x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

In the lab with Daphne Oram, experimental noise pioneer

Without Daphne Oram, the eerie sounds we associate with science-fiction might not exist. A 20th-century pioneer operating at the cutting edge of experimental noise, her work has been compiled into a wondrous two-CD album.

Daphne Oram. Photo Courtesy BBC Archives
Daphne Oram. Photo Courtesy BBC Archives

Without Daphne Oram, the eerie sounds we associate with science-fiction might not exist. A 20th-century pioneer operating at the cutting edge of experimental noise, her work has been compiled into a wondrous two-CD album.

In a spell of silence invaded by sounds from inner and outer space, a voice surveys the workings of curious “computer-type equipment” in a room outfitted decades ago. “It’s all very new,” the voice says, “and, as far as I know, there’s nothing like it anywhere else in the world.”

The setting is a remote recording studio in a converted farmhouse just outside London. The year is sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s, when electronic sounds appeared like transmissions from a great unknown. Computers, of course, were hardly common then, and machines of any electrical kind remained novel and new.

The voice belonged to Daphne Oram, a visionary figure who died nine years ago and who is only now getting the attention she deserves. Oram was not alone in the work she did. The middle of the last century was soundtracked, in part, by minds of her kind, in the realms of real-time future studies and dreamy science-fiction. But as documented on The Oram Tapes, a new two-CD set of extraordinary historical sounds, she was special because of the way she made machines scramble signals and, sometimes, sing.

Oram made a name for herself in the late1950s when she helped establish the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, which introduced Britain to all manner of experimental and futuristic sounds on public radio and television (the spacey early 1960s theme tune to Doctor Who was the result of particularly memorable Radiophonic work).

But after only a short time at the London studio, Oram set out on her own, partly to focus her energies on developing her so-called Oramics Machine, which summoned electronic sounds by way of lines drawn optically on to strips of film. Her technology was advanced for the time and the sounds emitted from it remain, rather literally, out of this world.

The Oram Tapes includes certain samples of its workings in a mix of music made by various electronic means. The first track is a piece of deep, seething synthesis, composed around an electronic drone that reveals itself to be made up of interposed layers of texture, each tethered tightly to the next. High-pitched sine waves wander in, by design or as a by-product of all the spectral forces summoned by the sound going on – it’s hard to tell. The next track features eerie tones smeared in echo and a brief part of demonic voices laughing. Its title, Eton, draws on the name of the English boys’ boarding school.

The opening two tracks, marking just five minutes at the start, gets at the mix of clinical meticulousness and moody darkness always present, at least a little, in Oram’s work. Liner notes for The Oram Tapes make mention of her ritual participation in “the dark arts of electronic sound-making”, and, in contrast to the image of a tidy woman buttoned up at work for the BBC, reveal how “listening through [her] archive, a much more complex, personal and sometimes disturbing identity starts to emerge”.

The archive drawn from is now kept at Goldsmiths College in London, where Oram’s musical work has been catalogued and transferred from decaying tape into digital form. She died in 2003, but recent years have seen a surge of interest in her work, including an exhibit at the Science Museum in London that put her Oramics Machine on prominent display.

So much lurks on those tapes of old: ghostly evocations, spectral whirrs, gleaming beams of steely sound. Occasional bits of The Oram Tapes include the voice of Oram herself describing what she’s doing for the sake of demonstration. In a track called Hydrogen Tones she explains how an imminent series of tones is “based on a sequence of frequencies for hydrogen as seen on the spectroscope”, before delving into the maths behind their making. In another, she talks the listener through the process of crafting a “low, regular throb” to mimic the sensation of a toothache to advertise the commercial wonders of the pain reliever Anacin.

But most of the music is wordless, ambient and atmospheric in a variety of suggestive ways. It’s not all dark, but the darkest of it plays in line with the sounds of numerous electronic acts on the rise today. One of those is Demdike Stare, an English duo from Manchester and Lancaster whose label, Young Americans, is behind the release of The Oram Tapes. Decades and generations separate the older work from the contemporary, but the sensations the vintage sounds elicit are as visceral as the effects attached to any sound issued since.

The same goes for the work of Pauline Oliveros, an American composer recently treated to a stupendous 12-CD box set titled Reverberations: Tape & Electronic Music 1961-1970. Still musically active at the age of 80, Oliveros came up as a composer in California, where she applied scientific studies of mechanisation to some of the more mystical, metaphysical aspects of sound. A process attributed to her directly is “deep listening”, a philosophy and practice “that distinguishes the difference between the involuntary nature of listening and the voluntary selective nature of listening”. It deals with sound and silence both, and even just a passing knowledge of it can transform one’s relationship with all kinds of stimulation that enters the ears.

The music gathered on Reverberations is sparse and spacious, genuinely atmospheric for the way it suffuses the air of whatever room it happens to be playing in. The first piece, Time Perspectives, from 1961, enlists tightly coiled spring sounds, gentle tapping, whistles, whirrs, bells and chimes, with ethereal echoes and spectral resonances appended to all. Others, like a multi-part series set out under the title Mnemonics, feature transfixing spells of barely audible tones, or maybe no tones at all – it can be hard to tell the difference once under the sway of Oliveros’ manner of listening equally to what is and isn’t there.

Common to it all is a sense of sound being born of something at least a little beyond the total control of the composer. Much of Oliveros’s music sounds highly directed and specific, but it almost always leaves room to allow for the presence and potential actions of machines. In the early 1960s, she was a principal part of the group that founded the San Francisco Tape Music Center, where one of the earliest voltage-controlled modular synthesisers was conceived. Built by the engineer Don Buchla and the musician Morton Subotnick, it was a box controlled by switches and knobs and inputs for plugs from which sprang tangled nests of wires. Unlike the synthesiser developed around the same time by Robert Moog, it had no keyboard – no familiarising aspect to connect it in any way with musical tradition that came before.

The Buchla synthesiser figures in pieces that evoke notions of intergalactic transmissions racing through space as well as more earthy, physical, human concerns. Sounds in Oliveros’ work seem to be living things, with habits and behaviours all their own. A series of pieces with titles citing the word “bog” gives a sense sometimes in play of swampy conglomerations of entities flying around, swimming, eating, fighting and sleeping. Others sound like tests conducted in the name of research, less suggestive but somehow nonetheless narrative all the while.

All of Reverberations gives a sense of the seemingly infinite variety of textures and tones at the astute electronic musician’s disposal. At a time when it’s become easy to forget or take for granted, it’s thrilling to survey an artistic realm that qualifies as convincingly limitless in that way. It was limitless then and remains limitless now, half a century later. The only thing that changes is how we choose to think about it and pay attention, whether by listening closely or not at all.

Andy Battaglia is a New York-based writer whose work appears in The Wall Street Journal, The Wire, Bookforum and more.