigrant, and Ida Murton Talbot, on 31 December 1925 near the market town of Devizes, Wiltshire — a mere megalithic stone’s throw from Avebury and Stonehenge. She grew up at Belle Vue House with her parents and two older brothers, John Anderson and Arthur Talbot Oram. Daphne was educated at Sherborne School For Girls, where she learned piano, organ, and musical composition.
In 1942, Oram declined a place at the Royal College of Music and instead, the following year, took a position at the BBC — a job opportunity made possible, in part, by the vacancies created by young men off fighting in World War II. Oram’s title was “Junior Studio Engineer” and as such she was in charge, in part, with balancing levels for live broadcasts of music from the Royal Albert Hall. If the musicians had to flee the venue during an air raid, Oram could fade out the live performance and fade into a recorded one.
In 1950, Oram composed Still Point, an electro-acoustic orchestral work for turntables, two orchestras, and five microphones. Oram submitted it for the Italia Prize but it was rejected by the BBC and remained unperformed until 2016, when a production was mounted by the London Contemporary Orchestra. Despite the BBC’s disapproval of her composition, the studio began supporting electronic music in 1955, when they commissioned Tristram Cary to score “The Japanese Fishermen.” After a trip to the studios of Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française (RTF), Oram began campaigning for the establishment of a full-time electronic music department at the BBC.
In 1957, Oram was commissioned to score a BBC production of Jean Giraudoux‘s 1929 play, Amphitryon 38, produced for the series, Television World Theatre. Oram’s score was performed with a magnetic audio tape recorder, self-designed filters, and a sine wave oscillator. Oram built her own instrument, the Oram synthesizer, in 1957. Afterward, Oram and colleague Desmond Briscoe began receiving commissions for more electronic scores, including a production of Samuel Beckett’s All That Fall. In 1958, the BBC sent Oram to the Brussels World’s Fair. There, she visited the Philips Pavilion, designed by Le Corbusier. The pavilion was part of multimedia spectacle that also included recordings of Iannis Xenakis‘s musique concrète Concret PH and Edgard Varèse‘s electronic Poème électronique. Upon returning to London, Oram and Briscoe established the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, with Oram assuming the duties of studio manager.
Oram’s compositions for the Radiophonic Workshop, like much electronic music of the era, often blurred the lines between music and sound effects. The word “music” was also avoided by members of the Radiophonic Workshop in order to skirt complications with the Musicians’ Union. The BBC also avoided crediting individual composers within its operation — making it difficult sometimes to determine which members did what work at the studio. Oram, however, is known to have provided electronic scores and/or effects for the BBC’s Quatermass and the Pit (1958-1959) and The Goon Show (1951-1960) before leaving the BBC in January 1959 in order to freelance.
Oram moved into a converted oast house in Fairseat, Wrotham named Tower Folly. There she set up the Oramics Studios for Electronic Composition. In 1960, her studio was visited by Delia Derbyshire, another British pioneer of electronic music who’d joined the Radiophonic Workshop as a trainee assistant studio manager following Oram’s departure. In 1960, Oram composed Four Aspects in collaboration with composer Thea Musgrave. She also continued to create electronic music and sound effects for theater, television, radio, and films, including Man of Rope (1961), The Innocents (1961), and Dr. No (1962).
In the 1960s, BBC composer Vera Gray released a series of children’s fitness albums titled Listen, Move and Dance on His Master’s Voice. The series is bafflingly packaged with different volumes arranged with re-used titles and covers. Daphne Oram is credited, however, with composing and creating the music for 1962’s Listen Move and Dance – 3: Electronic Sound Patterns. It included “Melodic Group Shapes 1,” “Melodic Group Shapes 2,” “Three Single Sounds Taken In Canon,” “Rhythmic Variation 1,” “Rhythmic Variation 2,” and “Ascending And Descending Sequences Of Varying Nature.” In 1962, she also composed “Rockets In Ursa Major (Excerpt 1)” and music for a Nestea commercial.
Oram had begun to develop her Oramics System as early as 1957. According to her father, the idea had originally come to her when she was just seven years old. She would focus on its development in earnest, beginning in 1962. With the Oramics Machine, Oram would paint directly onto a set of ten 35mm film strips which were then overlaid with a series of photoelectric cells. The resulting electric charges would determine amplitude, duration, frequency, and timber. In 1962, Oram received a grant from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation to further develop the process. In 1963, Oram recorded “Contrasts Essonic,” the first composition created entirely using the system. Oram’s approach to composition reflected her metaphysical concerns and she defined the process of using Oramics as “the study of sound and its relationship to life” and separated her Oramics compositions into the categories of “Commercial Oramics” and “Mystical Oramics.”
“Commercial Oramics” yielded scores and affects for several commercial productions, including Snow (1963), Hamlet (1963), a documentary called Trinidad & Tobago (1964), Purple Dust (1964), and Disk-O-Tek Holiday (1964). Oram’s father, James, died in 1964. In 1965, Oram composed a piece, Episode Metallic, to accompany a kinetic sculpture by Andrew Bobrowski that was installed at Mullard House. That, I assume, fell into the other category, as did Oram’s 1965 composition, Compose Pulse Persephone. Engineer Graham Wrench began working on the Oramics project in 1965, as well, but ended his contributions after eighteen months of labor after, one day, Oram’s housekeeper discovered her collapsed on the floor of the studio and was afterward taken to a private clinic to recover.
Once released, Oram returned to composition, scoring the documentary, Rail (1967), and the film, The Princess and the Wonderful Weaver (1968). From 1968-1970, Oram produced tape parts for three compositions by Thea Musgrave, two for a solo instrument and tape (“From One to Another” and “Soliloquy“), and the ballet, Beauty And The Beast. In 1969, Oram was featured (along with Karlheinz Stockhausen, Tristram Cary, and Peter Zinovieff) in an episode of Workshop titled “The Same Trade as Mozart.” From 1969-’70 she composed Broceliande. Oram was credited with “electronic treatment” for the short film, This is Shell (1970). In 1972, she composed Bird of Parallax. That same year, her mother died.
It was also in 1972 that Oram wrote an investigation of the physics of sound and a philosophical treatise on electronic music titled An Individual Note of Music, Sound and Electronics. A few years later she began writing a second work, The Sound of the Past – A Resonating Speculation, that proposed the theory that Neolithic mounds, monuments like Stonehenge, and the Egypt Pyramids were built by ancients for use as long distance communication devices. Further studies into her mystical ideas were shelved when funding became scarce and the development of Mystical Oramics was put on hold.
Around 1981, Oram began making music using a newly-purchased Apple II. After the release of the Acorn Archimedes in 1987, Oram began developing a software version of Oramics for the PC, funded by grants from the Ralph Vaughan Williams Trust and the Arts Council of Great Britain. Between 1982 and ’89, Oram also taught electronic music courses at Canterbury Christ Church University. Near the end of the decade, she launched ORAM (Out and Round About with Music), a program of open air performances for elderly audiences.
In the early 1990s, Oram was active with the Performing Rights Society. In 1994, however, Oram suffered the first of two strokes and afterward retired from composition and retired to a nursing home. She died 24 January 2003, aged 77.
After her death, Oram’s archive (which contains roughly 1,000 papers, 200 7” reel-to-reel tapes, 10” and 12” reel-to-reel masters, floppy disks, personal correspondence, photographic documentation, and press cuttings) was taken over by experimental music composer Hugh Davies. After Davies’s death two years later, Oram’s archive was transferred to Goldsmiths, University of London. Goldsmiths then collaborated with Sonic Arts Network to organize the archive for study. Its launch was announced with a symposium and series of concerts at the Southbank Centre.
Elements of Oram’s compositions were incorporated in Walls/Oram‘s Sound Houses, released in 2004, mastered by Sonic Doom. A compilation, Oramics, was released in 2007. In 2008. BBC Radio 3 broadcast a documentary about Oram titled Wee Have Also Sound-Houses. In 2010, two Oram compositions — “Look At Life” and “Manchester I: Single Cymbals Bite Study” — were included on Spaceship UK: The Untold Story Of The British Space Programme. The Oram Tapes: Volume One followed in 2011. That same year, Andrea Parker and Daz Quayle released Daphne Oram Reworked And Re-Interpreted on Private Dreams And Public Nightmares. In 2012, the BBC program, Click, devoted a segment to Oram and her synthesizer, which lost since the 1970s, was recovered from a barn in Brittany and exhibited for a year at the Science Museum, London.
“The story of the Oramics Machine” by Benji Lehmann