Friday, 1 July 2011

Semtek Twitter History Lessons - Daphne Oram

Semtek has dropped another twitter history lesson this afternoon, this time on the early electronic pioneer, Daphne Oram.

My twitter history of Daphne Oram kicking off with some context to set the scene. The history of 'machine music' and 'electronic music' should not be confused, but the first feeds into the second.

As early as 1791 Wolfgang Von Kempelen was experimenting with a wind-powered synthesizer to help the deaf to talk.

Sprechmaschine von Wolfgang Kempelen

Prior to 1950, though it was mainly the act of sound reproduction that concerned inventors. 

Organettes which read note duration and pitch such as the Ariston were manufactured succesfully between 1880 and 1920. 

While huge strides were occuring in sound reproduction between 1908 and 1930, thanks to the Edison Home Phonograph and the Grammophon in the area of sound synthesis it was only the Theremin that existed, invented accidentally in 1921 during a routine heterodyning test.

WW2 held back development in the 40's, but offered one crucial bi-product the first affordable home recording device 

Crucially, the Webster Wire Recorder (1947) employed magnetism to record sound to a wire material, paving the way for tape.

Synthesis also advanced quickly after the war, with Maurice Martenot's 'Ondes' the first instrument to be adopted by composers like Messiaen

You can hear the influence of the Theremin in the sound of the OM, as Termen (its inventor) and Martenot had indeed met:

By 1947 Martenot was giving lessons in the Ondes, and it's at this point that developments in electronic music suddenly speed up.

The advent of tape and its commercial availability around 1949 paved the way for Schaeffer's Musique Concrete, 

Musique Concrete was Schaeffer's search for what he called a 'concrete sound', made from 'real-world audibles' and naturally occuring sounds

Meanwhile in Darmstadt, Hermann Eimert was beginning to lecture on electronic music. This (1952) is very techno: 

The Darmstadt lectures were attended by people like Stockhausen and Varese, and they lead to the establishment of the WDR Cologne Studios.

Schaeffer's work lead to the establishment of a Paris studio for electronic music, funded by the RTF. A

So where was the UK's counterpart? In Part 2 I'll look at how Oram's experiments lead to the establishment of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

Oram attended Sherborne school where she studied music, and subsequently was accepted for the Royal College of Music. However, this was during ww2 and women were being conscripted into military service unless they occupied certain roles, eg nurse of teacher.

Oram became an electrotherapist at Kings College Hospital to avoid conscription, but soon tired of this and in 1943 she joined the BBC. For those who are wondering, women during ww2 built tanks, worked in rescue teams, and operated behind enemy lines.

Oram's first job for the BBC was 'Junior Programme Engineer', she was 18 at the time. She was responsible for sequencing playback of classical recordings, which required the seamless transition every 4 mins between 78rpm discs

That's correct, engineers had to literally beatmatch and mix the discs that made up the long symphonies to play them in full live.

As part of Oram's training at the BBC she was introduced to the Oscilloscope, which represents soundwaves visually: 

When she later built the Oramics machine, she reversed the idea of an Oscilloscope, scanning instead a drawn wave and converting to sound.

Oram's first scores, written in the early '50s used in particular a machine at the BBC that allowed 78rpm records to be played backwards. Techniques of playing backwards, pitching down and pitching up were in the early 50's considered very avant garde, Schaeffer also used them.

However, whereas funding and technology in 50's Europe was readily available for experimental music, the BBC resisted and would not back it.

Between 1953 and 1956 the BBC acquired its first tape machines, the Ferographs. Oram was barred from using them, but proceeded anyway.

Oram's first experiment was to record test oscillator sounds onto the tapes and vary feedback between them using a mixing desk.

Effectively, this was her first attempt to make 'electronic' music, whereas previously she had manipulated the playback of acoustic sources.

So between 1950 and 56, Oram moved from the mic and playback techniques of Schaeffer in Paris, towards the Cologne style synthetic sound.

By 1956, the BBC were under pressure to catch up with the electronic capbilities European studios. This was in part due to the huge demands of dramatic departments for incidental music, and the considerable costs of employing musicians.

A letter, signed by Oram amongst others, was submitted to the BBC specifying the need for a new facility for electronic music.

Amongst the equipment it requests, 6 special design tape recorders with variable intensity erase heads, facilities for playing tape loops also audio frequency oscillators, filters, and finally, from Oram, tone generators capable of reproducing printed waveforms.

This is 1956, and the idea of scanning a printed or drawn waveform is already in her head, at least 25 years before microprocessors.

A committee was created to manage the kit, which would in 1958 become the BBC Radiophonics Workshop. 

Oram twitter history Part 3: going to talk about the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and then the Oramics machine.

After having worked for 8 years towards setting up the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, it's ironic that Oram only lasted a single year there.

The department was set up in 1958 with Desmond Briscoe. They used the word 'Workshop' because it was popular with theatre groups at the time

Whereas Stockhausen eventually won a victory for the primacy of music in the Cologne studio, the BBC workshop focused on drama.

The most famous example of the Radiophonic Workshop's output if of course the Dr. Who theme tune. 

In 1958-59 while Oram was there though, the only known synthesizer was the RCA Electronic Music Synthesizer mk2, which was living room size.

Frustrated by the emphasis on drama, Oram left in '59 to concentrate on building the Oramics machine.

She wanted to create a way of controlling synthesizers through direct, freehand muscular expression, based the physicality of a painter.

The oramics machine takes two types of input, what she termed 'digital' and 'analogue'.

Digital, though, in 1959 meant 'responding to data consisting only of a series of off / on commands, 'analogue' meant a continuous signal.

The 'digital' input of the machine she called a 'fretboard', a series of punched holes in a paper that dictated pitch and duration of note.

Using tape to multitrack the recordings of the Oramics machine, she created compositions like this one 

You can see examples of the type of drawn waveforms the machine accepted here, in this case the continuous or 'analogue' 

The machine is a kind of Oscilloscope in reverse, taking the drawn waveforms and envelopes and realising them in sound.

She achieved all this entirely with analogue electronics (in the modern sense, ie without microprocessors).

'An Individual Note In Sound, Music and Electronics' was the book that Oram wrote, published in 1972. It's about her vision of what makes up an individual, how an individual is shaped by music, and how that affects the way we make music.

The basic idea is that composers and producers function like capacitors, which store energy and release it over a period of time and in reverse that we build up ideas by retracing the musical output of others and recycling that in our own unique way.

I'm going to finish with her favourite passage of writing , where in 1624 Francis Bacon imagines the modern studio: 

Ignore the old school spellings, his idea about the room where echoes can come back louder than the original sound is truly prophetic.

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