Daphne Oram: The Oram Tapes: Volume One
The Oram Tapes: Volume One is more than just an historically important and invaluable document; it's also a thoroughly engrossing collection on purely listening grounds. Of course as the founder of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Daphne Oram's name is a familiar one to students of electronic music history, but for many this recording might be the first time they've had a chance to acquaint themselves with her actual work. When she died in 2003, she left behind a huge archive of reel-to-reel tapes and documents, and the present volume's material, all previously unreleased, was painstakingly compiled and restored from over 400 tapes held at Goldsmiths College. The result offers a fascinating picture of Oram's interests, both personal and professional, and offers repeated reminders of how much of a visionary she turned out to be. A few details about Oram are needed for context: she opened the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, an electronic-music studio, in 1958, which she regarded as a facility devoted to avant-garde electronic composition but which the BBC saw as a department geared towards creating sound effects and background music (like those created for Doctor Who). Not surprisingly, she left the BBC after one year and established a studio of her own in Kent, after which she created a broad range of work, some of it included on the recording under review. When not producing material for various clients, she developed her Oramics Machine, a combination synthesizer and sequencer, before eventually moving on to computers in the late ‘80s.
The thirty-seven-track collection (the sleeve lists thirty-nine but the last two are absent on the CDs) features a satisfying assortment of short fragments and long-form experiments, some of which draw upon the Musique Concrète tradition. Many pieces are excerpts, while others exude a sci-fi, even psychedelic aura in the deep space explorations they undertake, no matter how brief (“Stroke,” “Ursa Major (Sun Mix)”). It's striking to hear how undated the material often is (omnipresent tape hiss notwithstanding), with a warbly, percolating drone such as “Just For You” sounding like something that could have been created in 2012 rather than the ‘60s. The mysteriously meandering “Oxford” accompanies luminous tones with persistent knocking in such a way that it could be mistaken for a piece by Demdike Stare, while many a setting exudes an ethereal, spectral character (e.g., “Light Music”) of the kind captured so powerfully in Grouper's recordings. Noisier tracks like “Encephalagraph” and “Shell” indicate how small the distance is separating Oram from Mego-related figures such as Kevin Drumm and Florian Hecker. In other cases, the material feels very much of its time, a case in point 1963's “New Atlantis,” an experimental collage of echo-laced voice treatments and mysterioso musical fragments that sounds like the sort of exploration one would have expected to have been undertaken at the time. Much of it's bathed in hiss, which, rather than detracting from the material, enhances it by deepening its mysterious qualities.
Experiments abound, with Oram channeling haunted voices during “Eton,” and the synth-like tones of her Oramics creation are spotlighted (“Oramics Demonstration”). The large scope of Oram's work, which encompasses material created for commercial clients (Anacin, Granada) and films in addition to pure creative exploration, is well captured by the recording, too. 1961's “The Innocents - Savage Noises” presents musical bits and sound effects Oram produced for the film project (a treatment of Henry James's The Turn of the Screw), and effects Oram created for Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey also appear. Another twelve-minute piece presents a wealth of brooding atmospheres she produced for a theatrical production of Hamlet in 1963. Oram's voice sometimes appears to provide technical clarification to the musical material (e.g., “Hydrogen Tones,” where an initial stumble humanizes the data details she records), but such moments, while of historical and technical value, today are more appealing for making her presence feel more immediate to the listener, despite the half-century gap. Especially interesting is “Anacin Components,” where we hear her explaining to the client the creative rationale for the various throbbing sounds she's produced. One might think that hearing her pitch her work to a commercial client might be depressing, but in fact one is instead struck by how naturally she was able to satisfy her creative needs without apparent compromise. In short, the release, the first in a presumed series, provides one ear-bending treasure after another, and it's beautifully packaged, too, with the DVD-sized sleeve and typewriter typeface evoking the early tape era.