Daphne Oram began her music career at the BBC in 1942 at age 17 (Bookmat.com), where she was employed as a “music balancer” (Hutton 49). Choosing to work for the BBC over attending the Royal Academy of Music, Oram’s job as a music balancer involved working with music and mixing for primarily classical music programs. Oram was a proficient pianist and violinist, but also extensively studied audio engineering and acoustics at the BBC, and eventually became a studio manager for the BBC (Hutton 49). During this time of her early career, Oram became fascinated with electronic music, in particular French composer, Pierre Schaeffer’s music concrete. At this time, Britain had very little development of electronic music, while France, Germany, and Italy had already been well underway (Hutton 49). During the war, Oram worked tirelessly, experimenting with electronic music production and would frequently fiddle with BBC’s tape recorders after work hours (Wilson). Oram eventually teamed with like-minded BBC studio manager, Desmond Briscoe. Together, Oram and Briscoe convinced the BBC to invest in magnetic tape recorders and other equipment to experiment with new electronic music. The BBC’s investment lead to Oram’s music for a television play entitled Amphytryon 38 in 1957 (Hutton 50). Oram’s music for Amphytron 38 was the first piece to be entirely composed of electronic elements and received very positive reviews from within the BBC. This new technique was dubbed “radiophonic art” (Hutton 50). Eventually, demand increased for Oram and Briscoe’s work, and the BBC created the Radiophonic Workshop in 1958 (Hutton 51), with Oram as its director (Bookmat.com). Oram played a pivotal role in the development and foundation of the workshop, which lead to significant advances in broadcast electronic music, but opted to open her own studio a year later, where she was able to pursue other endeavors with her music (Hutton 51).
Concept of Oramics
As a child, Oram was obsessed with creating makeshift sound machines. Her father said that as early as seven years old, she wanted to construct a machine that could “produce any sound she desired” (Hutton 49). In the early 1960s, Oram received two Gulbenkian Foundation grants to further her research with the visualization of sound. This research manifested itself in Oramics, which Oram envisioned a new method of music composition, which involved composers “learning an alphabet of symbols with which he will be able to indicate all the parameters needed to build up the sound he requires. These symbols, drawn… freehand on an ordinary piece of paper will be fed to the equipment and the resultant sound will be recorded onto magnetic tape” (DaphneOram.org).
Foundations of Oramics: Music Concrete & Other Drawn Sound Techniques
The most fundamental influence on Oram’s work was Pierre Schaeffer’s music concrete. Schaeffer realized that the advent of recorded sound allowed for a completely new approach towards music. In his book A la Recherche dune Musique Concrète, released in 1952, Schaeffer stated that “recorded sounds” could “become sound objects” after observing how recordings can sound unrecognizable with a simple change in “its temporal progress” during play back in the studio (Dack 2002). Through this theory and several others described in Schaeffer’s book, he began to experiment with different recorded disc sources of “musical instruments, domestic implements, trains,” or anything he could find (Dack 2002).
Oram’s idea of drawing sound for Oramics was not completely original. There had been several other techniques applying this concept. There had been various experiments conducted beginning in the 1920s with the drawing sound. Russian film-makers Arseny Arraamov and Yevgeny Sholpo created soundtracks with ink drawings on roughly 2mm wide strips. Director Norman McClaren also utilized this technique in several of his films. In the 1940s, South African engineer Johannes van der Bijl formed a method for recording, utilizing waveforms photographed on 35 mm film. These pieces of film were ran through a “steady beam of light,” which “generated an electronic impulse to represent sound” (Hutton 49). In Canada, the “Composertron” was also created, which used drawings on a television screen and cathode ray tubes to produce sound (Hutton 49).
The Oramics Machine
Oram’s life dream of a machine capable of any desired sound manifested itself in the Oramics machine. The machine itself was quite large. The most significant part of the machine was a steel-framed table, where each filmstrip drawing would be placed (DaphneOram.org). The drawings were usually produced on “asset of ten sprocketed synchronized strips of 35mm film,” which would then cover “a series of photo-electric cells that in turn generated an electrical charge” (120years.net). These ten strips would each loop clockwise through a clutch mechanism and drivewheel on the machine, which would control the speed at which the film roatated. This mechanism normaled at 10cm per second. Additionally, there was a handwheel if a much slower speed was desired (DaphneOram.org).
Strips were split into a near group and a far group. The near group controlled the general “waveform shape, duration and vibrato” of sound, while the far group managed the more intricate parts of sound such as “timbre and intensity, amplitude, and frequency” (DaphneOram.org). The strips would pass over the photoelectric cells, which produced a steady light source on the right of the machine’s main table. When the strips passed over the light, the dark parts of the film would “modulate the rays,” which would then be read as voltage measurements by capacitors located in the photocells. Once read, an electric signal is produced, which then “triggers oscillators and filters and envelope shape [that] can be manipulated in fine detail” (DaphneOram.org). The signal was also sent to a “separate sealed light box” containing “four cathode-ray tubes.” “A glass plate of slides” that was “partially covered by an opaque mask selected from a number of pre-set shapes which correspond to the desired effect” were then put into a slot within the box. A “photomultiplier” is also in this box, which sends the output of the cathode-ray tubes to the output of the several oscillators (DaphneOram.org).
Recording would then take place in a separate unit of the machine, which has another motor. Four strips of film are intensely rotated across this motor, and the “output signal from the multitrack magnetic recording” is sent to a “stack of four Mulla 323” amps, and then to a pair of custom speakers (DaphneOram.org).