Oramics - Precedents, Technology and Influence

Lead Research Organisation: Goldsmiths College
Department Name: Computing Department


Electronic music has made a dramatic impact on our sound world. Academic analysis of this revolution is well under way. There is also a considerable constituency of lay people - listeners as well as musicians - who are knowledgeable, and hunger to learn more, about how this came about: the technologies, the techniques, the people who made it happen.

Britain was an important crucible for new musical devices and artistic forms, but this 'local history' requires focussed studies to bring to academic and public attention the precise circumstances under which electronic music developed here. Any list of such studies will inevitably include Daphne Oram (1925 - 2003), pioneer of musique concrete and first founder of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. After leaving the BBC in 1959, Oram devoted herself to freelance music composition and the development of a unique device, the 'Oramics Machine' to actualise her musical ideas.

Her collected papers and recordings were acquired by Goldsmiths College in 2006. The Collection generates international interest amongst academics, practitioners, industry and the general public. It has been the subject of magazine articles, commercial CD releases, short films, three exhibitions, radio documentaries (one for BBC Radio 3), a symposium, and concerts at the South Bank and the Roundhouse, London.

In January 2008, the original 1960s Oramics Machine - a unique and idiosyncratic audio-visual device for composition and sound synthesis, which had been thought lost or destroyed, was located by the Director of the Oram Collection. It was later purchased by the Science Museum so that it could be conserved, stored and displayed to international standards. The Museum and the College have signed a long term research collaboration agreement in which each is the other's partner of choice in research and exploitation of the Oramics Machine, with the aim of producing greater value to both the research community and the general public. In this partnership, the Museum's historical and conservation expertise complements that at Goldsmiths, which is musicological and technical.

This project aims to closely study the Oramics Machine and the Oram Collection. Understanding its genealogy is essential to grasping Oram's significance in the history of British electronic music and her impact on later music. The audio-visual roots of her practice with the Machine is known in outline only; the precise links between her musical aesthetic and its antecedents in avant garde music have not been traced in detail; and the origins of the Machine's hybrid electro-mechanical and electronic implementation are only dimly understood.

The project will ask:
How can close analysis of the surviving Oramics Machine inform understanding of its workings and evolution?
What were the Oramics Machine's antecedents in postwar electronics, music and photophonic and film art?
What contribution did the Oramics Machine make to the electronic and computer music, in terms of both technique and creativity? What is its cultural impact and legacy?
In what ways is the Oramics Machine unique? Why did others not adopt this approach to electronic music synthesis and composition?
What kinds of historical account can make valid connections between Daphne Oram's gender and personality on one hand and the form of the machine and her musical output on the other?

Applications and benefits
Not only will the project produce a PhD and verbal and published papers, it will also contribute to the Science Museum's major gallery project, 'Making Modern Communications', which will include displays on the impact of electronics on our sound world, and which will show the Oramics Machine itself within displays to which the student will contribute. The project will also feature concerts and symposia for public audiences.

Planned Impact

The project will establish and communicate the 'state of the art' in British electronic music at a key stage in its development between the late 1950s and early 1970s. It will shed light on the relationship between institutional culture, technology and innovation, contemporary conservation practice, computational arts practice, graphic sound, gender studies and computer science. The student's work will directly affect future academic understanding through teaching and research across disciplines for years to come by enhancing the understanding of this key period in British electronic music history. The main supervisor has a track record of high-impact public engagement, evidenced by the level of publicity that the Oram Collection already receives. It is now a focal point for partnerships between large national and international institutions, including the BBC, Yamaha, Sonic Arts Network (now Sound and Music), Moscow State Conservatory (Russia), Dartmouth College (US), and Sony. These connections will be leveraged at large public events, including those curated by the Science Museum itself, creating engagement and participation through direct public exhibition.

Museum Audiences
Since music and music technology are intended to be a core component of the Museum's major new gallery 'Making Modern Communications', which is due to open in 2014, this project will contribute to an enhanced visitor experience for a significant proportion of the 2.7 million people who visit the Science Museum every year, and the 10 million virtual visitors attracted by its websites, thereby helping to enhance public engagement with the history of technology. The visitor base has a 50:50 gender split and two thirds of visitors are over 16 years old. The Museum attracts more school visitors than any comparable attraction in the UK.

This research project will generate significant improvement in the Science Museum's knowledge of, and develop the knowledge base for enhancing holdings in, material relating to 20th and 21st century music technology. Both music in general and the Oramics Machine are an important focus of the Museum's Public History Project, which aims to explore how lay expertise can be engaged in the production of museum exhibits, so as to ensure enhanced visitor engagement and learning.

Museum Professionals
Museum practitioners will benefit from the development of new styles of interdisciplinary research that takes the best of antiquarian close-reading, and combines it with sophisticated modern historiography. Furthermore, many museums are currently experimenting with live events that enhance visitors' learning and bring-in groups who do not normally visit. The Science Museum's Apollo Concerts from 2009 (which in 2010 have enjoyed a nationwide tour) and their Lates programme are both good examples. Concerts associated with this project can build on this experience to reach new audiences.

Historians of Technology
There is an increasing interest amongst historians of technology in comparison with the traditional focus on invention. Study of the Oramics Machine can illuminate both sides of this equation by showing how the device repurposed devices and techniques from other fields as Oram sought the means to realise her musical ambitions. Research into her recordings can illuminate the relationship between the machine's evolution and the new sonic possibilities thereby created.

Music Professionals and Audiences
The outward similarity between the Oramics Machine's audio-visual interface and modern computer programmes such as Cubase has been recognised. The potential sympathy between today's computer musicians and what Oram achieved through this device is considerable. Furthermore, recent releases of her recordings have generated substantial interest, demonstrating high public relevance. This study will add to this momentum,


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