Daphne Oram, the unsung pioneer of techno

 

Electronic music is everywhere, from the television that we watch to the music we listen to in clubs and even the ringtones on our mobile phones. But who created these electronic sounds? And how did electronic music develop?

The Oramics Machine is a revolutionary music synthesiser that was created in the 1960s by Daphne Oram. Daphne had a strong passion for both sound and electronics and the vision to combine the two. Long thought lost, the machine was recently recovered and added to the Science Museum’s collections in co-operation with Goldsmiths, University of London.

“The Oramics machine is a device of great importance to the development of British electronic music,” says Mick Grierson, Director of the Daphne Oram Collection at Goldsmiths. “It’s a great shame that Daphne’s contribution has never been fully recognised, but now that we have the machine at the Science Museum, it’s clear for all to see that she knew exactly how music was going to be made in the future, and created the machine to do it.”

Daphne Oram (1925 – 2003) was the first (and only?) woman to design and build an entirely new sound recording medium.”  Early in her career she declined a place at the Royal College of Music to become a “music balancer” at the BBC, and as co-founder and first director of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, she is credited with the invention of a new form of sound synthesis – Oramics. Not only is this one of the earliest forms of electronic sound synthesis, it is noteworthy for being audiovisual in nature – i.e. the composer draws onto a synchronised set of ten 35mm film strips which overlay a series of photo-electric cells, generating electrical charges to control amplitude, timbre, frequency, and duration.  This system was a key part of early BBC Radiophonic Workshop practice. However, after Daphne left the BBC (in 1959), her research, including Oramics, continued in relative secrecy.

Throughout her career she lectured on electronic music and studio techniques. In 1971 she wrote An Individual Note of Music, Sound and Electronics which investigated electronic music in a philosophical manner. Besides being a musical innovator her other significant achievements include being the first woman to direct an electronic music studio, the first woman to set up a personal studio and the first woman to design and construct an electronic musical instrument.

 

Oramics from Nick Street on Vimeo.

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