Thursday, 6 October 2011

Daphne Oram at the Science Museum

It was quite a thrill to see the Oramics machine enshrined in its glass display case up in the hushed surrounds of the second floor of the Science Museum in London. It seemed like a long overdue official recognition of Daphne Oram’s restless, exploratory spirit, a validation of her unending search, not just for a new form of music but for a new, accessible and democratic way of creating it. The technology didn’t exist to realise the ideas she had long nurtured of creating sound from drawn pattern (reversing the manner in which and oscilloscope screen projected the shapes of the sounds produced by oscillators) so she and her engineering friend Graham Wrench devised and built it themselves. This pioneering spirit, the creation of the mechanical means to translate the ideal into the material, makes them worthy inhabitants of these halls hallowed to the progress of human rationality. However, Dan Wilson’s recent article on Daphne in the Wire magazine, outlining her interest in occult and new age philosophies, suggests that her presence here may have a heretical edge. She was no mere dry rationalist, and was open to intuitive forces and inspirations, all of which gave her work an emotional resonance beyond the sound-by-numbers of some electronic music. Indeed, as Wilson points out in his article, Oram was keen to pursue the idea of using Oramics in a therapeutic sense, nurturing mental health through sound and music rather than regulating it with pharmaceuticals.

The central principle of Oramics was that of drawn sound, of imagining music visually. A similar idea had been realised in Russia with the ANS synthesiser, which the composer Eduard Artemyev used for the soundtrack of Andrei Tarkovky’s film Solaris in 1972. The machine itself is a classic piece of English garden shed Heath Robinsonry. The main body rests within a frame of meccanoesque metal struts, and contains the main scanner and the ten loops of film strips which passed over it. These strips set up the various basic parameters of the sound (pitch, reverb, vibrato, envelope, amplitude) which could be further refined at a later stage. The patterns interrupt the light source and therefore vary the voltage output, which is sent on to various oscillators and filters. As has been pointed out, this is, in monumental form, remarkably similar to the computer music systems such as Cubase, with their graphic user interfaces via which the waveform and its various parameters can be manipulated in an intuitive fashion. Indeed, the parameter controls of the Oramics machine are digital, using an on/off language, and as such are remarkably prescient. The signal from the scanner is sent to a separate component of the machinery, a light box fashioned from an old wooden commode (a small table and cupboard). It has to be said that the rather ramshackle nature of the Oramics machinery favours practicality over any aesthetically pleasing dimension. Perhaps future incarnations might have refined the design aspect a little. This was always something of a prototype. The commode contains a number of cathode ray tubes and oscillators. A series of shapes on glass slides can be slotted in to mask the light output and further modify the sound. Eventually, the whole is sent on to a multi-track recorder connected to speakers, and the sound output can be tweaked and toyed with from thereon in. There’s an interactive screen to the side of the Oramics machine itself which allows you to gain an impression of the way that the layering of drawn patterns could be used to shape music in real time. You can manipulate your own fat, wormy waveforms on virtual film strips, creating your own particular sound.

Like many true pioneers, Oram suffered from a good deal of neglect in her own lifetime. Jo Hutton, in her talk for the Wire Salon at Café Oto earlier in the year, talked about Daphne’s sense of resentment about being effectively written out of the history of the Radiophonic Workshop. She felt that she had been sidelined by Desmond Briscoe in his book 1983 book The Radiophonic Workshop: The First 25 Years, in which it is Douglas Cleverdon who is credited as being the ‘prime mover’ for its creation, sharing the honours with Briscoe himself. Daphne fails to get a mention in the ‘Personages of Much Importance’ chapter, which allowed others to step out from the Workshop’s institutional anonymity. The BBC4 documentary on the Radiophonic Workshop broadcast a few years ago also gave Oram short shrift. This was particularly galling, since it was through her tireless efforts and refusal to take no for an answer that the Workshop was finally set up in 1958, with herself as its first studio manager. The Francis Bacon quote from The New Atlantis (‘wee also have sound-houses), which has become so inextricably associated with the Workshop, was Dapne’s discovery, and it was she who posted it on the door in the early days. She was arguably the first person to make what came to be known as radiophonic music, since it was her striking sounds for Frederick Bradnum’s ‘radiophonic poem’ Private Dreams and Public Nightmares, broadcast in October 1957, which heralded the first use of the word. This poem was written specifically with sound in mind. So, the scripted lines ‘I fall through nothing/Vast empty space/Still falling, falling/But slower now’ are paralleled by sound descriptions; ‘A comet-like shriek/acoustic change/pulsating beat/descending scale/a developed sound like a cry’.

The Workshop was attached to the drama rather than the music department because Oram was well aware, through her own frustrating experiences, of the latter’s fusty conservatism. She had been hugely inspired by a visit to the 1958 Brussels Worlds Fair at which she experienced Varese’s Poeme Electronique blasting out of the 400 speakers around the Philips Pavilion designed by le Corbusier and Iannis Xenakis. Other composers of electronic music such as Stockhausen, Herbert Eimert, Henri Pousseur and Pierre Schaeffer, all of who were working out of the well-equipped radio studios of Paris and Cologne, were also a big influence. When Jo Hutton was going through Oram’s papers and recordings after her death, she talked of finding one box marked Gesang der Junglinge, which turned out to be Stockhausen’s classic piece of musique concrete subjected to her own variations (added reverb and reversed sections etc.). As Hutton pointed out, this was effectively an early example of a remix. Daphne wasn’t working in Cologne or Paris in the late 50s, however, and had to gather equipment together from various sources after a long day’s work as a sound balancer and studio manager in order to pursue her own late night, out of hours experiments in electronic and musique concrete composition. Having set it up and established it on a firm footing, she left the Workshop after only a year, in 1959. This wasn’t out of any bitterness or disappointment at its direction. She wanted to explore her own musical ideas more fully, and these exceeded the compass of the Workshop’s remit of producing sound for the needs of specific programming. It was a general policy at this early stage to regularly move people on after a period of months anyway, since it was felt that prolonged exposure to these new sounds and intense involvement in their production could result in mental imbalance. And Daphne had been at the BBC for 16 years by this stage, having first joined in 1943. The exhibition does something to redress the balance when it comes to her position in this most iconic of British electronic music institutions. This is partly through its very conception, prominently positioning Oram as a prime force in the development of British electronic music, but it also provides a touch screen biographical and historical post which makes her formative contribution clear.

There is another display case which contains some of the equipment which might have been used in those early days: a Ferrograph tape recorder from 1960 in its handy carrying case; a Bib ¼” tape splicing block; and a Leland oscillator. This latter was an ex-RAF bit of equipment, which is indicative of the way in which so much of the technology scavenged and bolted together by the Radiophonic Workshop and other electronic composers derived from bits and pieces used (and discarded) by the military. Graham Wrench, who built the Oramics machine with Daphne, was himself an ex-RAF engineer. Also in this cabinet is Daphne Oram’s 1962 7” record Electronic Sound Patterns, no.3 in a the Listen, Move and Dance series designed for use in school music and movement classes. Here’s what the sleeve notes say: ‘Teachers seeking original material have found this new approach exciting and stimulating in their creative work for music, movement and drama. The Sound patterns are intended for children to enjoy and may lead them into movement of dance-like character, or involve them in imaginative situations. People who are interested in sound production may like to know that these sound patterns were created by Daphne Oram at her Electronic Studio in Kent. By using audio generators, many tape recorders, filters, ring modulators and other electronic devices she built up the tone colours, pitched each of the notes separately, gave them duration and dynamics and finally spliced the notes together to obtain the required rhythms and sequences’. The language is very Oramic – the politely non-committal way in which she says ‘people who are interested…may like to know’. This is reminiscent of her introduction to Oramics on the first track of the CD of that name, in which, after music of intoxicating atmosphere and alien tonality, she says ‘I’d rather like to introduce you to the many varied sounds which are produced by the studio’. You can see her talk about her work on Oramics on a BBC programme called The Same Trade As Mozart at the exhibition, and enjoy the richness of her beautifully modulated RP tones, resonantly English (of a certain variety) with its rathers, frightfullys and terriblys. The seeming conservatism of this outwardly decorous middle-class lady (often depicted in early photos wearing tweedy twin-sets and floral blouses) somehow makes the radicalism of her music and ideas all the more exciting. This wasn’t the product of some bohemian milieu into which she was born, but the pursuit of a real, individual and wilful passion. As she said in a soundclip played at the Wire Salon, it was all ‘frightfully exciting. I was terribly thrilled by it all. I wish the pioneer days could have gone on forever and ever’.

After leaving the Radiophonic Workshop, she moved to and oasthouse in Kent, where she set up her studio, and where the Oramics machine and process slowly began to take shape. It makes for a marvellously incongruous collision of the traditionally rustic with the futurologically minded and technologically adventurous. It’s like a rather more welcoming and less grimly gothic version of Frankenstein setting up his crackling electrical coils and capacitors in an old castle in James Whales’ 1931 film. I think also of Nigel Kneale’s 1972 TV play The Stone Tape, in which banks of electronic recording equipment are delivered to and installed in an old mansion house. The scientists who used them were an aggressive and invasive presence, however. I would think that Daphne inhabited her historical space with a great deal more sensitivity, and was more alive to its temporal resonance. The round tower and conical roof of the oasthouse give it the romantic aspect of a domesticated Northern European castle. In fact, its architectural form had a more practical function as a place to dry out the harvest of the local Kent hop fields. Perhaps appropriately, the Oramics machine does somewhat resemble a strange kind of loom, with all those parallel threads of film shuttling round and round, joining together all the separate elements of sound. As a hand built piece of technologised craft machinery, maybe it’s not so very much out of place in an old Kentish farmhouse after all.

The music which came out of this old crop-drying silo and drifted over the fields included pieces for ballet (Bird of Parallax, 1972), science fiction theatre (Fred Hoyle’s Rockets to Ursa Major, 1962), film (The Innocents, 1961), exhibitions (Pulse Persephone for the 1965 Treasures from the Commonwealth exhibition), multi-media installations (Episode Metallic for Andrew Bobrowski’s mobile sculptre installed in the lobby of Mallard House, London in 1965), documentary (Snow, a 1963 British Transport Films short by Geoffrey Jones), and adverts (Kia Ora, Lego and a Tumblewash washing machine). All this in addition to (or rather as a means towards enabling) her attempts to promote the Oramics system and incorporate it into concert works. Many of these are included on the excellent 2CD Oramics compilation on Paradigm Discs. As it did for so many, money ran short in the 70s however, and the Oramics machine fell into disuse. As you can see in this short film, when it finally saw the light again after many years in storage, it was covered in cobwebs and accumulated dust. No better metaphor could be offered for the neglect and disregard into which Daphne’s work had fallen. But thankfully, the cobwebs have been brushed away and the ingrained grime washed off, and Oram’s legacy can be appreciated in all its wayward and inspiring glory. Excitingly, there are also a number of purposefully empty cases and spaces, all awaiting further elements of the exhibition to be put into place. This will mean that the Oramics machine and Daphne’s musical ideas as a whole won’t simply be presented as the exploration of a technological dead end by an isolated eccentric. They will be given their proper place in the context of the development of a particularly British electronic music vernacular, often achieved against the odds and with an ingenious use of randomly available materials. Never mind musique concrete, the instruments here were frequently found objects in themselves. The Oramics to Electronica: Revealing Histories of Electronic Music exhibition will be fully opened sometime in October, and will involve the input of those who were there, and of modern electronic musicians. Already there’s been a meeting of museum staff with Dick Mills, Roger Limb and Steve Marshall of the Radiophonic Workshop and Peter Zinovieff and Alan Sutcliffe of Electronic Music Studio (producers of the EMS synths used by the Workshop in the late 60s and early 70s). And what will appear in those empty cases? I shall have to return and see.


Keith Seatman said...

I am going to pay this a visit later in the month. Excellent post. Have given this post a mention on my blog.

Jez Winship said...

Thanks. Hopefully the exhibition will have expanded a little by the time you visit, too. The Oramics machine will still be the centrepiece, though, I'm sure.