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
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.