Paradigm Discs Daphne Oram : Oramics -2CD- (UK,2007)***°
It took a real long time before Daphne Oram received the deserved credits as an early electronic music composer and visionary pioneer. At an early age she was employed at the BBC as a Junior Studio engineer and music balancer where she had time to think about concepts to overcome problems and possibilities with sound. Very early she started to dream of making electronic music, but when she asked for help in 1953 there still was no interest.
In 1950 she had already created a piece called “Still Point” (unfortunately not included on the CD) which contained prerecorded sound playback passages (from 78 rpm discs), in different speeds and in reverse and live electronic treatments and one part of the orchestra playing in a reverberant space and the other part is surrounded by absorbent screens, for a dryer sound effec,t with a third variation of processed sound through reverberation, loudness and tone (filter) controls? This seemed to be the earliest work by any composer with real-time electronic treatments!
The Kolnish scene had to show itself as an example first, and also Daphne could only proof herself a first time with electronic music with the first electronic music soundtrack for TV for the drama “Amphitryon 38” in 1957 after which they asked more commissions. Quickly she established her own department called the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (where in total three women were involved including also Delia Derbyshire, who worked on brilliant projects like White Noise, and Maddalena Fagandini). The Workshop used natural sounds, inspired by Schaeffer’s ‘musique concrète’ and electronic music. But while BBC mainly used small fragments of sounds as background for some science fiction television show (as albums from compilations prove, unfortunately), there was actually little time for real compositions. Most known from these sessions was the famous Doctor Who theme (established by a number of people), a tune which enormously impressed me as a two year old with its visual effects-and-all (various CD’s are dedicated to these Dr.Who sessions, since the series has already 4 different periods). I never wanted to miss this intro at any time, at that time. Another work of Daphne Oram from those days was Jack Clayton's 1961 horror film “The Innocents”.
After having met composers like Stockhausen and John Cage, she felt how limited she was at the Workshop and started her own studio developing an instrument called the 'Oramics system', with which she had a dream that it would lead to painting some "alphabet of symbols" on paper that would be read and fed through a machine that would, in turn, produce desired sound waves. Her machine was based upon strips of film read optically and turned into magnetic tape waves that could be filtered from that point instead of working with slices of tape. After two supportive Gulbenkian awards, she completed the machine after 3 years of research, with a first real composition in 1968.
It is unclear how much she really used the machine for her compositions really (despite the compilation title). The huge equipment also became unpractical with the (simultanuous) technical developments of multi-tracking, voltage synthesizers and later computers. Since 1977 she used Mac and Archimedes RISC computer, but her floppy disc archives and ideas which were further privately developed are still not put onto album format, and are still left untouched. What is left are lots of tapes, dating mostly from 1958 and 1971, from which a wide selection of her works is compiled here, a collection of nearly 150 minutes of music.
The double album.
Some of the commissions surely show some British humour, with the playful tunes and effects, especially for some of the TV commercials, of which especially the early washing machine advertisement with rhythms of hand washing sounds (“Tumblewash”, 1962) is worth discovering. Besides we also have different private oddities, like Daphne talking to her cat, with some reverb of sounds, such private moments are not always very special, but are charmingly included. There are many favourite moments in the recognisable field, like the inventive use of electronics reproducing a steam engine with whistle and all on “Bird of Parallax”, a rather baroque piece with subtle effects, or like the Morse code echoes-in-the mind turned into Bach on the ballet “Pompie Ballet” (1971), or another play of water with electronic music on “Purple Dust” (1962). Water and electronics really combines well ! She developed further the fundaments of music concrete, but lost much time in discovering individual sounds and effects. As a serious composer, Daphne’s pieces still have something rudimentary and are a bit fragmentary, 'collecting' more than composing collages of sounds, which is nice and interesting but which are hardly breathing enough on their own to create its own independant expression of an organic environment. An exception and amongst the favourite moments is “Pulse Persephone” from a 1965 commission for an exhibition, with the use of a sinister slow rhythm and some effects, provoking the old Persephone ritual, and with some flute as well. “Brocciliande” from 1970 is one of the only larger pieces entirely developed with her own equipment, which at the same time seems to overcome the tendency to fragmentation very well. Instead of having worked here with a long process of split up tapes and effects while depending on assembling previous results, her machinery gives her the opportunity to work with a sort of sonic room where evolutions are controlled with effects over time. This gives much more than elsewhere the effect of a live event, of a play with sounds. On the piece composed by Ivor Walsworth (based upon feedback and 5 harmonic) she also proves to be a great sound producer. The few noisy high school pieces added here I least appreciate.
What still can be recognised in Daphne Oram’s work is something of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and what they have achieved. The album is a bit like looking behind the scenes, starting to grasp some of its creative process behind the scenes. Daphne Oram might not have been the person that had most influence and visions as a composer, but the dedication and over full time of commitment, sound technical visions, and traces as an inventor left so many gems of enjoyment that this remains a pleasure checking out.