Features I by I 13.07.16

How Daphne Oram’s radical turntable experiments were brought to life after 70 years

Years before founding the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Daphne Oram wrote a ground-breaking piece for turntables and orchestra. Rejected by BBC bosses and never performed, ‘Still Point’ has remained unheard for 70 years – until now. Thomas Howells listens in as the semi-mythical composition is brought to life by two musicians determined to establish Oram as one of Britain’s most radical electronic artists.

June 24, 2016. 8.30pm. While London’s Parliament Square rumbles with post-Brexit unrest, the nearby St John’s Smith Square – a bombed-out church turned concert hall – thrums to a different, but no less historic, discord. Inside, the London Contemporary Orchestra is performing a recital set of brooding Romanticism and Benjamin Britten’s pastoral flurries; accomplished, sure, but orthodox. That is, until the orchestra fades and a set of decks – set stage right and manned by composer and turntablist Shiva Feshareki – shift into action, filling the hall with heady static before playing back an iteration of those opening passages. Feshareki plays fast and loose with pitch, speed, tone and direction, looping and transfiguring the orchestral movements into disjointed new forms.

As the players ramp back up, the live orchestra, conducted by Robert Ames, engages in conversation with the recorded one, Feshareki adding colour with stabs of noise and cosmic dings and squeals. A bank of warped brass and strings rises to an intense volume before dropping to silence. The audience is breathless. It’s both dreamy and cathartic; like nothing St John’s – or, indeed, anyone – has heard before. The piece is ‘Still Point’, an early work by electronic music pioneer Daphne Oram, receiving its extremely belated debut as part of the Southbank Centre’s Deep∞Minimalism festival. Written in 1949 for “double orchestra”, treated instrumental recordings (in the form of three 78rpm discs) and five microphones, ‘Still Point’ is held to be the first composition to combine acoustic orchestration with live electronic manipulation.

Prior to ‘Still Point’, composers had made some attempts at layering performance with prepared elements – the piped-in birdsong of Respighi’s ‘Pines of Rome’ in 1924, or Cage’s use of recorded sine waves in Landscape No. 1 in 1936, for instance. But Oram’s concept – of changing sounds in real time and repositioning a recording as an instrument in its own right – was highly original. At the time it was set to reconfigure the landscape of electroacoustic music, predating revolutionary Europeans like Schaeffer, Stockhausen and the Cologne School.

But ‘Still Point’ was never heard. Prematurely buried by a musical establishment freaked out by its ambition and unprecedented oddness, it became Oram’s lost masterpiece. This evening’s performance – a realisation by Feshareki and fellow composer James Bulley, pieced together from draft notation and Oram’s instructional cover notes – picks up where she left off nearly 70 years ago. In its 33 or so minutes, a lost touchstone is found.

Listen to ‘Still Point’ live at St John’s Smith Square from 33:00 above

Daphne Oram is best remembered for two things. First, in co-founding the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop in 1958, she set in motion a department that would become synonymous with cosmic experimentation, creating sound effects and music for sci-fi television like Doctor Who and Quatermass and the Pit, among others. But it was not to last. Overshadowed by her colleague Desmond Briscoe and creatively stifled by the BBC, she left after less than a year at the helm and spent much of the rest of her life at Tower Folly, a converted oast house in rural Kent, working on her ‘Oramics’ system. An ingenious method of turning hand-drawn waveforms on acetate into synthesised sound (in effect like inverting an oscillator), its rediscovery in recent years is partly responsible for Oram’s present critical renaissance.

Oram’s post-BBC electronic work is startling even now. Occasionally referred to as the ‘inventor of techno’, her CV also contains embryonic forms of noise music (‘Purple Dust’ and the Hair Police-esque gurgle of ‘Dr Faustus Suite’) and ambient drone (‘Four Aspects’, one of her few released pieces), as well as playful snippets of pop, jazz and even, in the case of 1972’s ‘Bird of Parallax’, a kind of exotic, opium-haze electro. She made a living by composing for TV ads – such as her quirky melding of proto-pop and drill sounds for a power tools segment – and films, most notably supplying eerie creaks and drones to Jack Clayton’s The Innocents in 1961.

‘Still Point’ was written nearly a decade before Oram founded the Radiophonic Workshop, a period often skimmed over in writing about her life but well documented in the Oram Archives, now housed within the Special Collections department at Goldsmiths University. A few weeks prior to their performance, I met Bulley and Feshareki to find out how they finally managed to pull off a piece that sounds, by Feshareki’s estimations, like “Tchaikovsky, if we lived in a parallel universe [with] ghosts of aliens from other parallel universes.”

'Still Point' performance at St John's Smith Square
Photograph by Alice the Camera


“In ‘Still Point’ everything’s about space and movement – a perception of time and perspectives”Shiva Feshareki

Oram, who was born in 1925, worked for the BBC at the Royal Albert Hall during the Blitz, where she was tasked with segueing orchestral performances into pre-recorded music – a rudimentary form of turntable mixing – allowing the musicians to find shelter from the bombing without upending the piece and alerting German eavesdroppers. The fragility of the Albert Hall’s glass ceiling, says Bulley, was a source of constant anxiety to Oram during the bombing. During this time, Oram was exploring orchestral composition under the tutelage of composer Ivor Walsworth, cementing her knowledge of arrangement and counterpoint. It was the melding of this and the practical skills developed during her day job that would form the basis of ‘Still Point’.

From early on, ideas of alternate sonic dimensions and the cosmic resonance of electricity were integral to Oram’s practice. She’d inherited an interest in electronics from her father and brother, playing with first world war radio equipment as child. Late at night at the BBC, once other staff had gone home, she would utilise the studios’ new-fangled tape machines for her own experiments, recording and manipulating her sounds and compositions. She was obsessed with Francis Bacon’s 1624 text New Atlantis – specifically the passage relating to the creation of new sound-worlds, or what he called “sound-houses” – and used the 17th century’s thinker’s text as a creative remit throughout her life, plastering studio walls with hundreds of handwritten and typed copies and rewriting it in many different ways, most notably as Atlantis Anew in 1960. Her literary nature also informed ‘Still Point’’s title – there’s a strong chance it was drawn from TS Eliot’s Burnt Norton, his 1943 rumination on the abstract nature of time, which contains the line, “At the still point of the turning world”.

Oram was also a member of the Research Into Lost Knowledge Organisation and a student of New Age pioneer Sir George Trevelyan, and was fascinated by the Pyramids and mystical phenomena like ley lines. Her parallel interest in the healing power of sound bled into her music. “That’s important to think about when you consider what ‘Still Point’ is,” says Bulley. “It’s not [just] about a technical mastery of space and playing with the idea of live mixing, compositions, turntables and all this sort of thing. It’s also about this notion of creating this counterpoint of music to a person’s being. She had this notion of a human as a kind of centre of this tumultuous swirling thing.”

Oram was 23 when she completed ‘Still Point’. It was submitted as to the BBC as a speculative entry for the newly launched Italia Prize (a European broadcasting accolade), but the management hated it, dismissing out of hand what they saw as a directionless mess. A diary entry of Oram’s from the period reads: “Comment over the telephone that ‘Still Point’ could only be judged as a straight score. So apparently adjudicators didn’t understand the acoustic variants of the manipulated pre-recording techniques. Brian [Hodgson, later a key member of the Workshop] comments: ‘If they had understood, one feels they would have been even more anti.’”

The piece was buried and Oram abandoned orchestral work soon after. ‘Still Point’ became a footnote to her narrative, mentioned reverently but usually in passing. The composer Hugh Davies – her friend and the first custodian of her archive – offered the most detail in her Guardian’s 2003 obituary: “Among her early instrumental compositions, the unperformed, 30-minute ‘Still Point’ (1950) stands out. In it, the orchestra is combined with pre-recorded instrumental sounds and live treatments – using standard radio equipment of the period. It is almost certainly the earliest composition to specify the real-time electronic transformation of instrumental sounds.”

Daphne Oram
Photograph courtesy Oram Trust and Fred Wood


“It’s not just about a technical mastery of space… it’s also about creating this counterpoint of music to a person’s being”James Bulley

The quest to bring ‘Still Point’ to life began in earnest around a year ago, though the foundations of the project go deeper. Bulley, a doctoral candidate in Sonic Arts who has been cataloguing the Oram Archives at Goldsmiths since 2010, had spent years trying to track down ‘Still Point’’s original score. He delved into the BBC’s sheet music archives and the British Library’s Hugh Davies collection, even contacting Davies’ wife on the off-chance she’d held onto it, but to no avail. The likelihood is that the score was thrown away in the clearance of Tower Folly after Oram’s death. “It doesn’t exist as far as I’m concerned,” he sighs. “For all intents and purposes, it’s gone.” A pause. “I think.”

What the Oram Archives did contain were reams of unordered orchestral manuscript – around 900 pages, one of which actually was from ‘Still Point’. As Bulley set about sorting the rest based on his own musical analysis and the recurrence of motifs, two distinct drafts of the piece grew, one more refined than the other. “At that point I put those piles together without being that meticulous, as I got a bit tired of it,” he says. “I didn’t see a way that I could get a 52-piece orchestral work with turntables realised on my own.”

Feshareki was the injection of energy the project needed. Visiting the archives to research material for an NTS show, Bulley showed her the salvaged notation and instructional notes. She “became emotional about it immediately,” she remembers. “[I was] observing a piece of untold history.” At the time, she was working with the cellist Oliver Coates, curator of theDeep∞Minimalism festival (and an electronic-orchestral cross-pollinator in his own right) . With little persuasion, the duo had their commission.

At first they were unsure about how to reconstitute ‘Still Point’ for a contemporary audience, but resisted the temptation to recreate it with modern software like Serato. Instead, they set their sights on an authentic iteration. “A realisation rather than a reworking,” Feshareki suggests. “We’re thinking of it as a restorative approach.”

That meant utilising era-specific recording methods and equipment – pretty much everything bar the stage furniture. Bulley continued his fruitless hunt for the original score, simultaneously conducting research into appropriately anachronistic recording techniques and trying to fill holes in Oram’s concept. (In particular, trying to work out whether her stipulation for a “double orchestra” was meant literally or not.) They were working in the dark; despite ‘Still Point’’s semi-mythical reputation among practitioners of electronic music, this was the first attempt made by anyone, anywhere, at fulfilling Oram’s vision.

In January, attention shifted to the arduous task of pulling together a working score from Oram’s incomplete drafts. There were many hurdles. Oram’s pencil drafts of the orchestral segments – which, as Feshareki explains, contain a conventional ‘tonal centre’ but are otherwise erratic – were written in short score, the condensed four-stave notation often used as working copy for composers. The second movement also had a huge gap where the turntables should have been. Oram’s notes for this part of the piece are detailed but inexact, allowing for a pragmatic degree of improvisation. She gave guidance as to where the recorded discs should be slowed, reversed, sped up and echoed, but footnoted these instructions with the line, “Adjust and delete according to circumstances”. Because ‘Still Point’ was never performed, her design was left in flux; the frayed, hypothetical odds and ends of her ideas never having to be tied up.

It was left to Feshareki to devise the specific electronic manipulations herself, in line with Oram’s musical language. Oram’s concept was an early version of a spatialised piece, with motifs shifting through the orchestra and onto the turntables. “For example, in the score you’ve got crotchets that are moving between the instruments in a circular way,” Feshareki explains. “And at the same time you’ve got 78rpm discs at the same sort of speed, rotating in a circular fashion. Everything’s about space and movement – [a] perception of time and perspectives.”

Shiva Feshareki performing 'Still Point'
Photograph by Alice the Camera


“This piece is going to start what it should have started in 1949 – really exciting artistic movement”Shiva Feshareki

Before she could immerse herself in the electronics in any practical way, vinyl was required. To create the 78rpm discs that she’d be playing from, the duo enlisted Aleksander Kolkowski, a composer, violinist and former artist-in-residence at the Science Museum, and lathe-cutting expert Sean Davies, a contemporary of Oram’s. Feshareki required a broad acoustic spectrum with which to compose the turntable parts. To allow for this, the main score was split into carefully chosen fragments, with certain instruments removed at different points to emphasise textures and create purer tones (and, Bulley explains, to remove the overlap of certain notes).

To further increase the range of available sounds, these fragments – samples, really – were played in both highly reverberant (‘wet’) and acoustically dead (‘dry’) conditions. Using authentic mid-century equipment, Kolkowski and Davies cut the live samples to the three stipulated discs: one with two wet sides, one with two dry, and a third with one of each. Even this process was a dip into the unknown, undertaken perilously close to the performance date and with no certainty that the sound of the cutting itself wouldn’t bleed onto the recording. But it was blip-free. Days later – with the capable backing of the London Contemporary Orchestra – Oram’s masterpiece would finally be breathed into life.

The success of the performance at St John’s Smith Square is palpable, and Feshareki and Bulley’s achievement is huge, but whether ‘Still Point’ becomes canonical is anyone’s guess. The material is certainly there – the duo have been meticulous in their documentation, collating notation, Oram’s and Davies’ writing and orchestral instruction onto a single score – but it remains singular, without clear successors. The muffled, hypnagogic records of Indignant Senility or The Caretaker might be the closest in actual sound, but certainly not in spirit. Both have incorporated repurposed and anaesthetised classical passages in their music – Wagner for the former, myriad Romantic piano pieces for the latter – but these are used for textural and nostalgic effect. Oram’s score, on the other hand, was entirely original, and her specific manipulations tied into a loftier artistic ethos.

But the mere recognition of the piece feels just as crucial. Oram must have felt intense frustration in 1949, knowing that she had produced a radical work. It predated both the concrète proto-sampling of Schaeffer and Pierre Henry (of whom Oram was vaguely aware at the time) and the purer electronics of Stockhausen and the Cologne School (of whom she was not) in its use of sampling, recording and electronic manipulation. In Britain, where Benjamin Britten and Vaughan Williams represented the apex of experimentation, Oram’s leaps of ambition were especially unprecedented. Even now the idea of it being performed at the Proms seems radical, suggests Bulley.

Feshareki is more emphatic. “This piece is going to start what it should have started in 1949, which is a really exciting artistic movement in electroacoustic British concert music.” Could ‘Still Point’ edify and energise a new generation of artists? If it’s disseminated – and a recorded version must be on the cards at some point – then it’s hard to see why not. Those early years of Oram’s research were effectively left in stasis; that composers such as Feshareki and Bulley could have the possibility to advance them, not just as homage but as a reinvigorated movement, is thrilling.

“I love the music of the early and mid-20th century – that’s the time when as composers we were inventing our own electronic instruments and our own means and methods of composing,” she says. “I think there’s something real about music that was written during that time. Where you’ve got real physicality and real sounds of electricity and real methods using other physical parts of your senses, basically, to compose music. I wish I was part of that time.”

“Well,” says Bulley, “you sort of are now.”

Read next: How vinyl abuser Graham Dunning makes mechanical techno from turntable stacks

Read next: A guide to Pierre Schaeffer, godfather of sampling



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