Daphne Oram was a scientist. As a founder of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, her job was ostensibly to provide sounds for media programs. The new Oram box set on the Modern Love sublabel Young Americans shows that she was also a tirelessly inventive artist, totally immersed in sound.
Listening as a mostly “tape guy” who nevertheless wasn’t really familiar with Oram’s work, I was fascinated by it from the start here. She performs what you might call electronic experiments, which one could see as scientific in form: isolating particular sounds or samples that can act as “controls,” using one or two variable elements, reporting the results. But they’re also sketches, artistic works reflecting great skill and care.
What makes Oram’s work here striking is that she lets variable elements get so far out, allowing for “mistakes,” knowing the gear and trusting it to do (try to) its work. (A direct line to the Chicago Acid pioneers tweaking the TS-808.) Despite this risk-taking, Oram is very musical and playful, clearly fascinated with sound for its own sake. Pulling from hundreds of tapes, the curators at Young Americans find a lively cross-section.
Oram will be known to some through her Oramics machine, a “drawn sound” program that used 35mm film to draw shapes to be represented musically. Here, she gives a demonstration of the ambitious machine, providing an important link to her more known work. But pieces like “The Innocents – Savage Noises (1961)” show how far out she could get, with sources processed through heavily overdriven echo just a step or two from modern Noise. The 12-minute, suitelike “Oxford” shows the full range of Oram’s talents. Keeping things minimal and consistent throughout, she uses echo liberally on rhythmic loops, combining them with synthesized notes that hold the piece together, mixing back and forth gradually. It’s experimental, but composed in all senses.
Oram works with carefully controlled timbres, filtering out trebles especially to create muted, industrial, almost voyeuristic environments. These can get pretty abstract too, as in gorgeous excerpts called “Light Music” and “Hamlet – Youth Theatre (1963),” with distant, hypnotic rumbling, using the tape texture and echo musically as well as ominous instrument samples: as almost a percussion instrument in spooky incidental music. (Oram also provided sounds for 2001: A Space Odyssey, also represented on this set.) “Stroke” is reminiscent of Pierre Schaeffer’s concrète collages. Fascinatingly, Oram explores sonic representation – excerpts of her discussing sonic elements of a headache, and sounding frequencies based on ratios associated with hydrogen atoms, show a keen interest in yet other levels of sound exploration.
At the most sublime moments, though, Oram employs a light touch, allowing sound systems to act of their own accord, the watchmaker as artist. Hopefully this and other releases will continue to raise Oram’s unique position in the pantheon of electronic music originals.