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Music Review: Daphne Oram – The Daphne Oram Tapes: Volume One

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Although the BBC Radiophonic Workshop is not very well-known, even in a lot of electronic music circles, the work they did was extraordinary, and known or unknown, the Workshop has had an enormous impact. The most recognizable use of their music is probably the wonderfully hypnotizing theme from the long-running Dr. Who show. The Radiophonic Workshop was responsible for so much more though, and is just now beginning to be recognized for their contributions to the music at large.

Studio Engineer Daphne Oram (1925-2003) was primarily responsible for the formation of the Workshop. Yet under the yoke of the Beeb, she soon began to strafe at what she felt were the creative limitations imposed on her. She left the Radiophonic Workshop in 1959, to set up her own shop called Tower Folly. Her interest in electronic sound was an abiding passion, and stayed with her all her life. While many effects and the like were used by the BBC, she created a great deal more music which is just now coming to light.

If Daphne Oram represented one thing more than any other, it was a willingness to experiment. The Young Americans label has just issued The Daphne Oram Tapes: Volume One, and the two-disc set contains some brilliant examples of her work. As the title indicates, this is only the first volume of what promises to be a multi-part series. When Daphne passed in 2003, she left behind an enormous archive of reel-to-reel tapes, over 400 according to the Daphne Oram Trust which is administering them.

One of the quirks, or maybe just artistic drive of Daphne Oram was the fact that while she saved all of this material, she did not catalog it. So the chronology of the various pieces has been nearly impossible to sort out. Therefore, what the producers have done is to present the various pieces (39 in all), in a narrative more focused on an emotional flow than anything else.

There are numerous treasures here, including excerpts of her work for Stanley Kubrick’s classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Another fascinating element of the set is the illustration of how Daphne Oram worked. Rather than submit written proposals to secure commissions, she would offer up tapes of her works in progress. Some of these are included in the package, complete with her audio explanations of what they represent, and where she intended to take them. This offers an intriguing way to hear just how this musical magician worked.

The two-hour collection features numerous highlights, among these are the 13-minute “Oxford,” her famous Anacin commercial (excerpted), and a number of works of her “Pulse Persephone” piece. Obviously there is a great deal more on these CDs to immerse oneself in, and I have only scratched the surface here. But to pick out individual tracks is not really the point. As the notes indicate, the set was not only programmed to follow an internal logic all its own, but as a listening experience it most definitely works best that way.

The packaging is also notable, as it is great example of a way around the limited artwork and liner notes of most CDs. The set comes in a six-panel oversized digipak, and includes a lengthy essay about Daphne’s life and work.

There are a number of sources that I recommend to learn more about the amazing life and music of Daphne Oram. The first is the Daphne Oram website itself. For ordering information, a great place to go would be the Young Americans distributor, Forced Exposure.

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