Visible Women

The true story of Daphne Oram, the mother of modern electronic music

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Anna-Marie Crowhurst
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Forgotten Women is a series dedicated to giving women of history the exposure they deserve. Born in 1925, Daphne Oram went on to change the sound of music forever. 

Composer and innovator Daphne Oram was a pioneer of electronic music. As the first person to design and build an electronic musical instrument, she created the blueprint for modern music.

What did she do?

Without Daphne Oram there would be no Kraftwerk, Depeche Mode, Björk, New Order, Madonna. No techno, trance, house, drum and bass, disco, or virtually any modern music. Because Daphne Oram is the legend who, in the Forties, practically invented electronic music.

This unexpected electro pioneer was born in Wiltshire in 1925. Highly intelligent, Oram had lessons in piano, organ and music composition from an early age, and studied electronics. In 1942, she declined a place at the Royal College of Music to join the BBC as a junior studio engineer – a job only available to women because it was wartime and men were away fighting. She was soon promoted to studio manager.

In the early Fifties, the tape recorder began to be widely used, and Oram stayed late at work, experimenting secretly with the equipment. She recorded all sorts of sounds and began splicing and looping the tape, layering it together, playing it slowly and quickly, backwards and forwards. She saw huge possibilities, but the BBC establishment was slow on the uptake. 

Finally, in 1958 after much campaigning, the BBC gave Oram and her colleague Desmond Briscoe a spare room and some old equipment. The Radiophonic Workshop was born. 

Why was she a trailblazer?

Not only was Oram among the first to experiment with electronic sounds, she defied the double-barred boys’ club of both the BBC and the electronics industry to do it.

At one point the BBC told Oram to take six months off work as they were concerned about effects of radiophonic sound waves on the female body. In response Oram quit and set up her own studio in Kent, where she built the groundbreaking Oramics machine, a sound synthesizer which turned pictures into sound. The composer drew on film strips to create electrical charges controlling amplitude, timbre, frequency and length of sound.

Oram continued to produce soundtracks and incidental music until ill-health forced her into retirement
 in the Nineties. She died in 2003, aged 77.

What influence has she left behind today?

Without Oram’s experiments, 99% of the music you hear today would not exist. Her tape-manipulation techniques influenced musicians across the globe and her Oramics machine laid the foundations for modern electronic-music production techniques. In 2011 Apple released an Oramics app, to bring sound from the Oramics machine back to life.

Last year saw the inaugural Oram Awards – launched by the New BBC Radiophonic Workshop and the PRS Foundation to celebrate emerging artists in music, sound and related technologies – in honour of Daphne Oram.

The Forgotten Women series is part of Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, dedicated to raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present. See more Visible Women stories here.

Illustration: Bijou Karman