The particular item on display in this ‘selfie’ is Daphne Oram’s (1925 – 2003) personal computer, one of many items from Oram’s personal collection Special Collections is pleased to house within its archives. Oram was a central figure in early British experimental electronic music, famous for her involvement with the widely influential BBC Radiophonic Workshop and the eponymous Oramics computer music system she designed.
A gifted musician, Oram decided against pursuing a career in classical music, turning down a place at the Royal College of Music to join the BBC and co-found the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. During this period she developed a combined interest in technology and artificially produced sounds. Oram’s approach was informed by the rigid modernist technique of Pierre Schaffer’s musique concrète and other avant-garde musical aesthetics of the time. Such musical movements challenged dominant modes of classical music composition by introducing sonic details procured from the technological and cultural upheavals of post-war society. She would weave these experimental influences into her compositions with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. During this period she also began the research that would lead to the creation of Oramics, a new technique of sound synthesis. Not only was Oramics one of the earliest forms of electronic sound synthesis, it was also innovative through its pioneering of the audiovisual interface in music production.
Daphne would leave the BBC in 1959, though her research on the Oramics project would continue. The completed Oramics machine required the composer to physically draw onto a synchronised set of ten 35mm film strips overlaying a series of photo-electric cells. These drawings, when processed through the Oramics machine, would generate electrical charges to control amplitude, timbre, frequency and duration. Oramics was remarkable for being one of the first devices to engineer sound from electricity, an undoubted influence on the synthesizers and digital music suites of today that are able to produce a similar spectrum of synthetic sound. It should be noted that there was something of a difference in size however, as the Oramics machine was far from a portable device – requiring an entire room to be fully operational. The complete Oramics machine can currently be viewed at the Science Museum in London (more information here).
Here at Special Collections in Goldsmiths Library, we hold many materials relevant to Oram’s work, taken from her own personal archive. In 2007, Goldsmiths College collaborated with the Sonic Arts Network to bring this collection into the academic community where it can be properly studied and developed. These include not just the personal computer shown in the ‘selfie’ but a whole plethora of useful materials relating to her work. This includes papers on her work at the BBC, design notes on the Oramics system, personal photographs, musical scores and scripts and much more.