Memory, music and magnetism: Circuit-bending art-science


Source: The Guardian

‘In every human being there will surely be, as we have said, tremendous chords of wave patterns sounding out their notes.’

For the Ada Lovelace Blogging Event I am writing about Daphne Oram who helped laying the foundations for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Not only was she the first (known) woman to write the first piece of software for creating electronic music but she also proceeded to build her own electronic instrument. Many electronic musicians today – both male and female – look up to the achievements of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop of which Oram was, depending on which source you most believe in, its initiator, co-founder or first director.

First of all, I have to admit that until about a couple of months ago, I had not even heard about Daphne Oram. Through conversations with fellow synthesizer enthusiasts ( = geeks) I was more familiar with the name and work of Delia Derbyshire. However, I kept on coming across Oram’s picture (the iconic one with ‘the’ glasses) on different electronic musicians’ sites, so I eventually looked her up on the net. The fact that not actually that much information – and especially not music(!) – seemed to circulate about her made me even more curious. During some research in academic music journals I found out that she had published a book in 1972 called ‘An individual note – of music, sound and electronics’. I could not resist having a look at it at the British Library. There, I found out that the title of the book was a prime example of British understatement. Oram’s writings about music are, as Doreen Massey would probably put it, ‘totally bonkers’, they were also one of the most enjoyable reads I have had in a long time!

So why have I chosen to write about her? There are two reasons. The first one is that I am a female experimental musician who loves analogue electronic music equipment – the wackier the better – and getting together with fellow musicians and ‘tekkies’ to mess around with it. Since my first encounter with a proper ‘synth’, the EMS Synthi with its strange suitcase design, metal plugs and fascinating knobs, and follow-up encounters with theremins, stylophones and filtered acoustic instruments, I wondered what other possible sounds lie hidden between materials and currents. When I was somewhere between the ages of 11-13, I made a god-awful attempt at building my first instrument with a piece of wood, nails, kite string and a pick-up, which, according to my music teacher who amplified it for me, sounded ‘very Chinese’. Strangely, I never noticed that I never encountered other ‘girls’ who did this kind of stuff until I moved to London where I kept on finding myself in ‘girl talk’ about suboctaves, the unsurpassable warmth and beauty of ‘analogue groove machines’ or even rescuing old, underappreciated synthesizers from people’s garages via the Freecycle network. The thought about female role-models in electronic music just surfaced while talking with a friend about the blogging event. So who were my role-models? I don’t think I ever had any. But, right now, I am feeling that Daphne Oram’s infectious enthusiasm for experimenting with electronics and music is inducing a desire to carry out bigger design projects for soundcarriers and might do so in other people. Unfortunately, for me, this will have to wait until the end of my PhD. Then I can happily end up in A&E after the electric knitting-needle-o-phone prototype test went horribly wrong.


The blog author’s first ‘proper’ electronic music encounter was with the EMS AKS Synthi. Source: EMS

The second reason is that, to my surprise, Daphne Oram seemed to be struggling with a lot of the same themes that I am struggling with in my work at the moment: matter and ethics, art-science divisions/collaborations and the relation of these ‘musings’ to the everyday. I am deliberately using the word ‘musings’ as Oram very much advocates this word in the form of the Italian meaning of ‘musare’ – to sniff the air to catch a scent. She uses it as a kind of leitmotif throughout her book and encourages the reader to ‘sniff[…] the air in all directions’, unafraid of error and ridicule: ‘I suspect’, she writes, ‘we may really enjoy, most of all, the pitfalls we fall into… when our noses are held for too high in the air!’ Refreshingly, Oram indulges in her own musings on an unabashedly cosmic scale. Even if you do not agree with her, you will find yourself in the fascinating universe of a woman who understands herself and the world through electronic explorations of music – or should it be musical explorations of electronics?

While reading the book, I gained the sense that Oram is, like me in my PhD work, working on the boundary of what the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead calls the ‘bifurcation of nature’ – the division of the world into two worlds. On the one had you have the sensory environment we perceive (which by some is not really seen as nature, but ‘mental reactions’ which create those ‘secondary qualities’ according to Whitehead) and ‘molecules, electrons and ether on the other side’ (as Whitehead wrote in 1920). For Oram, art and science seem to represent these two sides. In her book, she tries to bring these sides together in what she calls a ‘celetal mode of thinking’. Andra McCartney describes this ‘celetal mode’ as a way of bringing ‘art and science together in balance’. Art seems to help us see ‘new aspects of reality’ and may be able to intervene when science negatively impacts on society.

In the first chapter, Oram laments the limited scope of art-science collaborations she has witnessed so far, with only artists using science materials and methods, but only in a limited area. Scientists rather adopt artistic strategies, and the artists who are interested in science are seldom musicians (she names some examples such as a 1837 article in the American Journal of Science entitled ‘The Production of Galvanic Music’ and a number of fellow composers).

When it comes to music as an art form, Oram suggests that it could be used to make a kind of ‘matter music’. If the natural frequencies of elements are transposed, you could, for instance make a ‘Hydrogen Scale’ (B E F# G G G# G# A if I re-read my notes correctly). Incidentally, during my first Mutable Matter workshop, the topic of music was also hit upon in this manner. It made me very happy to encounter the ‘universe as music’ again in Oram’s work. To hear her speak of humans as assemblages of ‘chemical musical chords’ made me wish that I had had the opportunity to do a Mutable Matter session with her and her fellow workshop colleagues. However, Oram is not intending to turn people into ‘simple material things’ or walking musical scores. Humans are not ‘just a fundamental, two harmonics and fifteen suppressed overtones’, she writes. However, she believes in a form of material decision-making which is connected to this image of an ‘elemental human’. A baby, for her, is a product of decisions that neither the parents nor the baby make. Matter has the final say in how is going to turn out.

Another theme she picks up on and which has also appeared in a few of the workshops is our perception of the world and what other perceptions, e.g. sensing in more or less than three or four dimensions would be possible. What is the world after all? After getting very metaphysical, Oram then proposes something more practical: that music can be used as a testing ground for techno-scientific developments that are likely to have a profound impact on society in the future.

‘In our arts, I think we should reflect and examine the social organisations of today and of the future. The arts should act as an analogy of the possible social and technological systems, so that we can preview and criticize these systems without needing to use the human race as guinea pigs…’

Oram’s example here is serial music which, she believes, allows audiences a glimpse at what it would be like to live with machinisation. I guess that her ideas about the function and impact of music could easily be dismissed as naive, but I find them inspiring none the less.

Other than using music and art as a testing ground for the impact of technologies, Oram talks about designing technology to help us ‘chang[e] the methods of technology’. One example is the humanisation of artificial intelligences. While she warns that ‘the more a machine is humanized the more subtle a weapon it can become’, she made a successful attempt at building a ‘machine-with humanising factors’, as she described it: Oramics. Oramics used drawings on film strips that were converted by the machine into music. It seemed as if Oram tried to design a more intuitive composition technique as opposed to the more abstract notations that are used around the world. Apparently, she admitted that her machine was actually quite difficult and laborious to operate, because you had to feel yourself into the way the machine made sense of your scribbles, but I bet it is equally fun to operate! On that note (no pun intended) – I should better get back to writing my thesis! Enjoy Ada Lovelace Day!

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