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Live Review: Oramics The Life and Work of Daphne Oram. Purcell Room, London. 27/6/2008.
This curious event was motivated by a worthy intention: to redress the relative obscurity surrounding Daphne Oram, a co-founder of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop described in the programme as °one of the unsung musical heroines of our timeĘ.
Technologically and aesthetically, Oram is an almost °pre-historicĘ figure whose covert influence or antecedence haunts much electronic music from the eighties onwards. As my friend pointed out, some of the percussive sequences that unfolded resembled the work of Esplendor Geometrico, while what we now call °dark ambientĘ passages brought to mind Aphex TwinĘs Selected Ambient Work Two. She and her better-known contemporary Delia Derbyshire are °vanishing mediatorsĘ who laid down sonic precedents for much of what followed.
The specific pretext for this day of events was the opening of the Daphne Oram Collection at Goldsmiths College. Goldsmiths is known for a tendency towards arrogance but creating a resource dedicated to OramĘs life and works is certainly a worthy project and the collegeĘs work on electronic music is undeniably important. This was an all-day event with an academic symposium followed by two concerts. There was something slightly forced about the programming of the events and the inclusion of formalistic symposium abstracts in the joint programme accentuated this. Her work certainly deserves attention and the symposium topics seemed worthwhile, but from and audience perspective the presentation of the evening °concertĘ was problematic.
There was a brief spoken introduction listing the items, but otherwise no interval or commentary between the different elements. It commenced and ended with two short films with Oram soundtracks and featured two very different live performances interspersed between CD or digital playback sessions in the darkened auditorium. This was an interesting idea but completely sapped any momentum from the evening and many people left early. The Purcell RoomĘs sound system is on the quiet side and really not impressive enough to justify leaving an audience sitting in the dark listening to playback staring at an empty stage for up to twenty-five minutes. That said, there were some intriguing pieces were in the playback sessions and it was good to hear them, although it was unclear just exactly who the audience were applauding – the person who put the CD on?, the memory of Daphne Oram, Goldsmiths?, themselves? The first playback item was one of her demos for commercial clients, featuring her received pronunciation commentaries (her regal speaking voice now sounds as exotic as some of her music and makes a welcome change from contemporary Blair style mockney). So we heard extracts of film music, sound effects for pressure cooker and washing machine adverts and much more. It was of varying quality and definitely more appropriate for home listening. The playbacks of her tape pieces Four Aspects, Episode Metallic and Pulse Persephone were much more impressive. The final playback session was of a so far unreleased demo of sound effects prepared for KubrickĘs 2001. These were bleak proto-industrial sounds in the Radiophonic style and it was tantalising to imagine which scenes in the film they might have accompanied and how they might have enhanced it.
In between the long, audience-testing playback sessions there were two very different live performances. From One to Another I was a piece for live viola and tape, a co-composition with Thea Musgrave. The viola player was extremely but perhaps disproportionately expressive: the piece didnĘt seem to quite deserve such enthusiasm. Some of the electronic textures were interesting, as was the interplay between live and recorded viola but not as interesting as similar electronic/string pieces by Kaffe Matthews or Boulez. After another eighteen minutes of playback (during which a gradual audience exodus began), Andrea Parker took to the stage. She was playing an Oram-esque old school synth with laptop and was supported by an un-credited video mixer. Parker is well known for her hefty trademark bass sounds and these were well to the fore here, but in keeping with the tone of the evening they were relatively muted and subdued. The effective black and white visuals were a mixture of abstract pulsing patterns mixed with re-processed photos of Oram and her equipment. In the first section heavily filtered Oram sound samples swam against the bass waves producing an interesting effect that perhaps ran for too long. Eventually the pace increased to a mid-tempo noir electro groove flecked with brief Oram references. This was a really interesting and well-executed experiment that could have been five minutes shorter but still saved the night from being little more than a post-symposium listening session. There was a free concert in the foyer to follow featuring the ubiquitous People Like Us, who was presenting a montage of Oram audiovisual samples. Yet given the energy-sapping tempo of the evening and the fact that PLU comes dangerously close to being a curator-lauded novelty act we followed much of the audience and went in search of more dynamic diversions.