Born in 1925, Daphne Oram, pioneer of electronic music, turned down a place at the Royal College of Music in 1942 to become a Junior Studio Engineer and ‘music balancer’ at the BBC. It was during this period that she began to experiment with sound using tape recorders, splicing, looping and changing playback speed and direction. Oram also composed a number of pieces including ‘Still Point’, considered the first composition to combine acoustic orchestration with live electronic manipulation. The piece, rejected at the time by the BBC, remained unheard until it was performed for the very first time at the 2018 Proms.
Oram’s success in producing electronic themes and sound effects, including a composition for the play ‘Amphitryon 38’ which was the first wholly electronic score in the history of the BBC, led to a growing demand for programmes to be scored in this way. Oram campaigned for dedicated facilities and in 1958 the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop was established with Oram as its Studio Manager. Despite her success in having established the workshop, Oram was not involved in its activities for long. Inspired by musicians across the channel and increasingly frustrated by the BBC music department’s attitude towards electronic composition and its refusal to make it a focal point of their activities, she resigned from her post less than a year into the workshop’s existence. However, through her pioneering achievements she made possible the work of later workshop musicians such as Delia Derbyshire, composer of the iconic ‘Doctor Who’ theme tune.
Upon leaving the BBC, Oram set up her own studio at Tower Folly, Fairseat: ‘a freezing converted oast house at Wrotham in Kent, where her clutter was augmented by a menagerie of cats, goats and chickens.’1 It was here that she composed electronic music and developed the innovative technique called Oramics, for which she built her own unique machine. It involves drawing directly onto film strips which are then read by photo-electric cells and converted into sound. In Oram’s own words:
‘Every nuance, every subtlety of phrasing, every tone gradation or pitch inflection must be possible just by a change in the written form.’
In addition to lecturing on electronic music and studio techniques at Canterbury Christ Church, Oram continued her work as a commercial composer to fund the development of Oramics, using her system to make a wide range of music and sounds for radio, television, theatre, film and exhibitions. She received two grants from the Gulbenkian Foundation and was able to produce ‘Contrasts Essonic’ in 1963, the first entirely sound-drawn piece using the machine. Oram’s research evolved to look at the behaviour of the ear and perception of the brain’s interpretation of the world, studying vibrational phenomena and describing Oramics as ‘the study of sound and its relationship to life.’
A series of strokes sadly forced Oram to stop working and she died in 2003 but there is no doubt that her methods, techniques, and explorations of sound theory and music philosophy have been hugely influential through the decades since the creation of the Radiophonic Workshop and the Oramics machine, and that her work has paved the way for contemporary music production. Oram’s insight allowed her to see the future impact of her work, knowing that she was laying a foundation that could be built upon as technology advanced. Indeed, Oram saw electronic music as a field in which women could thrive and was excited at the prospect of her work planting seeds that would blossom in time:
‘My advice to women composers – get going now but be patient. Give it plenty of time to develop. Remember the piano – invented just before 1700, yet what are considered to be the first real piano compositions (Clementi’s sonatas) did not appear until some 75 years later. Mozart took to it around 1777. Beethoven showed what really could be done, truly pianistically, more than a 100 years after its invention. Many musicians feel that there is something “lacking” in computer sound. To my mind they are quite right- we are well aware of it- we have neither had sufficient length of time to work on it, (the 75 years referred to above!), nor subtle enough hardware for the job. But the home computer is today a very sophisticated machine, getting better every year. How exciting for women to be present at its birth pangs, ready to help it evolve to maturity in the world of the arts. To evolve as a true and practical instrument for conveying women’s inner thoughts, just as the novel did nearly two centuries ago.’
A compilation of Oram’s music was released in 2007, and an exhibition ‘Oramics to Electronica’ was held at the Science Museum in 2011, where Oram’s fragile machine was put on display and a virtual version of the machine allowed visitors to compose their own pieces. In 2016 a new edition of her book, An Individual Note of Music, Sound and Electronics, originally published in 1972, was released. Oram has been featured in radio and television documentaries, and in 2017 a play about her life and work premiered, live scored with electronic music, titled ‘Daphne Oram’s Wonderful World of Sound’. 2017 also saw the inauguration the of the Oram Awards, launched by the PRS (Performing Right Society) Foundation and the New BBC Radiophonic Workshop to celebrate ‘emerging artists in the fields of music, sound and related technologies in honour of Daphne Oram, and other pioneering women in music and sound.’
Daphne Oram is a pivotal figure in the development of electronic music and its applications, and it is most fitting that Canterbury Christ Church University has dedicated the new creative arts building to this woman of extraordinary vision and innovation where future generations of creators can hone and develop their skills, making their own trailblazing discoveries, under a roof bearing her name.
You can find out more about Daphne Oram here.
This article was published: 23 January 2023.
‘Obituary’, The Times Friday, 24 January 2003. ↩