The story of the Oramics Machine

One of electronic music's great "what if" stories, Daphne Oram created a graphical system for creating music well before modern sequencers. RA's Benji Lehmann explains.

Modern listeners of electronic music may not be familiar with the name Daphne Oram. We know a lot about Oram's contemporaries like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Schaeffer, who did much to advance the creative use of audio technology. We also have learned the story of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop which Oram co-founded, thanks to reissues of the recordings it produced via labels like Rephlex. Oram, however, has often been omitted from accounts of the Workshop, and passed away in 2003 leaving little evidence of her life's work. Slowly, but surely, that has changed, and an exhibition at The Science Museum in London has recently further revealed her visionary understanding of how music would be made in the future. 

Oram attended Sherborne School where she studied music, and subsequently was accepted for the Royal College of Music in 1942. She joined the BBC a year later as a Junior Programme Engineer, drawing on her musical talent and technical skills she had learned from her brother, an electrical engineer, with whom she had built radio transmitters and receivers as a child. Her responsibilities at the time included sequencing the playback of classical recordings, which required the seamless transition every four minutes between 78 RPM discs. Engineers had to sync and mix the discs that made up the long symphonies to play them in full live, a technique almost identical to mixing two vinyl records today.