Daphne Oram (31 December 1925 – 5 January 2003) was a British composer and electronic musician. She was the creator of the “Oramics” technique for creating electronic sounds.
Oram was, from an early age, taught piano and organ as well as musical composition.
In 1942 she was offered a place at the Royal College of Music but instead took up a position as a Junior Studio Engineer and “music balancer” at the BBC. During this period she became aware of developments in “synthetic” sound and began experimenting with tape recorders. She also spent some time in the 1940s composing music, which remained unperformed, including an orchestal work entitled “Still Point”.
In the 1950s she was promoted to become a music studio manager and, following a trip to the RTF studios in Paris, began to campaign for the BBC to provide electronic music facilities for composing sounds and music, using electronic music and musique concrète techniques, for use in its programming. In 1957 she was commissioned to compose music for the play Amphitryon 38. Using a sine wave oscillator, an early tape recorder and some self-designed filters, she produced the score from only electronic sources; the first of its kind at the BBC.
Along with fellow electronic musician and BBC colleague Desmond Briscoe, she began to receive commissions for many other works – including a significant production of Samuel Beckett’s “All That Fall”. As demand grew for these electronic sounds, the BBC gave Oram and Briscoe a budget to establish the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in early 1958, where she was the first Studio Manager. In October of that year, she was sent by the BBC to the “Journées Internationales de Musique Expérimentale” at the Brussels World’s Fair (where Edgard Varèse demonstrated his “Poème électronique”). After hearing some of the work produced by her contemporaries and being unhappy at the BBC’s music department’s lack of interest, she decided to resign from the BBC less than one year after the workshop was opened, hoping to develop her techniques further on her own.
In 1959 she installed her “Oramics Studios for Electronic Composition” in Tower Folly, a converted oast house at Fairseat, near Wrotham, Kent. Her output from the studio, mostly commercial, covered a far wider range than the Radiophonic Workshop, providing background music for not only radio and television but also theatre and short commercial films. She was also commissioned to provide sounds for installations and exhibitions. Other work from this studio included electronic sounds for Jack Clayton’s 1961 horror film The Innocents, concert works including Four Aspectsand collaborations with opera composer Thea Musgrave and Ivor Walsworth.
In February 1962, she was awarded a grant of £3550 from the Gulbenkian Foundation to support the developments and research of her “Oramics” drawn sound technique. This method of music composition and performance was intended by Oram to allow a composer to be able to draw an “alphabet of symbols” on paper and feed it through a machine that would, in turn, produce the relevant sounds on magnetic tape. A second Gulbenkian grant of £1000, awarded in 1965, enabled the Oramics composition machine to be completed. The first drawn sound composition using the machine, entitled “Contrasts Essonic”, was recorded in 1968.
The technique, similar to Yevgeny Sholpo’s “Variophone”, involves drawing on 35mm film strips to control the sound produced. Oram’s composition machine consisted of a large rectangular metal frame, providing a table-like surface traversed by ten synchronised strips of clear, sprocketed 35mm film. The musician drew shapes on the film to create a mask, which modulated the light received by photocells. Although the output from the machine was monophonic, the sounds could be added to multitrack tapes to provide more texture.
The concept of drawn sound was not new. The technique of drawing patterns by hand onto the thin strip at the edge of 35mm film had been around since the 1920s. Russian film makers Arseny Arraamov and Yevgeny Sholpo created soundtracks from intricate ink drawings on thin strips that were 1.93 – 2.5.mm in width. Norman McClaren used drawn sound in many films. South African electronics engineer , Johannes van der Bijl, working in the 1940s, developed a method of recording sound using photographed waveforms on 35mm film, which were passed across and interrupted a steady beam of light, and thus generated an electronic impulse to represent sound but the Oramics system reveals a more lucid, free and at the same time more precise analogue of sound waveforms.
In the 1990s she suffered two strokes and was forced to stop working, later moving to a nursing home. She died in 2003 Január 5, aged 77, Maidstone, Kent, UK.