Daphne Oram and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop

Excerpt from “The Same Trade as Mozart”: a rare film in which Daphne Oram demonstrates the Oramics machine.

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The BBC Radiophonic Workshop officially came into being on April 1, 1958, on which day Daphne Oram posted the following quotation on the door of Room 13/14 at Maida Vale Studios, London:

Wee have also Sound-houses, wher wee practise and demonstrate all sounds and their Generation. Wee have harmonies and lesser slides of sounds. Wee make diverse tremblings and Warblings of Sounds … Wee have also diver Strange and Artificall Eccho’s. We have also means to convey Sounds in Trunks and Pipes, in strange Lines and Distances.
—Francis Bacon, New Atlantis (1624)

The Radiophonic Workshop, which was very nearly the Electrophonic Workshop, was born after a fairly contentious battle between the Drama and Music departments of the BBC. Though radiophonic effects had been deployed in a number of radio and television dramas to highly acclaimed effect (the 1957 broadcast of Samuel Beckett’s All That Fall being one of the most noteworthy), the conservative Music department was resistant to the possibility of “undesirable music” (as they largely perceived such Continental innovations as musique concrete). After much debate and several heated internal memoranda, Features head Lawrence Gilliam prevailed with an argument that the lack of suitable electronic equipment was inhibiting British composers whose worth could not be denied even by the most straitlaced members of the Music department, and that exploration of new musical methods and techniques would be good for everyone.

The initial staff of the workshop included two Studio Managers (SMs) and one engineer; in theory, the SMs were the creative brains (who would be rotated on a regular basis, so as to prevent the fatigue that might be induced by too much exposure to electronic music) and an engineer would run and maintain the equipment. The plan was later modified to place an SM and an engineer on each project, but in the way of such things, the exact staffing on any given production was subject to alteration, with the result that much of the Workshop’s output, rather that being credited to any individual composer, was simply credited to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

The first two SMs on board were Desmond Briscoe and Daphne Oram. Briscoe, who had worked on All That Fall, was a well-established figure in the drama department, with a solid background in producing electronic effects. Briscoe would later go on to become head of the Workshop, remaining in that position until 1983. Oram was a skilled musician and engineer; in 1942, at the age of 17, she turned down a place at the Royal Academy of Music and went to work for the BBC instead. Her 1957 work for Amphitryon 38 was the first electronic soundtrack to be commissioned by the BBC.

The BBC Radiophonic Workshop began with a brace of tape recorders, oscillators, filters, turntables, and a mixing desk, all scraped together from various sources on a parsimonious £1900 budget and jammed into the Maida Vale studio. Oram worked here for a year, but by 1959 she was, in her own words, “eager to explore wider fields than incidental sounds for plays would allow”, and so she left the Workshop and moved to Kent. She set up shop in an old Kentish oasthouse, known as Tower Folly, where she continued her experiments in electronic music and developed the Oramics system, which you see demonstrated in the video at the beginning of this post.

References:

  • Special Sound by Louis Niebur. Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • Daphne Oram: Oramics. Paradigm Discs, 2007. Liner notes by Jo Hutton, Daphne Oram, Alan Douglas.