Monday, 28 June 2010

Daphne Oram

One of the amazing things about Daphne is her name – a pioneer of electronic music called Daphne? It’s insane. They’re usually called something far more exotic, like Pierre or Karlheinze...OK, there was a John...but Daphne?
   Also, take a look at this woman, does she look like the kind of person who would invent a whole new way of producing sound? But she did, inventing a new form of sound synthesis – Oramics, whereby the composer draws onto 35mm film strips which overlay a series of photo-electric cells, generating electrical charges to control amplitude, timbre, frequency, and duration, apparently.
   No dreams of domestic bliss or supporting hubby whilst minding the kids for Daphne, no, she dreamt of sine wave oscillators and tape manipulation, probably. What was her response in the corner shop when the man at the counter asked her what she’d been doing today? “Oh, the usual, Fred, working on a new system that will synthesize sound.”
   She had a studio built in her Kent oast house, which like her appearance, seems contrary to what she did…an old building once used for drying hops in the process of making beer…now home to a woman concocting her very strange musical brew…
   Perhaps she sat there sometimes, looking out at the countryside…recalling the day she turned down a place at the Royal College of Music…and the day she left the BBC having co-founded their Radiophonic Workshop…those stuffed shirts lacked a vision that matched hers…
   Daphne fascinates me…how could she not? This woman who progressed from being a sound engineer at the Beeb to going it alone, pursuing her musical dreams in England, in isolation from the other pioneers of sound, the legends such as Varese (who would die in ’65)…and Stockhausen or Cage…perhaps she wrote them letters – ‘Dear John, hope your arthritis isn’t playing up too much…just got three-and-a-half grand from the Gulbenkian Foundation – result!’ Something like that. Perhaps all pioneers must, by default, work in isolation.
   On the compilation, ‘Oramics’, we hear the full gamut of Daphne’s capabilities, from lighthearted snippets such as ‘Purring Interlude’ (yes, recorded cats) and ‘In A Jazz Style’ (reverb percussion and scat lasting 43secs), to the 9min ‘Dr Faustus Suite’, which is as sinister and chilling as anything you’re likely to hear. Also included is her work on the soundtrack to Geoffrey Jones’s superb short film, ‘Snow’ (see below), which involves Sandy Nelson’s ‘Teen Beat’ being stretched to nearly 8mins by pitching it from very slow to high speed. ‘Costain Suite’ and ‘Brociliande’ are other examples of lengthier pieces in which Daphne could expand on her vision for electronic sound.
   A maverick not only in her art, but as a woman who denied her supposed ‘role’, Daphne may not have been properly recognised in her day, but thankfully her recordings survived and we, at least, can afford her the respect she deserves by appreciating what she did.


  1. Interesting and Chris Carter has just tweeted this: "listening to the wonderful Daphne O's Oramics (again!), just reissued as gatefold quad vinyl limited edition "


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