Daphne Oram, a composer and electronic music pioneer, was at the height of her activity when I was a schoolgirl and I remember as a sixth-former reading her book An Individual Note which (get this) I was able to borrow from our local public library. It was pretty much a unique event to read a book by a modern woman composer, but I mostly recall trying to get my head around the scientific details of ‘electronic music’ as it was then. The lively trustees of Oram’s estate have reissued the book, which I’m just about to reread, and this time, 45 years later, I’m sure a completely different focus will emerge.
In the show (which I heartily recommend, while it tours round Scotland) Isobel McArthur gives a lively portrayal of Daphne Oram as someone with a natural technical bent, and great practical energy and ability, but also a poetic, creative outlook. She will go down in history (or should do) as the person who dreamed up the famous BBC Radiophonic Workshop and made sure that it happened. It was however at the cost of her energy and creative time; she had imagined it as a dynamic centre for futuristic composition, as was happening in studios around Europe. But as the play hilariously shows (although the reality cannot have been fun at all) the BBC top brass saw the Workshop as somewhere they could make music for broadcast plays on the cheap; sound designer Anneke Kampman (working onstage throughout) does a brilliant job illustrating ‘their idea’ of sound, which up to then had consisted of samples of the BBC Symphony Orchestra making funny noises. Just when the Workshop finally got going, Oram’s patience with the BBC’s bureaucracy ran out and she retreated to work on her own, away from public recognition. As a present day worker in Maida Vale Studios where the Workshop was sited, I wasn’t surprised to find a quite a lot of this play still very recognisable.
Pictured – Maida Vale Studio One, the ceiling. The BBC Radiophonic Workshop closed down in 1998. BBC DG John Birt, in 1993, gave it five years to 'pay its way' but this proved impossible.