Question: How many drama students does it take to provide an insight into the life and work of the late electronic music pioneer Daphne Oram?
I have nothing against drama students per se. It’s true that I was forced to live with a veritable gaggle of them during my college years and also true that amongst this gaggle not a single soul possessed an ‘off’ button; but apart from a permanent intolerance for Whitney Houston, I came through the experience more or less unscathed.
I also have nothing against London’s Science Musuem, which is an excellent institution, but having recently visitied their highly-anticipated ‘Oramics’ exhibition, I can’t help feeling they’ve fallen rather short of the mark. And drama students are at least partly to blame!
I’m not going to go into great detail about the career of the late Daphne Oram (1925-2003) here, I imagine if you’re reading this then you already have a fairly good idea of who she is, and there’s an excellent website and Wikipedia page that can both do a much better job. To the uninitiated she was, alongside Desmond Briscoe, the founder member of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, which she then left within the year to set up her own electronic music studio; and devoted the remainder of her life to pursuing new ways of making electronic music, leaving a trail of strange and wondrous soundworks in her wake. Perhaps her greatest triumph, other than setting the whole radiophonic ball rolling, was the construction in the 1960s of the Oramics Machine, which she used to experiment with various techniques of ‘drawing’ sounds, a process that still leaves even the most technically-savvy music nerd scratching their heads today.
In short a pioneer and something of a heroine. And its marvellous that the Science Museum are putting this machine of hers on display and devoting a bit of space to demonstrating Oram’s influence on the development of electronic music over the years. The stage should well set for a throughly entertaining and informative experience.
But, oh dear, what’s all this?
The museum’s curators, in their wisdom, appear to have decided that what is REALLY needed in an exhibition concerning said development of electronic music is in fact not music at all, but a handfull of videos largely consisting of a number of plummy youngsters engaged in a ‘site-specific dramatization’ loosely connected to the subject (though in another room on a different floor, which doesn’t strike me as very site-specific at all). There’s much histrionic shrieking and lots of ‘Am-Dram’ prancing, but it completely fails to answer questions or explain anything about the lady or her work. This is then followed by a series of completely spurious monologues apparently produced at workshops focusing on ‘sound, invention and oramics’, which in layman’s terms appears to be a polite way of saying sixth-form poetry, with very little invention and not a shred of Oramics in sight. Seriously, it’s teeth-grinding stuff:
What do these things have in common with the work of Daphne Oram or the history of electronic music? Practically nothing, as far as I’m concerned. And yet, this is by far the noisiest part of the whole endeavour. Oh, don’t get me wrong, the video programme also contains the odd brief extract of Daphne at work, a short documentary about the setting-up of the exhibition (with lots of serious nodding and emphatic hand-gesures), and a rather nice extract from the 1960’s documentary ‘The Same Trade As Mozart’; but why on earth does it have to be sandwiced in amongst all this silly tittle-tattle? It’s impossible to work out how a bunch of youngsters shouting or a few disembodied voices speaking of their attempts to avoid ‘MENTALNESS’ relate in any way to Daphne Oram’s life of strange audio adventures beneath the respectable facade of a converted Oast House in Kent. It’s also impossible to imagine this scenario occuring anywhere else. Would visitors to the Natural History Museum next door be satisfied if the fossil collection was replaced by a bunch of people reciting poems about dinosaurs?
We then come to the Oramics machine itself, still an impressive spectacle even now in it’s run-down state. You can’t blame the Science Museum for not restoring it to working condition, as they rightfully pointed out, this would involve the replacement of so many parts that all you would be left with would be a replica. But can we not at least hear some of the works she produced using the machine? Well, apart from the two-minute loop noodling quietly out of tiny speakers above your head (not working during my first visit and drowned out by the drama students during my second), the answer is a quiet, tinny negative. There is an Oramics ’emulator’ nearby with headphones, encouraging visitors to have a go, but what’s the point of attempting to create anything on such an unconventional instrument if you can’t compare your own amateur efforts with those of the machine’s creator? Even Oram seems on occasion to have been confounded by her own invention, what hope do the rest of us have?
A little further down the exhibition sit several glass cases featuring various items of musical hardware including some of the earliest EMS synthesizers, antique Radiophonic tools including Delia Derbyshire’s famous green lampshade, a Roland TB303 (aka the acid machine) and a circuit-bent Speak And Spell game amongst others. All sat there in sad, lonely silence. Frankly, that’s just not good enough. Even if, like the Oramics machine, they’re no longer operational, how difficult would it have been to at least have some headphones playing us extracts of the machines in question, or a snippet of one of the recordings that made them famous?
Delia’s lampshade is a case in point. In case it zipped by a little too quickly in the above slide-show, here it is again:
This is apparently the exact lampshade that were used in one of her most astonishing compositions, and so for me and many others, something of a sacred relic. Not that you’d realise just by having it hang there in front of you. To clarify, here’s an extract from the Delia’s obituary, written by Brian Hodgson in 2001:
“Among her outstanding television work, one of her favourites was composed for a documentary for The World About Us on the Tuareg people of the Sahara desert. It still haunts me. She used her own voice for the sound of the hooves, cut up into an obbligato rhythm, and she added a thin, high electronic sound using virtually all the filters and oscillators in the workshop. “My most beautiful sound at the time was a tatty green BBC lampshade,” she recalled. “It was the wrong colour, but it had a beautiful ringing sound to it. I hit the lampshade, recorded that, faded it up into the ringing part without the percussive start. “I analysed the sound into all of its partials and frequencies, and took the 12 strongest, and reconstructed the sound on the workshop’s famous 12 oscillators to give a whooshing sound. So the camels rode off into the sunset with my voice in their hooves and a green lampshade on their backs.”
Utterly beguiling. And made using a lampshade, a perfect demonstration not only of the foresight and imagination at work here, but also the make-do and mend apprach of Oram, Derbyshire and underfunded operations like The Radiophonic Workshop, as they twisted the strange and impossible out of the mundane everyday objects around them, simply because it was all they had. Wouldn’t that be an interesting angle to have focused on? Britian is, after all, a nation that loves to tinker in the garden shed.
In fact, while we’re rocking the Youtube, allow me to fill in a few of the Science Museum’s blanks. They showed you what an EMS synthesiser looks like. Here’s what it sounds like:
‘With a name like Wasp’, the placard underneath this synth reads, ‘what do you think it might sound like?’ They then leave you to imagine it for yourself, so here’s a helpful demonstration by a perky chap I found online:
And the acid bassline of the TB 303 here being used in 1987 to invent techno (to avoid confusion, it’s best just to listen to the full 11 minutes):
All circuit-bent Speak And Spells are different (and usually survive about five minutes before suffering a beautiful-sounding meltdown). Here’s just one example amongst many I found online:
And best of all, here’s a 2008 documentary on Daphne, originally broadcast on Radio 3, with not a single drama student or inept poetry-reading in sight. Dig in while it’s still here, I can’t imagine Radio 3 are aware of it:
There’s a couple of rather fine compilations of Daphne’s work that are also availble if you’d like to hear more. The 2007 compilation ‘Oramics’ on Paradignm Discs is probably the best, and is still reasonably easy to track down.
I’m no expert, but I think even with a few youtube videos and a chip on my shoulder, I’ve managed to explain more about the history of electronic music than the Science Museum managed with a whole balcony. This could have, and has been handled so much better. Back in April last year The Wire magazine with help from Resonance FM organised an evening at Cafe OTO in East London, where they devoted a whole night to simply playing and talking about Daphne’s work, with people queueing around the block to get in (and it’s a BIG block)! I swear I’m not trying to score points here, and it’s amazing to be able to see the Oramics machine in the flesh. But what on earth is the point of merely showing us what these things look like and neglecting to properly demonstrate how they SOUND?!
Come on, Science Museum! Sort it out!
Gentle reader, forgive me. But I really needed to get this off my chest.