Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Daphne Oram - Wee Have Also Sound-Houses

Daphne Oram co-founded the famed BBC Radiophonic Workshop before developing Oramics, a system of generating synthetic sound via graphical interface. Born December 31, 1925, in Wiltshire, England, Oram studied piano, organ, and composition while attending the Sherborne School for Girls and in 1943 received an invitation to continue her education at the Royal College of Music; she nevertheless declined the offer to accept a position as a music balancer with the BBC, a job largely comprised of overseeing broadcast sound levels and creating special effects for radio dramas. As World War II raged on, Oram was also called upon to "shadow" live performances with recorded versions of the same music in the event a concert was interrupted by enemy attack. An inveterate night owl, Oram spent untold late nights in the BBC studios experimenting with tape recorders and electronic sounds, writing a series of groundbreaking compositions highlighted by 1950's "Still Point," a 30-minute piece fusing orchestra with pre-taped instrumental sounds played from 78 rpm discs in tandem with live treatments. Historian and lecturer Hugh Davies later cited "Still Point" as the first written music to manipulate electronic sounds in real-time, as opposed to introducing pre-taped material as an adjunct to a live performance -- unfortunately, the piece was never presented live or recorded, a fate that befell the vast majority of her most revolutionary work.

For close to a decade Oram remained in the background both literally and figuratively, given few assignments beyond creating aural backdrops for myriad BBC productions. In 1957 she was commissioned to score the radio drama Amphytryon 38. Employing a sine wave oscillator, tape recorders, and a handful of homemade filters, she created the first wholly synthetic score in BBC history, so impressing network brass that they finally agreed to finance a new facility devoted to producing electronic content. The BBC Radiophonic Workshop opened in 1958 in the BBC's London studio Maida Vale. While Oram was installed as director, co-founder and fellow Beeb engineer and composer Desmond Briscoe (fresh off his own success scoring Samuel Beckett's "All That Fall") was named manager. While The BBC Radiophonic Workshop initially focused on experimental drama and so-called "radophonic poems," creating effects from the sci-fi serial Quatermass and the Pit as well as the hugely popular comedy showcase The Goon Show, its pioneering tape-manipulation techniques would become commonplace in sound editing facilities across the globe, and its evocative sonic palette (typified by Delia Derbyshire's landmark electronic interpretation of the theme to Doctor Who) remains a primal inspiration for successive generations of DJs, producers, and programmers.

But Oram's tenure at the workshop proved brief. In early 1959, she resigned from the BBC, frustrated by the network's continued refusal to push electronic music into the foreground. Settling into Tower Folly, a converted oast house in Kent, she assembled her own studio and continued preliminary work on what is now known as Oramics, a system she began developing while still at the BBC. Similar in concept to Yevgeny Sholpo's Variophone optical synthesizer, the Oramics synthesizer encompasses a large, rectangular metal frame upon which pass ten synchronized strips of clear sprocketed 35mm film. Shapes and designs etched into the filmstrips are then read by photo-electric cells and transformed into sounds. Because the output was monophonic, multi-track tapes were required to create polyphonic textures. The flexibility of control over the nuances of sound production afforded by the relationship between graphics and audio signals nevertheless positioned Oramics as a viable and innovative approach to electronic music production, however, and Oram continued refining her principles across a series of installations and exhibitions. In 1961, she collaborated with film composer Georges Auric to score the Deborah Kerr horror feature The Innocents, and a year later completed her first LP, Electronic Sound Patterns, in addition to writing advertising jingles for brands including Nestea.

Oram's most significant work during the 1960s was created in collaboration with composer Thea Mu
sgrave, most notably the pioneering Four Aspects, a tape composition that in approach and atmosphere uncannily anticipates by 15 years Brian Eno's ambient masterpiece Discreet Music. Musgrave later assisted Oram's tape contributions to the 1969 ballet Beauty and the Beast as well as the compositions "Soliloquy" and "From One to Another I," each written for solo instrument and tape (guitar and viola, respectively). A substantial grant from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation eventually enabled Oram to walk away from her commercial commitments, and within a few years of publishing her profoundly metaphysical 1972 book An Individual Note of Music, Sound and Electronics, she even abandoned composition to devote all of her focus to advancing Oramics. She was quick to embrace computer technology, acquiring an Apple II computer in 1981 and with the assistance of programmer Steve Brett devising a simple digital equivalent to the Oramics hardware; six years later, she moved to the new Acorn Archimedes, teaching herself assembly language in the process. Between 1982 and 1989, Oram also taught weekly electronic music classes at Canterbury's Christ Church College. She suffered several debilitating strokes during the mid-'90s, and was forced to move into a nursing home. Oram died in relative anonymity on January 5, 2003, less than a week after her 78th birthday; as of this writing, the majority of her music remains unavailable.

The technique of Oramics was developed by the composer and electronic engineer Daphne Oram in the UK during the early 1960s. It consisted of drawing onto a set of ten sprocketed synchronised strips of 35mm film which covered a series of photo-electric cells that in turn generated an electrical charge to control the frequency, timbre, amplitude and duration of a sound. This technique was similar to the work of Yevgeny Sholpo’s “Variophone” some years earlier in Leningrad and in some ways to the punch-roll system of the RCA Synthesiser. The output from the instrument was only monophonic relying on multi-track tape recording to build up polyphonic textures.

The BBC Radiophonic Workshop officially came into being on April 1, 1958, on which day Daphne Oram posted the following quotation on the door of Room 13/14 at Maida Vale Studios, London:

    ''Wee have also Sound-houses, wher wee practise and demonstrate all sounds and their Generation. Wee have harmonies and lesser slides of sounds. Wee make diverse tremblings and Warblings of Sounds … Wee have also diver Strange and Artificall Eccho’s. We have also means to convey Sounds in Trunks and Pipes, in strange Lines and Distances.''
    —Francis Bacon, New Atlantis (1624)

The Radiophonic Workshop, which was very nearly the Electrophonic Workshop, was born after a fairly contentious battle between the Drama and Music departments of the BBC. Though radiophonic effects had been deployed in a number of radio and television dramas to highly acclaimed effect (the 1957 broadcast of Samuel Beckett’s All That Fall being one of the most noteworthy), the conservative Music department was resistant to the possibility of “undesirable music” (as they largely perceived such Continental innovations as musique concrete). After much debate and several heated internal memoranda, Features head Lawrence Gilliam prevailed with an argument that the lack of suitable electronic equipment was inhibiting British composers whose worth could not be denied even by the most straitlaced members of the Music department, and that exploration of new musical methods and techniques would be good for everyone.

The initial staff of the workshop included two Studio Managers (SMs) and one engineer; in theory, the SMs were the creative brains (who would be rotated on a regular basis, so as to prevent the fatigue that might be induced by too much exposure to electronic music) and an engineer would run and maintain the equipment. The plan was later modified to place an SM and an engineer on each project, but in the way of such things, the exact staffing on any given production was subject to alteration, with the result that much of the Workshop’s output, rather that being credited to any individual composer, was simply credited to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

The first two SMs on board were Desmond Briscoe and Daphne Oram. Briscoe, who had worked on All That Fall, was a well-established figure in the drama department, with a solid background in producing electronic effects. Briscoe would later go on to become head of the Workshop, remaining in that position until 1983. Oram was a skilled musician and engineer; in 1942, at the age of 17, she turned down a place at the Royal Academy of Music and went to work for the BBC instead. Her 1957 work for Amphitryon 38 was the first electronic soundtrack to be commissioned by the BBC.

To mark the 50th anniversary in 2008 of the creation of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, the programme examines the life and legacy of one of the great pioneers of British electronic music - the Workshop’s co-founder Daphne Oram.