For too long relegated to the footnotes of UK cultural history, Daphne Oram and Tristram Cary
were unlikely, yet significant, mid-twentieth century pioneers of electronic music. Author and musician Mark Brend traces the technical epiphanies and thwarted ambitions of two very British workers in sound.
A background hum of missed opportunity sounds through Oram’s later work.
Sixty years ago two things happened that heralded the birth of British electronic music. A BBC ‘music balancer’ named Daphne Oram finished composing a still unrecorded and unperformed 30-minute piece called Still Point, that was to have combined conventional orchestration with pre-recorded instrumental sounds and live electronic treatments using then-standard radio equipment. At the same time, a freelance composer called Tristram Cary was setting up the first electronic music studio in Britain – actually a collection of military surplus equipment on an old dining room table in his home.
Britain at the time was still in the grip of post-war austerity, with rationing in place until 1954, and yet signs of change were everywhere. The Festival of Britain (1951) introduced radical modern architecture to bombed-out London, positing a new era of technological progress symbolized by the Skylon, a rocket-like tower; the De Havilland Comet, the world’s first jet airliner went into service in 1952; and Queen Elizabeth II’s televised coronation in 1953 prompted a huge surge in television ownership. Cary and Oram personified this state of flux, this reaching out of a constrained present into a bright new future, with their work combining a make-do-and-mend necessity with visionary radicalism. Completely unnoticed at the time, their prescient acts set in train a sequence of events that led to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and EMS Synthesizers, marking them out as the progenitors of a peculiarly British strand of electronic music only now being rediscovered and reassessed.
Oram and Cary were contemporaries, both born in 1925, Oram in Devizes, Wiltshire, and Cary in Oxford. Cary was raised in a bohemian, artistic milieu, the son of the modernist novelist Joyce Cary, while Oram had a more conventional background. Both showed early musical promise. In 1942 a 17-year-old Oram turned down the chance to study at the Royal Academy Of Music to join the BBC. A year later she read two books, Kurt London’s Film Music (1936) and Leopold Stowkowski’s Music For All Of Us (1943), which triggered a fascination with the notion of electronic sound. That general interest took on a much more precise and unusual direction when, the following year, she was sent on a training course, during which the tutor demonstrated a waveform visually represented on the screen of an oscilloscope. Could you, Oram wondered, do it the other way round? That is, draw a waveform that could somehow be turned into actual sound? She would spend the rest of her professional life trying to answer that question.
Meanwhile, Cary was serving as a radar operator in the Royal Navy. During long hours surrounded by humming, bleeping electronic equipment he, too, began to dream about electronic music. Leaving the
navy in 1946, he studied music at Trinity College, London, then began a career as a composer, while assembling the equipment that would make up his studio (which included a disc-cutting lathe purchased with his de-mob pay). Cary and Oram did not, at the time, know of each other’s near simultaneous electronic epiphanies. It was several years before their paths converged.
In the immediate post-war era, electronic music barely existed. A few composers – most notably Olivier Messiaen – had worked with one or more of the few electronic instruments then available (in Messiaen’s case, the Ondes Martenot), but in the main, electronic music was an idea, not a reality. That changed in 1948, with the appearance of the first commercially available magnetic tape recorders, developed from the German Magnetophone. The device’s potential for not only recording sound, but also manipulating it and so inventing new sounds, was quickly realised, and led to a surge of creativity.
Paris-based Pierre Schaeffer, who had already been experimenting with manipulated sound using wax disc recorders, pioneered musique concrète – considering all sound, including the traditionally non-musical, to have a potential musical use. Schaeffer and composer Pierre Henry founded the Group de Recherche de Musique Concrète (GRMC) and in 1951 opened a new studio, which included a tape recorder. Meanwhile, Werner Meyer-Eppler, Karlheinz Stockhausen and others were developing their own elektronische musik, favouring the use of pure electronic tones as compositional building blocks. In 1953 they opened an electronic studio in Cologne.
As news of these developments began to filter through to London, Oram in particular could only look on in frustrated envy. Both the Paris and Cologne studios were located in, and funded by radio stations. Oram and Cary, on the other hand, were dependent entirely on their own initiative, lone operators without backers, funders or premises. In 1953, Oram attempted to interest her employers in the BBC in investing in its own electronic music resource, but got nowhere. She also tried, and failed, to build her own tape recorder, while Cary constructed his own sound generators from the glut of army surplus equipment going cheap in post-war Britain.
It was Cary, using this very equipment, who created what might well be the first publicly-broadcast British electronic music, a score to a BBC radio play, The Japanese Fishermen, about a fishing boat caught up in the Pacific H-bomb tests of 1954. It was broadcast in 1955, by which time the drama department at the BBC was becoming more open to the new music, thanks mainly to Oram’s proselytizing. Blending tolling percussive hits with ominous drones, Cary made use of the full range of tape manipulation techniques (vari-speeding, tape reversing, splicing and so on) to create music that represented, without trying to literally recreate, the action of the play.
Two years later, in 1957, Oram finally got her chance when she was asked to compose electronic music for a BBC TV play, Amphitryon 38. She did this by gathering equipment from various BBC studios after they had shut down for the night, taking it all up to an empty room on the sixth floor of Broadcasting House, and working from midnight until 4am for several weeks. A number of other BBC commissions followed, and eventually the Drama Department (pointedly not the Music Department), decided that the BBC needed a specialist electronic music and sound studio, what would become known as the Radiophonic Workshop. Oram was its first manager.
The workshop was officially opened on April Fools’ day 1958, in Room 13 at the BBC’s studio in Maida Vale, west London, equipped with substandard, out of date and sometimes malfunctioning equipment, surplus to the requirements of other departments. The term ‘radiophonic’ was dreamt up to describe what a press release announcing the department’s launch called “… a new sound – suggestive of emotion, sensation, mood, rather than the literal meaning of a wind or the opening of a door. Created by mechanical means from basic sounds which may vary from the rustle of paper to a note from an electronic oscillator …”
By the time the Radiophonic Workshop was launched, Oram and Cary were acquainted, and in October 1958 they visited the Brussels World Fair to attend the Journées Internationales de Musique Expérimentale. This was a pivotal moment in the emergence of electronic music. The cream of the European avant garde were present; Edgard Varèse’s Poème électronique was premiered; and electronic instruments including the Ondioline were demonstrated. Inspired by what she heard, frustrated by BBC bureaucracy and craving creative freedom, Oram cashed in her pension, left the BBC and moved, in 1959, to Tower Folly, a converted oast-house in Kent. There she built her own studio in a circular room at the base of the tower, and embarked on a freelance career as a composer, inventor, producer, lecturer and writer. Cary, meanwhile, was becoming well-established. 1955 had been a pivotal year for him. Not only had he landed his first electronic commission, he also made a breakthrough into films, with (non-electronic) music for the Ealing comedy The Ladykillers. From that point on he moved easily between electronic and conventional composition, often combining the two, for concert hall, cinema, television and radio. His films included Quatermass and the Pit (1967), and he had the distinction of providing electronic sound to accompany the Daleks when they first glided onto British TV in 1963. In 1967, he created the electronic music studio at the Royal College of Music, and in 1969 formed, with Peter Zinovieff and David Cockerell, EMS (Electronic Music Studios), co-designing the VCS3 (‘Putney’) synthesizer beloved of Pink Floyd and Brian Eno. In 1974, Cary moved to Australia, teaching at Adelaide University until 1986. He then returned to freelance composition, taking commissions until his death in 2008. It was a long and eminent career, recently celebrated by a Trunk Records’ collection, It’s Time For Tristram Cary.
Oram, too, worked on a range of commissions at her studio, from ballet and art installations to adverts for Lego and tea. The sinister electronic tones in the film The Innocents (1961), based on The Turn Of
the Screw, are hers. She lectured in electronic music from 1959 until the 1980s, and wrote a curious book – An Individual Note Of Music, Sound And Electronics (1972) – which is part cheerfully didactic introduction to electronic music, part almost mystical rumination on the nature of sound. But all of these things were secondary to her true passion. Ever since seeing that wave form on an oscilloscope in 1944, Oram had dreamed of an electronic machine that a composer could use to “convert graphic information into sound”.
Experiments with this idea led to two grants from the Gulbenkian Foundation, in 1962 and 1965. These enabled Oram to take fewer commercial commissions and concentrate on building her longed-for machine, the Oramics system, which, with the help of specialist electrical engineers, she completed in 1965. She did limited compositional work with the machine, but it is unclear how effective it actually was. Increasingly she turned her attention to perfecting it, and she stopped composing by the early 1970s. By this time electronic music was mainstream, and synthesizer technology immeasurably more sophisticated than the test oscillators and tape that Oram’s generation worked with. Working alone and afraid of others stealing her ideas, Oram drifted away from the emerging community of electronic musicians, and without financial backing and the involvement of anyone else, the Oramics system never achieved its full potential. When computers became sufficiently powerful Oram began working on a digital version, but two strokes in the 1990s ended her working life, and she died in a nursing home in 2003.
The sequestered artist/scientist working alone in her tower may be a romantic image, but a background hum of missed opportunity sounds through Oram’s later work. She never fully realized her vision of ‘drawn sound’, and her experiments occupied her to the extent that she stopped creating music. The dismantled and non-functioning Oramics machine is now owned by Goldsmiths College, which curates Oram’s archive. A Paradigm release from 2007, Oramics, is a fine testament to her music.
Mark Brend is currently working on a boo k about earl y electronic music , to be published by Continuum in 2012
For too long relegated to the footnotes of UK cultural history, Daphne Oram and Tristram Cary