Daphne Oram

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Daphne Oram
Daphne Oram and her Oramics.jpg
Background information
Birth name Daphne Blake Oram
Born (1925-12-31)31 December 1925
Devizes, Wiltshire, UK
Died 5 January 2003(2003-01-05) (aged 77)
Maidstone, Kent, UK
Genres Electronic music
Occupation(s) Composer, electronic musician
Instruments Musique concrète, Synthesisers
Associated acts BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Notable instruments
Oramics synthesiser

Daphne Oram (31 December 1925 – 5 January 2003) was a British composer and electronic musician. Oram was one of the first British composers to produce electronic sound and was a pioneer of "musique concrete"[1]

She was the creator of the Oramics technique for creating electronic sounds, co-founder of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and a central figure in the evolution of electronic music.[2] Besides being a musical innovator, she was the first woman to direct an electronic music studio, the first woman to set up a personal electronic music studio and the first woman to design and construct an electronic musical instrument.[1]

Early life and education[edit]

Oram was born to James and Ida Oram December 31, 1925 in Wiltshire, England. Educated at Sherborne School For Girls, Oram was, from an early age, taught piano and organ as well as musical composition.[3] Her father was the President of the Wiltshire Archeological Society in the 1950s and Daphne's childhood home was within 10 miles of the stone circles of Avebury and 20 miles from Stonehenge.[4]


Work at the BBC[edit]

In 1942 Oram 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.[5] During this period she became aware of developments in synthetic sound and began experimenting with tape recorders. Often staying after hours, she was known to experiment with tape recorders late into the night. She recorded sounds on to tape, and then cut, spliced and looped, slowed them down, sped up, and played them backwards.[6] She also dedicated time in the 1940s composing music, including an orchestral work entitled Still Point.[3] Still Point was a ground breaking piece for turntables, "double orchestra" and five microphones. Still Point is held to be the first composition to combine acoustic orchestration with live electronic manipulation.[7] Rejected by the BBC and never performed, Still Point remained unheard for 70 years. On June 24, 2016 the London Contemporary Orchestra performed Still Point for the first time.[8] In the 1950s, she was promoted to become a music studio manager and, following a trip to the RTF studios in Paris, she 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.[5] In 1957 she was commissioned to compose music for the play Amphitryon 38. She created this piece using a sine wave oscillator, a tape recorder and some self-designed filters, thereby producing the first wholly electronic score in BBC history.[5] 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.[5] The BBC Radiophonic Workshop was focused on creating sound effects and theme music for all of the corporations output, including the science fiction serial Quatermass and the Pit and the radio comedy series The Goon Show. In October of 1958, Oram 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 music department's continued refusal to push electronic composition into the foreground of their activiites, 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.[3]


Main article: Oramics

Immediately after leaving the BBC in 1959, Daphne Oram began setting up her Oramics Studios for Electronic Composition in Tower Folly, a converted oast house at Fairseat, near Wrotham, Kent.

Oramics is a drawn sound technique that involves drawing directly onto 35mm film stock. Shapes and designs etched into the filmstrips are read by photo-electric cells and transformed into sounds. According to Oram, "Every nuance, every subtlety of phrasing, every tone gradation or pitch inflection must be possible just by a change in the written form."[4] The Oramics technique and the flexibility of control over the nuances of sound was an altogether new and innovative approach to music production.[9] Financial pressures meant it was necessary to maintain her work as a commercial composer, and her work on the Oramics system covered a wider range than the Radiophonic Workshop. She produced music for not only radio and television but also theatre, short commercial films, sound 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.[10]

Oramics machine displayed at the Science Museum, London (2011)

In February 1962, she was awarded a grant of £3,550 (equivalent to £68,000 in 2015)[11] from the Gulbenkian Foundation to support the development of the Oramics system. A second Gulbenkian grant of £1,000 was awarded in 1965. The first entirely drawn-sound composition using the machine, entitled "Contrasts Essonic", was recorded in 1963. As the Oramics research evolved, Oram's focus turned to the subtle nuances and interactions between sonic parameters. In this phase of Oramics, Daphne applied her sound research to the non-linear behavior of the human ear and to perception of the brain’s apprehension of the world. She used Oramics to study vibrational phenomena which marked a distinction between "Commercial Oramics" and "Mystical Oramics." In her notes, Oram defined Oramics as "The study of sound and its relationship to life."

In the 1980s Oram worked on the development of a software version of Oramics for the Acorn Archimedes computer.[3] Oram wished to continue her "Mystical Oramics" research, but a lack of funding prevented this project from being fully realized.

Written works[edit]

Throughout her career, Oram lectured on electronic music and studio techniques. In 1972 she wrote her seminal book An Individual Note of Music, Sound and Electronics which investigated the physics of sound and the emergence of electronic music in a philosophical manner. The book’s depth and its exploration was unprecedented. An Individual Note of Music, Sound and Electronics fell out of print for many years and a new edition was published in December 2016.[12]

In the late 1970's, Oram began writing a second book which exists as in manuscript form titled “The Sound of the Past - A Resonating Speculation." In this manuscript she speculates on archeological acoustics and presents a theory backed by rigorous research suggesting that Neolithic chambered mounds and ancient sites like Stonehenge and The Great Pyramid in Egypt were used as resonators. Her research suggests that the ancients may have possessed acute knowledge about the powerful properties of sound in long distance communication.[4]


Daphne Oram envisioned spatial sound treatment and amplification in performance before sound terms like “spatial sound” were invented. Daphne's pioneering tape-manipulation techniques at the Radiophonic Workshop would become influential across the globe, across many genres over many decades. Her work at The Radiophonic Workshop also helped pave the way for Delia Derbyshire, who arrived at the BBC in 1960 and later co-created the original Doctor Who theme music.[9]

As the creator of 'Oramics' she helped lay the foundation for modern electronic music production. She furthered music philosophy in her writings and dedicated time to considering the human element in connection to sound and resonant frequencies. In her unfinished manuscript, "The Sound of the Past, a Resonating Speculation" she postulated that Ancient civilizations might have done this to a highly evolved degree.[4]

In a letter to Sir George Trevelyan, Oram remarked that her wide-ranging work on Oramics would hopefully plant seeds that would mature in the 21st century.


In the 1990s, she suffered two strokes and was forced to stop working, later moving to a nursing home. She died in 2003 at age 77.


After Oram's 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 the Sonic Arts Network. In 2008 the archive was deposited at the Music Department of Goldsmiths, University of London, where it is open for public access and ongoing research.[13] The launch of the archive was celebrated with a symposium and a series of concerts at the Southbank Centre.[14] This included a concert of newly reworked versions of material from the collection by music collage artist People Like Us.[15]

In 2007, a compilation of her music, entitled Oramics, was released.[16]

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.[17]

The Wire[edit]

A very detailed feature on Daphne Oram's musical philosophy was published in the August 2011 issue of The Wire magazine.

Click tribute[edit]

In its first show of 2012, the BBC television technology programme, Click, featured a piece about Daphne Oram and her synthesiser, mainly prompted by the three-part Oramics Machine being on display at the Science Museum, London, during a year-long exhibition on the history of electronic music. It showed the machine being installed in a large display cabinet, and described how it was no longer possible to play due to its fragile state; however, an interactive, virtual version of the machine has been created, which allows visitors to create their own compositions. The programme showed archive footage of Oram describing the process of what became 'Oramics', also showing her 'drawing' the music, then playing her machine. The piece was entirely positive and described her as an 'unsung hero' of electronic music.


  • Electronic Sound Patterns (1962) single,[18] also included on Listen, Move and Dance Volume 1 from same year with work from Vera Gray[19]
  • Oramics (2007) compilation on Paradigm Discs[20]
  • Spaceship UK: The Untold Story Of The British Space Programme (2010) promotional 7" split single with Belbury Poly[21]
  • Private Dreams and Public Nightmares (2011) remix album by Andrea Parker (DJ) and Daz Quayle on Aperture[22]
  • The Oram Tapes: Volume 1 (2011) compilation on Young Americans[23]
  • Sound Houses (2014) remix album by Walls (band)[24]
  • Pop Tryouts (2015) mini album on cassette and download on Was Ist Das?[25]


  • Oram, Daphne (1972). An Individual Note - of music, sound and electronics. London: Galliard. ISBN 0852491093. 
Second edition, 2016, Anomie Publishing ISBN 978-1910221112


  1. ^ Worby, Robert (2008-08-01). "Daphne Oram: Portrait of an electronic music pioneer". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2016-12-11. 
  2. ^ "A Relic From The Roots Of Electronic Music". NPR.org. Retrieved 2016-12-11. 
  3. ^ a b c d Davies, Hugh (24 January 2003). "Obituary: Daphne Oram". The Guardian. 
  4. ^ a b c d "The Woman from New Atlantis". The Wire. August 2011. 
  5. ^ a b c d "The Oram Archive - BBC". Daphneoram.org. 2008. Retrieved 14 August 2008. 
  6. ^ Worby, Robert (2008-08-01). "Daphne Oram: Portrait of an electronic music pioneer". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2016-12-29. 
  7. ^ "How Daphne Oram's radical turntable experiments were brought to life after 70 years". FACT Magazine: Music News, New Music. Retrieved 2016-12-11. 
  8. ^ "In Conversation: James Bulley on Daphne Oram's 'Still Point' - London Contemporary Orchestra". London Contemporary Orchestra. 2016-06-14. Retrieved 2016-12-11. 
  9. ^ a b "Daphne Oram | Biography & History | AllMusic". AllMusic. Retrieved 2016-12-29. 
  10. ^ "Daphne Oram". Sonic Arts Network. Archived from the original on 21 September 2008. Retrieved 14 August 2008. 
  11. ^ UK Consumer Price Index inflation figures are based on data from Gregory Clark (2016), "The Annual RPI and Average Earnings for Britain, 1209 to Present (New Series)", MeasuringWorth.com.
  12. ^ "Anomie's autumn/winter 2016–17 brochure now available". Anomie Publishing. 
  13. ^ Daphne Oram Trust
  14. ^ "Electronic Music Studios - Archived News & Events: 2008 - 2009". Goldsmiths, University of London. Retrieved 27 March 2015. 
  15. ^ "People Like Us incoming MP3s". WFMU. 5 August 2008. Retrieved 4 May 2009. 
  16. ^ Paradigm discs information about album
  17. ^ "BBC Radio 3 Programmes - Sunday Feature: Wee Have Also Sound-Houses". BBC. Retrieved 6 January 2009. 
  18. ^ "Daphne Oram - Electronic Sound Patterns". Discogs. Retrieved 2016-12-11. 
  19. ^ "Daphne Oram & Vera Gray - Listen, Move And Dance Volume 1". Discogs. Retrieved 2016-12-11. 
  20. ^ "Daphne Oram - Oramics (PD 21)". www.stalk.net. Retrieved 2016-12-11. 
  21. ^ "Spaceship UK | Sound and Music". www.soundandmusic.org. Retrieved 2016-12-11. 
  22. ^ "Private Dreams and Public Nightmares". www.andreaparker.co.uk. Retrieved 2016-12-11. 
  23. ^ "DAPHNE ORAM - The Oram Tapes: Volume One". Boomkat. Retrieved 2016-12-11. 
  24. ^ "The Quietus | Features | A Quietus Interview | World Of Sound: Walls Discuss The Work Of Daphne Oram". The Quietus. Retrieved 2016-12-11. 
  25. ^ "Daphne Oram – Pop Tryouts". Was Ist Das? label page. 2015-02-18. Retrieved 2016-12-11. 

External links[edit]