Subculture Unsung: Daphne Oram

Electronic music pioneer and co-founder of the Radiophonic Workshop

Thursday 13th December 2018

Over the last decade or so many music lovers have become aware of Delia Derbyshire, the electronic musician that famously concocted Doctor Who's theme tune, among many other pieces, yet remained curiously uncelebrated until recent years, largely due to the stuffy male-dominated culture of the BBC at the time. As pioneering as Delia Derbyshire was though, she wasn't the only woman to make waves in the Radiophonic Workshop with her electronic innovations, in fact, Delia seems to get more recognition than one of the workshop's co-founders, Daphne Oram.

Daphne Oram was born in 1925, growing up near Stonehenge, her father a prominent archaeologist. Musically talented from an early age, Daphne was taught piano, organ and composition, turning down a place at The Royal College Of Music to instead take up a position as a junior studio engineer at the BBC in 1942, an opening that was likely only offered to a young woman due to the shortage of men caused by World War II.

Daphne became interested in the emerging field of what was coined synthetic sound and with the advent of tape recording in the early 1950s she began experimenting, perhaps more in the manner of a scientist than a musician. Tape allowed her to record sounds from orchestras and other sources and manipulate the playback in ways that would have previously been impossible. She would work on her experiments out of hours, but the BBC were wary of encouraging her new art form, not least because of the implications it might have for stirring up trouble with the Musicians' Union and its members.

An early triumph for Oram was her electronically generated score for a BBC production of an experimental play titled 'Amphitryon 38'. The challenging soundtrack was created by Oram using a sine wave oscillator. The piece is now cited as the first entirely electronic score ever used by the BBC.

Postwar Europe embraced electronic music as it rebuilt itself modernism, and in 1958 the BBC eventually saw it might have some purpose. Oram, along with fellow composer Desmond Briscoe, was granted an unused room and some already outdated equipment to set up the BBC's Radiophonic Workshop. The name was chosen to avoid any mention of music, and therefore avoid riling musicians and their union. Sadly the BBC didn't yet see the full potential of electronic music and wanted to utilise the workshop for little more than sound effects. It wasn't the European experimental vision that Oram had in mind, and she left only a few months after setting up the workshop.

Daphne had set up her own studio/laboratory Tower Folley, by 1959, in an old oast house in Kent. She produced music for film, television, theatre and radio, even creating electronic sound effects for the first two James Bond films. In 1962 she won a substantial grant from a Portuguese arts institution, and she ploughed the music into developing new techniques and technology.

One of her most notable achievements at Tower Folley was Oramics. Her self-titled system was based on motor-driven banks of clear 35mm film, which were fed through optical sensors to convert their content into sounds. Daphne hand painted waveforms onto the film to craft the sounds produced by the machines, using the film as a sort of optical-audio tape. It's commonplace in today's digital age for electronic musicians and producers to tweak the shape of their sound via a visual interface, but in the early 1960s, this was brave new territory, and many in the musical establishment weren't ready for it.

There are unsubstantiated accounts of The Beatles and The Who visiting Tower Folley for inspiration, but Daphne's starkly modern innovations never really merged into the 1960s mainstream.

Daphne expanded on her work with Oramics, becoming interested in commercial applications of the technique, but also in what is perhaps best described as the metaphysical aspects of sound and the way that people interact with the nature of sound. In 1972 Daphne wrote a book about her work, 'An Individual Note of Music, Sound and Electronics'. Towards the end of the '70s, it seems Daphne reflected on the work of her father and her childhood home, postulating on the acoustic nature of Neolithic structures such as Stonehenge and other ancient architecture around the world. Her theories might seem far-fetched, but are nonetheless fascinating, suggesting that ancient people constructed stone structures and burial chambers as huge resonating amplifiers, perhaps even using them as a sort of long-distance communication network. Her theories formed what remains an unpublished book 'The Sound of the Past - A Resonating Speculation'.

In the 1980s she developed Oramics software for early desktop computers and continued to work until the 1990s when ill health forced her to retire until her death in 2003.

Like Delia Derbyshire, who followed in Daphne Oram's Radiophonic Workshop footsteps, Daphne's legacy has only really been appreciated in recent years. The Radiophonic Workshop's influence is well documented today, but less so that of its co-founder. Even more surprising, is that the majority of Daphne's innovations took place after she'd walked away from The Radiophonic Workshop that she'd fought so hard to create because it didn't measure up to her hunger for exploration. Like Kraftwerk, Brian Eno, Aphex Twin or Gazelle Twin, Daphne Oram challenged preconceptions about how and why people make and experience music and sound.

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