Daphne Oram was working at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1957 when she was asked to compose a piece entirely from electronically generated sound sources. For this she used the Amphytryon 38, a large machine consisting of single sine-wave oscillators that each generated a unique tone. She recorded a simple 2 minute pop ditty - the very first entirely electronically generated piece of music.

At the same time, other experiments in musical generation were being tested - particularly with the advent of Robert Moog's handheld theremin kits, all the rage in England and America. People could make music just by waving their hands! Oram decided to work more on this by incorporating one of her favorite hobbies, sketching, with music. She had already developed a keen interest in the project through the works of Raymond Scott, but the BBC was reluctant to let her pursue it, calling it a pipe dream. So, she quit her job as head of the workshop and set up her own studio. In 1962, she finally had enough knowledge and wherewithal to start building the Oramics.

First she devised a system of drawing by splicing together ten strips of 35mm film side by side and creating a reel-to-reel device to run the new film concoction. Next, she used some existing technologies to "read" the drawing as it passed by a photoelectric sensor and send it to a sine wave oscillator, similar to those used in the Amphytron. All facets of drawing - line thickness, overlapping, rubbings, and random marks all affected the sensor in programmed ways, changing the sound's timbre, pitch, duration, and modulation.

Truly ahead of its time, the Oramics machine gave the composer an impressive amount of control over the finished product. Although it was monophonic by nature, tape recorders gave it polyphonic texture, and the sounds it generated were a perfect 1-to-1 response to the artist's creation. It was, in fact, very similar to early Variophone produced by Yevgeny Sholpo in the early years following the Russian Revolution, but had the added benefit of more direct control in "pre-production" - tweaking the Oramics to generate tones you wanted based on your hand movement. Thus, for one a person, a long sweeping line might mean a longer duration, whereas for someone else, it might mean a lower pitch.

The Oramics never really caught on in the electronic music scene, as the price of keyboard-based synthesizers by Korg, Moog, and other companies dropped before it could make a large market impact, and also because Oram was notoriously private, afraid her ideas would be stolen. Still, Oram herself spent years perfecting and performing with her machine, recording some notable background music for British films, including the fabulous Deborah Kerr vehicle The Innocents (1961).

Very few non-movie recordings of the Oramics exist, and virtually none of them are for sale in any commercial format. Still, Oram's work in the electronic music scene can be heard in the works of Rick Wakeman, Hugh Davies, Man .. or Astro-man?, Kraftwerk, and many more artists.

Source: http://www.sonicartsnetwork.org/Oram/oram.html

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