The Sound Drawer

Daphne Oram, a great pioneer of electronic music: the woman who could paint music

Daphne Oram mit Aufnahmegeräten und Tonbändern in ihrem Studio (1970)Original Source: Daphne Oram Trust

Electronic Music Along the Line

From the avant-garde like Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage to pop music stars like Kraftwerk and Depeche Mode, electronic music might seem like a purely male-dominant field. But that's not quite the case. Several women have also achieved immortal status as pioneers in the area of synthetic sound production. Probably the most significant female innovator was Englishwoman Daphne Oram (1925–2003).

Daphne Oram was born as the daughter of James and Ida Oram on New Year's Eve 1925 in the small town of Devizes in the county of Wiltshire, Southwest England…

…just over 12 miles from the legendary stone circle monolith Stonehenge—a site that would later play a significant role in her work.

Daphne was only 17 when she passed up the opportunity to study at the Royal College of Music, directly opposite the Royal Albert Hall. Instead, she chose to work at…

…the BBC. She worked here as a sound engineer from 1943. One of her main roles was to play a tape prerecording if a concert was threatened by an air strike while it was broadcast live.

Daphne Oram mit Aufnahmegeräten und Tonbändern in ihrem Studio (1970)Original Source: Daphne Oram Trust

She also created sound effects and short clips for radio shows. Still, this wasn't enough for her. She often stayed in Portland Place after finishing work in central London, and started to play around with tape equipment and make new sound creations. She recorded sounds, cut the tapes together, doubled or halved the playback speed, or let the recordings run backward. This resulted in her very first compositions. The BBC became an amazing musical test lab for Daphne Oram.

In the 1950s, Daphne was promoted to studio manager and composed music for theater production Amphytrion 38 by French dramaturg Jean Giraudaux, among other works. Using a sinus generator, tape device, and some homemade filters, it was one of the first fully electronically produced works from the BBC building.

The BBC Radiophonic Workshop
For years, Daphne Oram dreamed of having her own studio where she could run more of her own experiments. In 1958, the bosses at the BBC finally answered her demands and made a space available to her and her colleague, composer Desmond Briscoe (1925–2006), at Maida Vale Studios. It was the start of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. One of the most famous compositions produced here in the four decades before its closure in 1998 was the music for legendary science-fiction series…

Die Plakette am Wohnhaus von Delia Derbyshire (2001)Original Source: 360 Libre

…Doctor Who, composed by another phenomenal female electronic musician Delia Derbyshire (1937–2001), who lived and worked in Coventry and is now commemorated with a plaque on her former residence on Cedars Avenue in the northwest of the city.

Daphne Oram in ihrem Studio (1965)Original Source: Daphne Oram Trust

Departure from the BBC
A great career seemed to be laid before her as a studio manager at the BBC. However, after just one year, Daphne Oram threw in the towel in frustration and left. Her central request had been to turn the BBC Radiophonic Workshop into a major studio for experimental music, like the ones in Cologne, Paris, and Milan. However, the people in charge thought it was too risky. For them, the studio was just a production site for jingles and sound effects for their own broadcasts.

Der Tower Folly bei Nacht (1959)Original Source: Daphne Oram Trust

Move to Tower Folly
Daphne Oram subsequently left the BBC and moved to the countryside, nearby Wrotham in the county of Kent. She set up her own studio in a remote country estate, where she completed her groundbreaking work which was eventually named after her.

Die Oramics von oben (1970)Original Source: Daphne Oram Trust

Oramics: a complicated sounding and highly complex composition device…

Daphne Oram mit ihrer Oramics (1970)Original Source: Daphne Oram Trust

…which produced sounds based on line drawings. Simply put…

Daphne Oram arbeitet an der Oramics (1970)Original Source: Daphne Oram Trust

Nine 1.4-inch filmstrips converted drawn symbols, patterns, strokes, and shapes into sounds which were then synchronized together by a tenth strip.

Die Oramics von oben (1970)Original Source: Daphne Oram Trust

Hardly anyone knows this, but Daphne Oram also produced sound elements for the soundtrack for the 1962 James Bond film Doctor No.

By John DominisLIFE Photo Collection

Rumors about the studio are still circulating today, like Daphne Studio being visited by the Beatles…

Mick Jagger (1994)LIFE Photo Collection

…the Rolling Stones…

LIFE Photo Collection

…and The Who at the studio in Tower Folly.

Daphne Oram VideoDeutsches Museum

In any case, as this excerpt states, she was visited by the BBC.

Daphne Oram bei einer Vorführung (1980)Original Source: Daphne Oram Trust

Although she never achieved huge commercial success with her Oramics and still had to compose and produce mainstream sounds to make a living, Daphne Oram saw her invention as her life's work. It was proof that electronic music didn't have to be a soulless, machine-generated construct, and could instead still be packed full of feeling and human individuality using manually drawn contours.

Buchcover von Daphne Orams erstem Buch (1971)Deutsches Museum

Alongside her own compositions, Daphne Oram also gave lessons and wrote books. Her first work, An Individual Note of Music, Sound and Electronics published in 1971, was intended to be less of a user instruction manual on how to produce electronic music, and more of an clarification of the relationship between music, sound and electronics from an overall point of view. In her second essay The Sound of the Past—A Resonating Speculation…

…which she started in the late 1970s but never published as a book, Daphne Oram proposes the theory that millennia-old stone structures, like the Pyramids in Egypt or even the monoliths at Stonehenge, served as resonance chambers, enormous constructions, which people at the time used to communicate across long distances.

Daphne Oram und eine Ziege (1980)Original Source: Daphne Oram Trust

In the last years of her life, it became quiet around Daphne Oram. After two strokes in the 1990s, she last lived in a nursing home, where she died on January 5, 2003, a few days after her 77th birthday. Her estate is now administered by the Daphne Oram Trust and the Goldsmiths Archive at the University of London. Immortal also remains her music. In 2016, for example, Daphne Oram's never-performed 1948 composition entitled "Still Point" was premiered in London. A work for two orchestras, record player and tape recorder.

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