The Sound-Houses of Daphne Oram
As co-founder of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop –the unit created in 1958 that produced sound effects, incidental sounds and music for radio and television –Daphne Oram held a key place in the history of electronic music. Alongside F.C. Judd she was one of the first proponents of musique concrète in the UK. Her development of the Oramics system, a drawn sound making technique that involves inscribing waveforms and shapes directly onto 35mm film stock, also made her an innovative, if arcane, inventor of new musical technology. Daphne also gets the credit for being the first woman to design and construct a musical instrument, and the first to set up an independent personal electronic music studio.
Oram was born to James and Ida Oram on 31 December 1925 in Wiltshire, England. She was taught music at an early age, starting with piano and organ before moving on to composition. Her father was a coal merchants manager, but was also an amateur archaeologist, and during the 1950s was president of the Wiltshire Archaeological Society. Here childhood home was within 10 miles of the stone circle of Averbury and 20 miles from Stonehenge. Her mother was an amateur artist. It seems that her parents interest in history and the arts lent itself to Daphne’s blossoming in the field of music and technology.
At the age of seventeen the young Daphne was offered a place at the Royal College of Music but chose instead to take on a Junior Studio Engineer position at the BBC. She worked in part behind the scenes during live concerts at Albert Hall to ‘shadow’ the musicians, being ready to play a pre-recorded version of the music for broadcast in the event the radio was disrupted by the enemy actions of the Germans –not an unlikely fear just a year after the Blitz.
Graham Wrench was just a lad at the time but got to know Daphne through his father who was a musician in the London Symphony Orchestra. Many years he worked with Daphne as an engineer on her Oramics system. He said of her work for the BBC at the time, "Daphne's job involved more than just setting the levels. She had a stack of records, and the printed scores of whatever pieces the orchestra was due to play. If anything went wrong in the auditorium she was expected to switch over seamlessly from the live orchestra to exactly the right part of the record!”
Her other duties included the creation of sound effects for radio shows as well as keeping the broadcast levels of sound balanced and mixed. It was during this time period that she started to become aware of new developments in synthesized sound and started to make her own experiments with tape recorders late into the night, staying to work in the BBC studios long after her co-workers and colleagues had popped off to the pub or gone home for the evening. Cutting, splicing, playing backwards, looping, speeding up and slowing down, were all tape techniques she learned and became expert at.
In the 1940’s she also composed an orchestral work that is now considered by some to be the first electro-acoustic composition. The piece was titled Still Point and involved the use of turntables, a double orchestra, and five microphones. The BBC rejected the piece from their programming schedule and it remained unheard for seventy years. It was resurrected by Shiva Feshareki who performed it with the London Contemporary Orchestra for the first time on June 24, 2016. A revised version was performed again by Fesharek and the LCO alongside James Bulley following Oram’s composition notes.
We Also Have Sound-Houses
Despite the rejection of her innovative score the BBC promoted her to become a music studio manager in the 1950s. It was around this time she travelled to RTF studios in Paris where Pierre Schaeffer had been hard at work in his development of musique concrète. Daphne began a crusade for the creation of a studio at the BBC dedicated to the creation of electronic and musique concrete for use in radio and television programs. She demonstrated her vision of what this music could be when she was commissioned to compose music for the play Amphitryon 38 in 1957, producing the BBC’s first entirely electronic score. It was made using a sine wave oscillator, self-designed filters, and a tape recorder.
The production and piece were a success and these led to further commissions for electronic music. Fellow work colleague and electronic musician Desmond Briscoe also started to receive commissions for a number of other productions. One of the most significant was a request for electronic music to accompany Samuel Beckett’s All that Fall, which also was produced in 1957. The demand for electronic music was there, and the BBC finally gave in, giving Oram and Briscoe the go-ahead, and the budget, to establish the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.
The focus of the Workshop was to provide sound effects and theme music for all of the corporation's output, including the science fiction serial Quatermass and the Pit (1958–59) and "Major Bloodnok's Stomach" for the radio comedy series The Goon Show.
One of Daphne’s guiding stars at the workshop came from a passage in the unfinished utopian and proto-science fiction novel The New Atlantis penned by Sir Francis Bacon in . The novel depicts the crew of a European ship lost at sea somewhere in the Pacific west of Peru. Eventually the reach a mythical island called Bensalem. There isn’t much plot in the book, but the set up allowed Bacon to reveal his vision of an age of religious tolerance, scientific inquiry, and technological progress. In the New Antlantis Solomon’s House is a state-sponsored scientific institution that teases out the secrets of nature and investigates all phenomena, including music and acoustics. His book went on to form the basis for the establishment of the Royal Society. Daphne found one passage in the book to be both prophetic, as well as something of a mission statement. She posted the following passage from the book on the door of the Radiophonic Workshop:
“We have also sound-houses, where we practice and demonstrate all sounds and their generation. We have harmonies, which you have not, of quarter-sounds and lesser slides of sounds. Divers instruments of music likewise to you unknown, some sweeter than any you have, together with bells and rings that are dainty and sweet. We represent small sounds as great and deep, likewise great sounds extenuate and sharp; we make divers tremblings and warblings of sounds, which in their original are entire. We represent and imitate all articulate sounds and letters, and the voices and notes of beasts and birds. We have certain helps which set to the ear do further the hearing greatly. We also have divers strange and artificial echoes, reflecting the voice many times, and as it were tossing it, and some that give back the voice louder than it came, some shriller and some deeper; yea, some rendering the voice differing in the letters or articulate sound from that they receive. We have also means to convey sounds in trunks and pipes, in strange lines and distances.”
Yet even before a year was out her own ambition for the sound-house she had worked so hard to establish, came at loggerheads with the station executives. The inciting incident seemed to be her attendance at the Brussels World’s Fair and the Journées Internationales de Musique Expérimentale exhibition she was sent to attend. It was there where she heard Edgard Varèse demonstration of his ground breaking Poème électronique. And she heard other electronic music that was pushing the boundaries of the possible further.
This exalting experience created a deep dissatisfaction in her when she returned to work and the music department refused to put electronic music at the forefront of their activities and agenda. The realm of the possible had smacked up against the wall of the permissible. So Daphne resigned from the workshop with the hope of establishing her own studio.
In the hindsight of an outsider it seems this move may not have been the most strategic. Yet it did give her the freedom to develop her own electronic music instrument, Oramics, ill-fated as it was on a practical level.
Immediately after leaving the BBC in 1959, Oram began setting up her Oramics Studios for Electronic Composition in Tower Folly, in a former oasthouse (a building designed for drying hops prior to brewing) near Wrotham, Kent. The technique she created there involved the innovative use of 35mm film stock. Shapes drawn or etched onto the film strips could be read by photo-electric cells and transformed into sounds.
According to Oram, "Every nuance, every subtlety of phrasing, every tone gradation or pitch inflection must be possible just by a change in the written form."
While innovative, the Oramics technique was also expensive and Daphne met the financial pressure of having her own studio by opening it up and working as a commercial composer. Being director of the studio gave her complete control and freedom to experiment, but it also meant dealing with the stress of making economically viable. For the first few years she made music for commercial films, sound installations and exhibits as well as material for television and radio. She made the electronic sounds featured in Jack Clayton’s 1961 psychological horror film The Innocents. She also collaborated with opera singers created material for concert works.
These pressures eased in 1962 when she was given a grant of £3,550 (equivalent to £76,000 in today’s money). She was able to put more effort into building her drawn sound instrument.
In 1965 she reconnected with Graham Wrench, a few years after she had bumped into him at the IBC recording studio where she had brought in some tape loops for a commercial. She was in need of an engineer and technician and asked Wrench if he wanted the job, so he drove down with his wife to check things out.
Graham said of the visit, “on a board covering a billiard table in an adjoining reception room was displayed the electronics for Oramics. There wasn't very much of it! She had an oscilloscope and an oscillator that were both unusable, and a few other bits and pieces — some old GPO relays, I remember. Daphne didn't seem to be very technical, but she explained that she wanted to build a new system for making electronic music: one that allowed the musician to become much more involved in the production of the sound. She knew about optical recording, as used for film projectors, and she wanted to be able to control her system by drawing directly onto strips of film. Daphne admitted the project had been started some years before, but no progress had been made in the last 12 months. I said I knew how to make it work, so she took me on. I left my job with the Medical Research Council and started as soon as I could.”
Graham was able to help her build the system up, drawing on his experience as a radar specialist in the RAF. He started by designing a time-base for the waveform generator. To do this he needed to make his own photo-transistors which were too expensive to buy commercially, by scraping off the paint of regular transistors, still pricey at the time as they had only been on the market a few years.
The waveform-generator itself worked in the same fashion as an oscilloscope, but in reverse. It used a “six‑inch CRT [Cathode Ray Tube] mounted inside a lightproof box, with a 5x4‑inch photographic slide carrier fixed to the front of its screen. Mounted some distance in front of the CRT was a photomultiplier tube, arranged so as to detect light from anywhere on the screen. In the slide carrier was placed a transparency with an image of the required waveform; but this was not, as generally believed, simply a line drawing. The shape was filled in with solid black below the line and was left transparent above it, looking rather like the silhouette of a mountain range.
Across the bottom of the CRT screen a dot of light was made to trace a horizontal line by scanning repeatedly from left to right along the 'X' axis. If the beam happened to be obscured by the lower, opaque part of the drawn waveform, no light would be detected by the photomultiplier tube. If so, the beam was told to move higher up the screen until the photomultiplier could see it. In this way the moving dot of light was forced to follow exactly whatever profile was drawn on the transparency. Altering the voltage of the CRT's Y‑axis deflection plates controlled the up and down movement of the dot. The charge on these plates is very high — usually several hundred Volts. But if fluctuations in the Y‑axis voltage were scaled down to within just a Volt or so, it could be connected to an audio amplifier… And that is exactly how the Oramics machine generated its sound: the audio output was tapped off the Y-axis voltage of the CRT.
Whatever shape was placed in front of the screen became just one cycle of a repeating waveform. The speed at which the dot of light travelled across the screen on the 'X' axis was controlled by the time‑base unit, and was adjustable over a very large range so that the speed of the scan dictated the frequency of the sound it produced. If the beam travelled across the screen 440 times every second, it would scan the drawn waveform 440 times, producing a pitch of 440 Hertz, or the 'Concert A' above middle C.”
He had also created an analog digital system by dividing the film into four usable tracks, “each of which can be set to on or off by putting a spot of paint in the appropriate place on the film, to be read by a photo‑cell. Remember how the binary system works? Well, if each strip of film has four tracks, we can use them as four places of binary digits. The track on the lower edge of the film does nought or one; the next one up does nought and two; the next does nought and four; the top‑most track does nought and two again: hence, weighted binary. So it's very simple to 'program' each strip of film with a number — it only has to be between nought and nine — just by painting up to four spots on the film.
"Imagine that you've put a waveform picture in the scanner. If you'd like that sound to play at a frequency of 440 Hertz, then you go first to the strip of film that programs the hundreds of cycles per second. There are four available film‑strips of four tracks each, so just put a spot on the third track of the third film from the bottom (the hundreds). Then go to the film strip that programs the tens of cycles per second, and do the same. That's it — you've programmed 440 Hertz! When the film is run, those two spots of paint will be read by the photo‑cells, which in turn, control latching relays that switch in banks of resistors and make the time‑base run at whatever frequency. So you see, it is digitally controlled — but not how you'd imagine it! I know it seems a strange way to play a tune, but with a bit of practice it becomes quite intuitive.”
He also developed the means to control volume with the system by means of an optical system where a light is faded up and down to change the audio level by means of a photo‑resistor. He also figured out how to create tremolo and vibrato. The system had become vary flexible in the sonics it was able to produce. Being able to draw a sound gave amazing freedom in creating rich envelopes of music.
Sadly Graham, who had done so much to develop the system, was let go by Daphne following an illness that some believed had been a brain hemorrhage, but which was never fully diagnosed. Graham believed it was a nervous breakdown caused by her long working hours and perhaps the 5hz subharmonic frequencies caused by the Oramics machine, which he later fixed by adding a high pass filter to remove the subsonics. The reason for his release was never made clear. It was a real shame because Graham had done a lot of work to get the system as she had envisioned it in place.
Other engineers and technicians came in and copied what he had done to expand the Oramics system while Daphne continued to compose, research, and think about the implications of electronic music from a philosophical perspective. She turned her attention to the subtle nuances of sound that composers using traditional instruments had never been able to control before. She applied this research to the study of perception itself, and how the human ear influences the way the brain apprehends the world. Oramics came to encompass a study of vibrational phenomena, and she divided her system into two distinct parts the commercial and the mystical.
In her detailed notebooks Daphne defined Oramics as "the study of sound and its relationship to life."
Over the decades Daphne had lectured on electronic music and studio techniques.
Throughout her career, Oram lectured on electronic music and studio techniques. In the early seventies she was commissioned to write a book on electronic music. She didn’t want it become a how-to book, so instead took a philosophical and meditative approach to the subject. An Individual Note of Music, Sound and Electronics was published in 1972 and reissued in 2016.
Later in the 1970s Oram began a second book, which never saw print but survives as a manuscript. Titled, The Sound of the Past - A Resonating Speculation, in this work the influence of her fathers interest in archaeology can be seen. In it she speculates and muses on the subject of archaeological acoustics and proposes a theory, backed by research, suggesting that Neolithic chambered mounds and ancient sites like Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid in Egypt were used as resonators, and could be used to amplify sound. Her research suggested that ancient peoples, through their knowledge of sound and acoustics, may have been able to use these places for long distance communication.
By the time the 1980s rolled around she was engaged by the Acorn Archimedes computer company to work on the development of a software version of Oramics for their machine, receiving a grant from the Ralph Vaughan Williams Trust. She had wished to continue the mystical side of her sound research, but the continuing financial struggles for such a project left that dream mostly unfulfilled.
In the 1990’s Oram suffered from two strokes that eventually led her away from her work and into a nursing home. She died in 2003.
In her book Daphne wrote, "We will be entering a strange world where composers will be mingling with capacitors, computers will be controlling crotchets and, maybe, memory, music and magnetism will lead us towards metaphysics."
It is true we are living in that strange world where computers control and Internet of Things, and smart fabrics are weaved by machines. It remains to be seen if the philosophers and spiritually minded musicians of today will marry their love of all things electrical and electromagnetic with the long memory necessary for us to understand the fundamental nature of reality.
An archive of her recordings can be listened to free here: http://www.ubu.com/sound/oram.html
A contemporary reinterpretation of her music from the BBC archives can be found here: https://ecstaticrecordings.bandcamp.com/album/sound-houses
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Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.