Daphne Oram was born on 31 December 1925, ahead of her time.
As a child she had envisaged creating sounds from drawings. As an adult she created Oramics: the process of drawing lines onto film strips which were then read by photoelectric cells (involving light and the emission of electrons) from which the sound was generated.
The lines she drew would determine the parameters of sound (i.e. pitch, waveform, reverb etc.) allowing her to play with the sounds, as she explains:
“You take a sound, any sound, record it and then change its nature by a multiplicity of operations. You record it at different speeds; you play it backwards; you add it to itself over and over again. You adjust filters, echoes, acoustic qualities…you produce a vast and subtle symphony. It’s a sort of modern magic. We think there’s something in it. Some musicians believe it may become an art form in its own right.” – Daphne Oram, 1957
All of this was 10 years before the synthesiser was invented.
Daphne Oram had trained as a musician and scientist and, as for many women, the Second World War presented new opportunities to her.
She worked at the BBC where there are tales of her staying after hours, determined to work on her vision. She would move large audio recording devices (the size of fridges) so that they were beside or opposite each other. This allowed her to mesh and mash sounds into the night, making and adapting recordings of recordings finding new sounds. No simple clicking a button to adjust filters like the software allows in 2018.
She would then disassemble her innovative studio for the morning when everyone else arrived at work. After co-founding BBC Radiophonic Workshop (which was around until 1998 and most famously contributed sounds to Doctor Who) she resigned within the year in order to carry on her work.
She just tried stuff to get closer to the sound that she had envisaged.
Not only is Daphne Oram an inspiration as “the first woman to design and build an entirely new sound recording medium” but she often worked alone using the meticulous process that she created from scratch. She put her money into her work and endeavoured in a world that wasn’t quite ready for her.
The independent recording studio that Daphne Oram established (when very few people were doing it) allowed her to make her music. She would create music and sounds for adverts to pay the bills so that she could continue to be “an artist in charge of the noise” in her own projects.
I endeavour to be an artist in charge of the noises that I’m making and I hope that I may emulate her tenacity. I wanted to share her story because it’s an important one.
Thanks for reading.
To delve further into Daphne Oram’s world:
- There’s a mobile app that allows you to play with the process without the need for appliance-size equipment. Just search “Oramics”
- Daphne Oram’s music is available in all the usual place (including “mash ups” of her interviews).
- Daphne Oram wrote a book in 1972 called “Individual note of music, sound and electronics”.
- The website dedicated to Daphne Oram is here: http://daphneoram.org
- And the articles (I would recommend reading/listing to) which I reference here are:
- BBC Radio 3 documentary “We have also sound houses” (available here: http://youtu.be/NNaqvAH7R34)
- Sound on a Sound article by Steve Marshall (https://www.soundonsound.com/sos/feb09/articles/oramics.htm).
- Hutton, J. 2003. Daphne Oram: Innovator, Writer and Composer. Organised Sound 8(1): 49-56. Camb: CUP)