Throughout the comparatively short history of electronic music there have been countless innovators who have pioneered an approach to the genre and helped create the music that set so many dancefloors alight every weekend. From the DJs and producers who helped build the many categories that fall under the electronic umbrella to the record labels and promoters that helped push the product to the masses. But before the fame and adulation that accompanies the modern scene, there were those unsung heroes who devoted their lives to the creation of electronic sounds.
One such hero came is Daphne Oram, a sound engineer from the BBC, whose creation, the Oramics Machine, helped form the ideas that have carried electronic music to the accepted and celebrated culture it is today.
Built using materials and salvaged equipment from army surplus stores in 1957, the machine is considered one of the most significant creations in the development of electronic music. Using the principle of transforming sounds waves drawn on sheets of glass into electronic tones, the machine was recently discovered and is set to go on display as part of the Oramics to Electronica: Revealing Histories of Electronic Music exhibition at London's Science Museum from Friday July 29th.
"The machine is in a bit of a condition," admits Merel Van Der Vaart, associate curator of the exhibition. "There were two problems with it: firstly, nobody knows exactly how it all works, there is no manual. Secondly, if we were to repair it to working order, we would need to replace so many parts that it would essentially become a replica."
Looking at the box of wires and Heath Robinson assembly, it is no surprise that the exact working of the machine is a bit of a mystery. There are parts that appear to have no discernible merit, such as broom handle that has been wedged into it, and a switch that has 'Do not switch' written on it.
"You have to know what you are looking for, because it is quite a beast of a machine," continues Van Der Vaart. "There are two main parts: an inputting table and a sound generator. You can tell she built it from home, because the sound generator is housed in what looks like an old record player cabinet. They were basically developing it as they went, so in many ways this is both the prototype and the finished product."
Oram would draw the soundwaves at the inputting table, with the information then being fed through to the amplifiers. By drawing different waves she was able to increase the components of the melodies, such as the pitch, tone and reverb. "You would have to go back and tweak it if you found a part that you liked, there was an element of guesswork involved," says Van Der Vaart.
Essentially, the Oramics Machine was one of the first relatively accessible pieces of electronic music equipment at the time. While there were large electronic studios in Paris and Germany, there were few in the UK and Oram had to push hard to get her idea to reality, something that was truly pioneering for a young woman at that time.
Through her work with the Oramics machine and her role in the Radiophonic Workshop, a sound effects department at the BBC, Oram helped get electronic music accepted to a wider audience. Television series such as Dr Who and the other science fiction genre helped popularise the sounds that at the time would have been an alien concept to listeners.
"In early interviews, Daphne accepts that people were not ready for this yet, their ears were not used to it," explains Van Der Vaart. "She didn't believe that electronic music would work in a concert, where people were used to seeing whole orchestras, whereas now it has become very much the norm for the clubs."
Her passion for electronic music and composing tracks was reflected in her dedication. "She would spend hours experimenting with sounds in the studio, but she would have to work through the night," says Van Der Vaart. "She needed so much equipment to make her music that she needed all the studios and she could only do that at night when everyone else had finished. Then she would also have to do her normal day job. It's amazing to think that she needed all that equipment, whereas now all you really need is a laptop. We are still doing today what she was doing in 1962, only now we have far more tools to use."
As well as being able to see the original Oramics machine, visitors to the Science Museum for the exhibition, which runs through the summer, will also be able to try their hand at creating Oramics sounds using a app created by Goldsmiths University on a 22" screen.
"The machine is really inspiring for people," Van Der Vaart concludes. "The technology we have available now makes it almost too easy for people to be creative." One thing the Oramics machine proved is that the woman who invented it certainly had creativity in abundance and has probably in some way helped to inspire the modern pioneers of the electronic music scene.
Words: Matt Jane
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