Daphne Oram, electronic music pioneer
Daphne Oram was born on New Years' Eve, 1925 in Devizes, Wiltshire. She studied organ and piano throughout her youth, and was invited to the Royal College of Music, but instead chose to go work as a sound engineer for the BBC in 1943, at the young age of 18. With World War II in full effect, young male applicants were sparse, and Daphne was somewhat of a fallback employee.
All the same, she quickly became known as a headstrong and forward-thinking worker, always making suggestions for new equipment and technology to improve the broadcasts. She was particularly interested in the relatively new field of electronic music, led by such pioneers as Raymond Scott, Leon Theremin, and Pierre Schaeffer.
At first, her bosses at the BBC were reluctant to start a radiophonic workshop. At night, Daphne would pull tape recorders together in a back room and create music through the midnight hour - and then put all of the equipment back the next day before work started. Finally in 1957 the BBC relented and opened the workshop. Its main goal was to provide background music to the radio and television programs being created, and Daphne threw herself headfirst into the job.
While working there, Daphne was introduced to a number of electronic composers, including John Cage, the noted avant-garde artist. Daphne felt that the Workshop had just become a vehicle for spitting out music, instead of an institution for research and experimentation. Daphne's work with Cage was liberating to her, and she quit her job as director of the Radiophonic Workshop in October of 1958, building a studio in her own home. Here she worked on a number of pieces, including most famously the score for 1961's horror classic The Innocents. Most of Daphne's work was ambient music, backgrounds for performance art and sculptures. No complete compilation of her work has been released, though plans are in the work for a box set in the future.
In 1962, while working at her home, Daphne came up with her most ambitious project yet, when she expanded on an earlier idea she had had at the BBC: to create sound from a picture. She took an old mimeograph and revised it so that a special stylus could translate pencil movements into music through a series of modulators and oscillators. These inventions have become almost quaint in the modern era of samplers, digitizers, and synthesizers, but at the time they were cutting-edge in ways unimaginable. This machine, called an Oramics machine, became perhaps her most famous musical legacy.
Daphne's work also attracted the more accessible music crowd, the rock n rollers. In 1969, Pete Townshend of The Who called up Daphne and asked if they could borrow her ring modulator. She agreed - but later admitted she had no idea who the person on the phone was!
In 1981, the lifelong technophile purchased an Apple II and instantly set to work trying to recreate the Oramics machine and her other novel inventions. She also experimented with the Acorn Archimedes in the future. She spent nearly 10 years working on it, while continuing to lecture and teach about electronics and musicmaking in universities across London.
In 1994, Daphne suffered a stroke and became bed-ridden. She moved into a nursing home sometime in the late 90s, and unfortunately her old home was burglarized several times, with countless items of both historical and monetary value being pilfered. Finally on January 5, 2003 Daphne Oram, the mother of modern electronic music, passed away. She was 77.