Daphne Oram (31 December 1925 – 5 January 2003) was a pioneering British composer and electronic musician. She was the creator of the “Oramics” technique, a technique used to create electronic sounds.
Educated at Sherborne School For Girls, Oram was, from an early age, taught piano and organ as well as musical composition. In 1942 she was offered a place at the Royal College of Music but instead took up a position as a Junior Studio Engineer and “music balancer” at the BBC. During this period she became aware of developments in “synthetic” sound and began experimenting with tape recorders. She also spent some time in the 1940s composing music, which remained unperformed, including an orchestal work entitled Still Point. In the 1950s she was promoted to become a music studio manager and, following a trip to the RTF studios in Paris, began to campaign for the BBC to provide electronic music facilities for composing sounds and music, using electronic music and musique concrète techniques, for use in its programming. In 1957 she was commissioned to compose music for the play Amphitryon 38. Using a sine wave oscillator, an early tape recorder and some self-designed filters, she produced the score from only electronic sources; the first of its kind at the BBC. Along with fellow electronic musician and BBC colleague Desmond Briscoe, she began to receive commissions for many other works – including a significant production of Samuel Beckett’s All That Fall. As demand grew for these electronic sounds, the BBC gave Oram and Briscoe a budget to establish the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in early 1958, where she was the first Studio Manager. In October of that year, she was sent by the BBC to the “Journées Internationales de Musique Expérimentale” at the Brussels World’s Fair (where Edgard Varèse demonstrated his Poème électronique). After hearing some of the work produced by her contemporaries and being unhappy at the BBC’s music department’s lack of interest, she decided to resign from the BBC less than one year after the workshop was opened, hoping to develop her techniques further on her own.
In 1959 she installed her Oramics Studios for Electronic Composition in Tower Folly, a converted oast house at Fairseat, near Wrotham, Kent. Her output from the studio, mostly commercial, covered a far wider range than the Radiophonic Workshop, providing background music for not only radio and television but also theatre and short commercial films. She was also commissioned to provide sounds for installations and exhibitions. Other work from this studio included electronic sounds for Jack Clayton’s 1961 horror film The Innocents, concert works including Four Aspects and collaborations with opera composer Thea Musgrave and Ivor Walsworth.
In February 1962, she was awarded a grant of £3500 from the Gulbenkian Foundation to support the developments and research of her “Oramics” drawn sound technique. This method of music composition and performance was intended by Oram to allow a composer to be able to draw an “alphabet of symbols” on paper and feed it through a machine that would, in turn, produce the relevant sounds on magnetic tape. A second Gulbenkian grant of £1000, awarded in 1965, enabled the Oramics composition machine to be completed. The first drawn sound composition using the machine, entitled “Contrasts Essonic”, was recorded in 1968.
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.
In the 1990s she suffered two strokes and was forced to stop working, later moving to a nursing home. She died in 2003, aged 77. After her death a large archive relating to her life’s work was passed to the composer Hugh Davies. When Davies died in 2005 this material passed to Sonic Arts Network. Daphne Oram’s family have now agreed that the archive will reside at the Music Department of Goldsmiths College in London where it will be made open for public access and ongoing research from February 2008 onward. In June 2008, a series of concerts and symposium at the Southbank Centre was held to celebrate the launch of the archive. This included a concert of newly reworked versions of material from the collection by music collage artist People Like Us.
In 2007, a compilation of her music, entitled Oramics, was released.
In 2008, a BBC Radio 3 documentary on her life was broadcast as part of the Sunday Feature strand entitled Wee Have Also Sound-Houses.