Daphne Oram: Sound Engineer & Composer

In 2010/2011, I worked probably not hard enough to gain a vocational qualification in Sound Engineering which promptly became useless to me due to a combination of chronic shyness and perpetual ear infections leaving me functionally deaf in one ear. Among the practical skills I learned: digital composition, tape editing, multi-track recording, analogue mixing, location sound recording, a little in the way of electronic engineering, and along with the history of musical development and notation, I also learned a little of the history of electronic music. This was supplemented significantly by Ishkur’s Electronic Music Guide, but neither in class nor in my admittedly haphazard readings outside of class did I encounter much in the way of information about the history of women in electronic music. I think the only woman my digital music tutor even mentioned was Wendy Carlos. Wendy was absolutely at the forefront of electronic musical fame and deserves every single column inch in every article devoted to her work with modular synths, but I feel disappointed that it wasn’t until a recent trip to the Science Museum for an evening event (the filming of a space-related educational program for use in the USA, which also included a choir, an orchestra, a ballet dancer, and free champagne) that I discovered Daphne Oram.

BBC Radiophonic Workshop

I’ve long been besotted and beset with admiration for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. As a great big Dr Who fan I’ve always been delighted by the tales of their early effects for the program: the ring modulator for the Daleks, the keys scraped down the piano wires, and the seminal theme tune of Ron Grainer’s (which was actually electronically arranged by another wonderful woman, Delia Derbyshire). What surprises me is that no one had really mentioned that setting this up and having electronic effects and music introduced to the BBC was the work of Daphne Oram and Desmond Briscoe. It would have cheered me up no end on my course (on which I was one of only two women!) to know that another woman was so important and influential in sound engineering at the BBC.

Daphne continued composing and developed a system to convert pictures into sounds. It involved drawing on 10 strips of 35mm film, which were then read by photo-electric cells and converted into sound, and became known as Oramics.

Daphne Oram, the unsung  pioneer of techno, by Giles Wilson

To me this is fascinating. Daphne Oram not only composed electronic music when the artform was still very much in its infancy, not  only drove the BBC to set up an electronic music & effects workshop, not only set up her own music studio (the first woman to do so in the UK), but designed and created an entirely new form of instrument (with the assistance of engineer Graham Wrench). I am quite shocked that she isn’t better-known or more widely talked-about, considering what she brought to television, to sound technology, and to music in general. What a remarkable, intelligent, and hard-working woman she was, by all accounts constantly driven to create and innovate. She would have been the perfect role model for the women on my course!

Daphne Oram in her studio in the 70s

Ever since hearing about optical recording in an introductory session on my course I have found the idea fascinating, and the idea that Daphne Oram used it not only to to record external music but to create music is quite electrifying.

If you’re able to get to the Science Museum I’d definitely recommend having a poke around the “Oramics” display: they have several fantastic machines from the early days of electronic music, and – my favourite – an interactive display which allows you to compose on the trot by drawing on a screen with your finger, a little like her optical recording method. For a moment, waffling with this display with a half-empty glass of champagne between my knees and headphones slipping off my too-small ears, I got to pretend that I was half the innovative genius and engineering pioneer that Daphne Oram was, and that’s a really good feeling.

(Especially as it took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out some of the virtual synth settings on Logic Pro!)


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