Historical context is all important to the appreciation of this album. Although her name may not be as instantly recognizable as (say) Robert Moog, Daphne Oram played a vital role in the development of electronic and synthesized sound. Having started working as a Junior Studio Engineer at the BBC in 1942 when aged 16, during the late ‘40s, she began to develop her ideas for an Electronic Music studio. In 1950, she completed “Still Point,” a piece for double orchestra and electronics and, in 1957, composed music for the television play “Amphytryon 38,” the first piece of its kind from entirely electronic sound sources. After years of lobbying the BBC for equipment to develop new techniques for sound design and electronic music, in early 1958 Oram was instrumental in setting up the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, where she became its first Studio Manager. Within a year, disappointed at the BBC music department’s lack of interest, she resigned and branched out on her own, setting up in a converted oast house in Kent.
She began work on her Oramics system; having seen an oscilloscope some years before, Oram envisaged a system that would convert drawn waves into sound — the opposite of what an oscilloscope does. After being told her idea was impossible, she became determined to make it a reality. Eventually, between 1965 and 1968, a working Oramics machine was completed that converted drawings made onto transparent 35mm film into sound. The double album Oramics (Paradigm, 2007) extensively documented Oram’s period in Kent and the products of the Oramics machine; although scarce these days, that album should be considered an essential companion to the release under discussion.
The Oram Tapes, Vol. 1 has drawn upon the archive of reel-to-reel tapes left by Oram when she died in 2003. Two years of trawling through 211 tapes that were re-mastered at Goldsmiths College has led to a 37-track compilation that presents a clear picture of the breadth and depth of Oram’s explorations and her working methods. At times, the tracks here verge on Python-esque surrealism as Oram details her experimental methods as well as playing the results. One such is “Hydrogen Tones,” in which she explains, in her distinctive cut-glass English middle- class accent, that we are about to hear recordings of pure tones “based on the Balmer sequence of frequencies for Hydrogen as seen on the spectroscope”; for each one, she then gives its frequency in great detail before we hear the tone, the whole thing sounding more like a laboratory report than a recording. At the other end of the spectrum are two tracks of effects made for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey; although fascinating, by their nature these tracks are episodic and disjointed, a series of sounds intended to be heard in the context of the film rather than listened to sequentially in their own right. The album is also dotted with examples of Oram’s commissions for commercials, featuring brief ditties for such analgesics as Phensic and Anacin. Many such tracks are all too brief, and examples of Oram’s more substantial works are rare, a fact emphasized by the inclusion of her dramatic 12 minutes of music for Hamlet, easily the best track here.
The sense that this album is primarily of historical interest is emphasized by its black and white photographs of Oram at work surrounded by equipment that today looks decidedly archaic. The good news is that this is the first volume of a series of Daphne Oram editions planned for release on Modern Love’s Young Americans imprint in the next few years. Together, they should help cement Oram’s place in history. We must hope that further explorations of the tapes unearth more extended examples of Oram’s work.