Oramics / Graphical Sound
Oramics / Graphical Sound
Oramics / Graphical Sound
Oramics / Graphical Sound
Oramics / Graphical Sound

Oramics / Graphical Sound

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Daphne Oram, a remarkable visionary woman, was among the composer/technicians working at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop which began in 1958. In her childhood she showed a flair for inventing ingenious mechanical devices, and was also fascinated by electronic sound and by the microphone, which she declared had vast potential as a musical instrument.

These two passions came together in Still Point, scored for “Double Orchestra and five microphones”, which Oram composed in the late Forties. This has gone down in history as the first piece ever to combine live orchestral musicians with electronic transformations of the orchestral sound, recorded on to disc to be played live during performances. It was, however, never performed, and only a fragmentary score survives. 

Oram had to pursue her passion for electronic music late at night and at weekends, when the BBC studios were not in use. Thanks in large part to her tireless campaigning, the Radiophonic Workshop was finally set up in 1958, in the teeth of much skepticism from the BBC management. Oram was appointed co-director, but she soon lost patience with the studio’s limited brief, and the patronizing attitude of the male managers.

They wanted my ideas,” she recalled later, “they didn’t want me.” She took herself off in disgust to create her own studio in a remote village in Kent in the UK. For decades she worked on her own system of sound-synthesis called Oramics, lectured on the joys of electronic music in schools and colleges, and wrote visionary essays about the nature of sound, and its potential to lead to higher states of consciousness. 

Fagandini and Oram were optimists, consumed by their enthusiasms, for whom male disparagement was a spur to go further rather than give up in despair. Delia Derbyshire, the third of the Radiophonic Workshop’s remarkable women, was a more troubled soul. A Cambridge graduate, she joined the workshop having been rejected from record companies such as Decca because of her gender. She applied her mathematical knowledge to analyzing real sounds and reconstituting them with sine wave generators, in a way that would have won the admiration of avant-garde electronic composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen, if they had heard of her – which they hadn’t, because Workshop composers, male or female, toiled away in complete anonymity.

It was Derbyshire who actually created the most famous piece that ever emerged from the Workshop, the theme tune to Doctor Who. She did it by taking a simple score by Ron Grainer and transforming it into the uncanny electronic masterpiece we know, using methods that she took care never to reveal. Yet it was Grainer who got the credit and 100 per cent of the royalties – much to his own embarrassment.

It was no surprise that Derbyshire became restless at the BBC, a sign of the depression that dogged her life. She left in 1973, and after a spell in a private studio worked in a bookshop in Cumbria and later for British Gas. Only at the end of her life did she return to electronic music, encouraged by the enthusiasm for her work shown by young musicians. 267 tapes were found in Derbyshire's attic when she died in 2001. Amongst the recordings is some ethereal whooshing from a 1969 production of Hamlet at the Roundhouse in London; an extraordinary kit of parts for one of her most-admired pieces; and the theme for a documentary set in the Sahara which shows how she used her voice as an instrument.

Most unexpected of all, however, is a piece of music that sounds like a contemporary dance track which was recorded, it is believed, in the late sixties. Delia Derbyshire's voice can be heard introducing it. "Forget about this," she says, "it's for interest only."

While much is known about early electronic music in the west, led by groups like the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, there was a whole series of lesser-known inventions and experiments happening in Russia before the second world war. Leon Theremin had captured the public imagination with his motion-sensitive name-sake, and several engineers and inventors rushed to create new electronic instruments. Fuelled by the possibility of an unprecedented social and cultural age after the revolutions of the early 20th century and the Russian civil war, as well as breakthroughs in radio and electro-optical technology, the quest for a new music was considered vitally important. 

As machines became more humanized, and image and sound became more integrated, new possibilities for ‘auto-music’ opened up. By the 1930s it was possible to take a picture of a soundwave using photo-optics, and by reversing this method, to also generate a sound with its graphic counterpart. Several inventors like Evgeny Scholpo, Arseny Avraamov and Boris Yankovsky all explored this new area of ‘graphical sound’, examining the relationship between man, machine, sound and image in a quest to unveil universal truths of geometry, art and music. Their Wellsian creations, all whirring cogs, strips of running film and symmetrical patterns on paper discs, are anything but primitive. Conceptually bold if structurally fragile, they dared to stare into the unknown and inspire a cultural revolution of a new age.

One such creation was the ANS. The ANS is a rare machine, whichever way you look at it. Only two were ever built, and the only-surviving second model now resides at the Glinka Museum of Musical Culture in Moscow. It’s a feat of engineering that stands on the crossroads of art, music, psychology and even the occult. Over 50 years old, it challenges us to reconsider the accepted worlds of music and sound, whether approaching it as a composer, musician or listener. Emerging from the long line of mechanical orchestras, siren symphonies and electro-optical experiments that were happening in Russia during the early part of the 20th century, it took nearly 20 years to build. It was the passion and hobby of engineer and inventor Evgeny Murzin, who began to design his photoelectrichesky sintezator muziki in 1939. The going wasn’t easy. 

As Andrey Smirnov, Director of Moscow’s Theremin Center, reveals in the BBC’s The Soundhunter series, “There was only a few places where this kind of research, into new musical instruments, was supported by the state. Anything private was prohibited. It seemed like the whole country was working underground to invent anything new or interesting. But building these instruments was considered criminal. You could not buy any electronic components, you had to steal them from the institutions. So, each inventor was a criminal, otherwise they couldn’t invent anything. Evgeny Murzin did not wait for state support, he was just doing his work like a hero, himself and his wife. Otherwise he could have had to wait dozens of years for state support, without being successful.”

The concept of criminality in the USSR was much more sinister than in the west. As Andrey explains further, “In Stalinist Russia, when someone influential was shot or sent to the Gulag, their physical disappearance was not enough. They were also retroactively transformed into traitors and saboteurs, eliminated from the public record and wiped from group photographs as though they had never lived. This was also true for the whole emerging culture of 1920s. By the late 1930s, the cultural and intellectual elite of the previous two decades had effectively been written out of history. To many artists and enthusiasts, inspired with revolutionary ideas, avant-garde approaches to the arts became an integral aspect of social revolution.”

So, the ANS had rebellion and revolution running through its circuits from the very first blueprint. It’s not surprising, then, that the name ANS is taken from the initials of Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin, one of the most notable musical rebels around the turn of the 20th century. Scriabin developed his own atonal music system based on theosophy and mysticism, and was also noted for his powerful synesthesia, as well as multifaceted performances that provoked an orgy of the senses. His fascination with the occult is little to do with ouija boards and scaremongering, but instead more about courage and conviction. 

Composing for and playing the ANS is certainly an unusual prospect. Traditional 12 tone scales were cast aside: the machine has 720 sine waves printed over five glass discs, using a method that Murzin had to develop himself. The modulated light from these discs is then projected onto the back of the synthesizer’s interface. Playing these tones requires the composer to scratch out lines in another glass plate covered in black mastic resin, which can then be spun round manually at the desired speed. For extra control, there’s also a photocell-based filter bank. The resulting sounds, sliding in-between standard notation, often have an eerie, alien tone, giving the impression of sounds from an unfamiliar world.

With the advent of the ANS at the end of the 50s, many of Russia’s finest avant-garde musicians and composers came to work on it, such as Alfred Schnittke, Stanislav Kreitchi, Sofia Gubaidulina and Eduard Artemiev. The ANS was originally housed above the Scriabin Museum in Moscow, and became the centre-piece of an experimental electronic music studio. Perhaps the best-known compositions are Edward Artemiev’s soundtracks for Tarkovsky’s early movies, such as Solaris, The Mirror and Stalker.

In Solaris, the spooky, microtonal harmonies of the ANS soundtrack Tarkovsky’s exploration into space and the self, as the characters aboard the orbiting space station free fall through the unravelling layers of their psyches. In this respect, the ANS can also be seen as an integral part of the space race of the late 60s, assisting in the capture of public fascination for science fiction and space exploration.