Daphne Oram


Daphne Oram (1925-2003) was the first full-time electronic music composer in Britain. Oram established her own personal electronic music studio in a time when electronic music equipment was restricted due to economic and practical reasons. Furthermore, Oram created her own musical artifact, the Oramics machine, an analogue and digital system for the synthesis of sound, which was operational by 1966. Oram was also a theorist of electronic sound. Indeed, the electromechanical process embedded in the Oramics was informed by her own theoretical system that linked electronics with metaphysical beliefs.

Daphne Oram was born in Devizes, Wiltshire, England. She studied at Sherborne School for girls, and had private lessons for piano, organ and composition. In 1944, Oram accepted a job at the BBC in preference to becoming an electrotherapist and after having considered studying piano at the Royal College of Music. At the BBC Oram worked as a sound balancer and studio manager. She therefore developed knowledge of audio engineering and acoustics along with her musical skills. During her employment at the BBC, Oram was exposed to practices and concepts that would inform the development of her own work as a composer. Oram was also aware of the studio that Pierre Schaeffer had established at Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française (RTF) in Paris, which might have contributed in convincing Oram to establish a similar facility at the BBC. Electronic music studios were beginning to be opened across Europe by other national broadcasting institutions: after Paris the NWDR (Nordwestdeutscher Rundfunk) was founded in Cologne in 1953 (later the Westdeutscher Rundfunk studio), and Radio Audizioni Italiane (RAI) established the Studio di Fonologia in Milan in 1954 and led by Luciano Berio (1925-2003) and Bruno Maderna (1920-1973). 

However, Oram was not immediately successful in convincing the BBC to set up such a similar facility. Still without an electronic studio set-up, in 1957 Oram composed the incidental music for three very successful radio-drama broadcasts at the BBC. This music was composed using techniques employed in the French and German studios such as cutting and splicing tape. Oram used equipment, such as mixers and tape recorders, fortuitously gathered at the BBC when it was not needed, thus forcing her to work at night. Oram composed music for Amphytron 38, a TV adaptation of a science fiction play by the French dramatist Jean Giraudoux (1882-1944). With the collaboration of Desmond Briscoe (1925-2006), a BBC Drama Department studio manager, Oram composed the music for an adaptation of All That Fall by Samuel Beckett (1906-1989); and finally, she contributed the music to the radio play Private Dreams Public Nightmares directed by Frederik Bradnum (1920-2001). The latter play, subtitled “A Radiophonic Poem,” narrated the experiences of patients in a mental hospital. The music composed by Oram and Briscoe, rather than having the role of background accompaniment, contributed integrally to the drama, with the electronic sounds seeking to convey the inner psychological life of the characters. For example, a description such as “darkness and the pulse of my life blood intertwined” was matched in the music by a pulsating beat and a descending scale (Hutton, 2000: 9). 

Due to the success of her radio drama work and the example offered by the studios on the Continent, in 1958 Oram was finally able to see the establishment of permanent facilities for the production of this material at the BBC. The BBC Radiophonic Workshop, however, was not an electronic music studio in the manner of the ones set up in Paris, Cologne, or Milan, but rather a studio for electronic sound treatment for radio drama. The Radiophonic Workshop was indeed part of the drama department rather than the music department where Oram had intended it to be housed. Furthermore, the work realised there was not referred to as “music,” as this would have caused irritation in the music department. The two rooms where the Radiophonic Workshops was located were at the Maida Vale studios, and Oram was appointed as its first studio manager. Nonetheless, she left the BBC shortly after, in January 1959. This was allegedly due to a health-and-safety policy enforcement by the BBC, by which the staff was allowed to remain at the Radiophonic Workshop for a maximum of three months to avoid the detrimental effects that being exposed to electronic sounds was believed to cause human hearing. However, this did not apply to Briscoe, who remained professionally involved in the Workshop until 1983. Indeed, Oram may have been dissatisfied with the secondary role that electronic music played at the BBC. 

Oram left the BBC altogether in 1959 and concentrated on establishing the personal studio she had set up in Tower Folly, a converted oast-house in Fairseat, Kent. At Tower Folly she realised a number of autonomous electronic music works. She composed Four Aspects (1960), which was performed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1968. Another work, Pulse Persephone (1965), was played in occasion of The Treasure of the Commonwealth exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. Episode Metallic (1965) was used as part of an Andrew Bobrowski kinetic sculpture installation. In addition to these “serious” works, Oram also composed several more light-hearted pieces, one of which had allegedly raised the interest of Tin Pan Alley for a release. Oram also pursued commissions for commercial work, such as composing jingles for advertisements and incidental music, in order to sustain the cost of running her own studio. For instance, she composed the soundtrack for The Innocents (1961), a British horror film directed by Jack Clayton (1921-1995) from an adaptation of the novella The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (1843-1916). She also contributed the music for the theatre play by Fred (1915-2001) and Geoffrey (1942-) Hoyle, Rockets in Ursa Major, which ran at the Mermaid Theatre in 1962.

The Oramics

Despite the many commissions that she took up after her departure from the BBC, the most important and time-consuming activity was the building of the Oramics machine. In a letter to Davies she wrote: “there is so much to be done in the field of music and sound that we need at least half a dozen lifetimes, Hugh!”, lamenting the inevitable distraction that earning a living represented. Despite receiving two Gulbenkian grants (£3550 in February 1962 and £1000 in 1965) she was forced to take up commissions to secure an income, because the expenses of buying the equipment necessary for her machine exhausted her funds. This relegated her experimental work to feverish activity in her spare time. In a letter dated July 15th 1963 she wrote, “when Fred [Wood, one of the engineers Oram hired to help with building the Oramics, Ed.] and I are concentrating on D.S. Waves I neglect the cooking badly and we snatch meals as and when we can”. The Oramics machine is central to Oram’s work and also an example of a philosophy of experimental electronic music

With the Oramics Oram sought to further explore the possibilities that technology offered in producing sounds. The idea for the Oramics had originated during a BBC training session in 1947, where Oram assisted at a demonstration by Professor A.M. Low of an oscilloscope, which allowed for the graphic tracing of an acoustic phenomenon. This inspired Oram to wish to reverse the process and thus generate sound starting with a graphic image. Thus the core of the machine was drawn sound. Drawing onto a 35 mm film would affect the parameters of the sounds generated by the machine. There had been a number of people who had previously used this technique. Such a practice had its origins in the introduction of the integral optical soundtrack – an advance that conferred visibility to sound on film, with the information appearing as an outline to one side of the visual frames. In 1917, the South African Hendrik Johannes van der Bijil (1887-1948) studied this technique at Western Electric in New York. In the 1920s, the Russian film makers Arseny Avraamov (1886-1944) and Yevgeny Sholpo (no dates known) manipulated the graphical representation of sound on film to recreate the microtonal melodies of Russian folk music. Sholpo later built the Variophone in 1930 at Lenfilm Studio Productions in Leningrad – a music artifact that specifically exploited the drawn sound technique. Among the earliest instruments to employ this technique were the Hugoniot organ (France, 1921), the Cellulophone (France, c.1927). In 1930, the Swiss Rudolph Pfenninger (1899-1976) realized a demonstration film of the drawn sound technique, titled suggestively Tönende Handschrift (Sonorous handwriting). With the advances made in electronic circuitry during the post-war years, the use of drawn sound declined as magnetic tape offered a more effective alternative. Nonetheless, in 1977, this method was revived in the UPIC (Unité Polyagogique Informatique du CEMAMu) tool developed by Iannis Xenakis at the Centre d'Etudes de Mathématique et Automatique Musicales (CEMAMu) in Paris. With UPIC, it was possible to draw waveforms and volume envelopes by moving a stylus across an electromagnetic tablet. This drawing, rendered by a computer, generated sound by mapping time on the x-axis and pitch on the y-axis pitch on a Cartesian coordinate system. UPIC allowed for real-time response to drawing, a feature that had not been possible to be achieved with the Oramics. Despite the decline of the type of drawn sound used by the Oramics, this technique remained central to its system, even in its attempted conversion to RISC computer technology in the 1990s. Drawn sound was thus not only the core of the Oramics, but also fundamental to understand Oram’s philosophy of music.

Oram's Philosophy of Sound

Oramics represented the application to a practical project of Oram's metaphysics. Indeed, Oram believed that this machine reproduced the way that the human organism or psyche worked (Oram, 1972: 103). 

In her 1972 book An Individual Note Oram developed the theory of the ELEC and CELE, which represented two extremes in an intangible-tangible continuum that to Oram symbolised the life cycle (Oram, 1972: 14-15). Oram described the ELEC and CELE as two forces she believed were at play in art as in life and whose dialectical relationship shaped musical composition, performance, and listening. For Oram, technology facilitated the connection and balance of these two forces (Oram, 1972: 12, 13). The polarity of these two competing but complementary processes was made apparent in the inversion in their spelling. Inspired by the energy release time of a capacitor, Oram understood the ELEC to indicate the electrical flow of energy that ensued the spark of inspiration of an artist. The CELE on the other hand, indicated the emergence into a material form of this intangible essence. Thus, one can understand energy, or ELEC and CELE in Oram’s system as transforming seamlessly from metaphysical to physical, cerebral to electrical, psychological to musical. 

Oram believed that electronic technology should have brought about the conquering of the universe of all sounds (Oram, 1972: 112-113), a Promethean attitude that was widespread in the cultural milieu of modernism. 

Oram described the Oramics as a “control system”, a programme that put scientific theories into practice using formal mathematical knowledge (Oram, 1972: 103). Oram understood the Oramics as a technology that extended a composer’s power over his or her medium. Oram’s aim with the Oramics was indeed to exert total control of the soundworld, to have at her disposal what Leopold Stokowski, in Music for All of Us (1943), envisaged as, “all the timbres that are possible in Nature” (Stokowski quoted in Oram, 1962: 7) Of the Oramics, Oram said:“I visualize the composer learning an alphabet of symbols with which he will be able to indicate all the parameters needed to build up the sound he requires. These symbols drawn by him by freehand on an ordinary piece of paper, will be fed to the equipment and the resultant sound will be recorded onto magnetic tape. In this way strand upon strand of music will be built up. The equipment itself will be no robot – it will have no hand in the composition or selection of music material. It will merely convert the drawn symbols into sound–[…] it has no mind of its own.” (Oram: 1962, 7). Indeed the machine aimed at expanding the range and discreetness of the composer’s control over sound parameters; it facilitated the translation of the composer’s initial spark into something tangible without causing any interference. Referring to the Oramics she suggested “imagine yourself a ‘painter in sounds’. Your blank ‘canvas’ is a piece of magnetic recording tape…the whole evolves just like an oil painting…you can use any colour of sounds that you can imagine, for any duration, with any rhythm and at any pitch (Oram quoted in Hutton, 2000: 20).  

When the BBC Radiophonic Workshop was first established, Oram pinned to a door a quote by Francis Bacon (1561-1626) from The New Atlantis (1624). This same extract was reprinted in Oram’s treatise An Individual Note (1972), and on a pamphlet advertising the facilities of her studio at Fairseat. Bacon wrote:

“We have also sound-houses where we practise and demonstrate all sounds, and their generation. We have harmony which you have not, of quarter-sounds, and the lesser slides of sounds. Divers instruments of music likewise to you unknown, some sweeter than any you have; with bells and rings that are dainty and sweet. We represent small sounds as great and deep, likewise great sounds extenuate and sharp; we make divers tremblings and warblings of sound, which in their original are entire. We represent and imitate all articulate sounds and letters, and the voices and notes of beasts and birds. We have certain helps which, set to the ear, do further the hearing greatly; we have also divers strange and artificial echoes, reflecting the voice many times, and, as it were, tossing it; and some that give back the voice louder that it came, some shriller and some deeper; yea, some rendering the voice, differing in the letters or articulate sound from that they receive. We have all means to convey sounds in trunks and pipes, in strange lines and distances”. (Bacon, 2007 [1624]: 43).

Bacon’s words must have resonated with Oram, not only because of their prescience of the future developments in technological acoustic possibilities to which she contributed, but also because of the advocacy of the ability to recreate “all articulate sounds” – an ambition that was a recurrent theme in electronic experimental music. The ability to exert total control over sound phenomena, for Oram, was indeed intimately bound to technology. In her view, music and technology promoted each other’s development. 

Oram and Feminism

Oram explicitly acknowledged her role as a woman composer working with technology, framing the discourse of science and music in the social realm. She also contributed a gendered reading of the tape recorder and the home computer, therefore addressing dominant gender biases in technology

Oram was keen to develop an understanding of the impact of technology on women as is evident in her gendered descriptions of technology. Indeed, Oram interpreted technology as particularly significant for women. Referring to the home computer she stated, “how exciting for women to be present at its birth pangs, ready to help it evolve to maturity in the world of arts. To evolve as a true and practical instrument for conveying women’s inner thoughts just as the novel did nearly two centuries ago” (Oram, 1994: 227). Oram, in fact, wrote about composing using the musique concrète techniques in the form of recipes (Hutton, 2000: 17).  Oram’s interpretation of technology seems appropriate for a time when the experience that women had of technological artifacts was largely in the restricted private and domestic sphere. The tape recorder could be thus viewed as an electric appliance in the same manner as a washing machine or an oven. Oram, in pursuing the involvement of women in the use of technology, presented a striking contrast to a patriarchal vision of science as being outside women’s natural capabilities. 


Bacon, Francis. New Atlantis. (1624).

Hutton, Jo. Radiophonic Ladies, MA, Middlesex University, 2000.

Hutton, Jo. ‘Daphne Oram: Innovator, writer and composer’, Organised Sound, 8, 1, (2004), pp.49-56.

Oram, Daphne. ‘The composer’, Journal of the Composers’ Guild of Great Britain, 9, (1962), pp. 5-8.

Oram, Daphne. An Individual Note, (London, Galliard, 1972).

Oram, Daphne. ‘Looking back…to see ahead’ Computer Music Review, 11, (1994), pp. 225-8.