Oram attended Sherborne School where she studied music, and subsequently was accepted for the Royal College of Music in 1942. She joined the BBC a year later as a Junior Programme Engineer, drawing on her musical talent and technical skills she had learned from her brother, an electrical engineer, with whom she had built radio transmitters and receivers as a child. Her responsibilities at the time included sequencing the playback of classical recordings, which required the seamless transition every four minutes between 78 RPM discs. Engineers had to sync and mix the discs that made up the long symphonies to play them in full live, a technique almost identical to mixing two vinyl records today.
One of the features of joining the BBC at the time was the scope and depth of the training programme offered to new employees. Oram attended a residential course in 1944 which focussed on broadcast engineering. During the course a particular device caught her attention, the Cathode Ray Oscilloscope. The machine is used to display the characteristics of waveforms—in this case sound waves—graphically. Characteristically keen to advance her understanding of the technology for her own creative ends, she asked the tutor at the time whether it would be possible to reverse the process of the oscilloscope, drawing the waveform in and thereby controlling the harmonic content of the soundwave. He replied "no," a word which seems to have been interpreted by Oram as a direct challenge. It was not long after this encounter that she began to refer to the idea for a "graphical music" system.
A number of electronic music experiments were taking place in post-war Europe, most notably at the French Radio Institution in Paris and the Studio For Electronic Music in Cologne. Oram had also begun penning her own works for orchestra and electronics, notably Still Point. Around that same time, she was promoted to Studio Manager and soon after she visited the RTF (the main French broadcasting organization) studio in a professional capacity. Pierre Schaeffer was developing his musique concrète techniques there, aided by the studio's valuable bank of cutting-edge equipment. Upon her return, she began ceaselessly campaigning for a similar facility at the BBC.
The company was reluctant to invest, however. They only eventually acquired their first Ferrograph tape machines, one of the earliest consumer mono reel-to-reel recorders, in the mid-'50s, long after most European studios. Tape was the medium that Schaeffer had been using for his experiments with recorded sound, and Oram was evidently keen to explore it herself. While this equipment wasn't made available for creative purposes to a Studio Manager, Oram used her time out of hours, often working late into the night, to collect the newly purchased reel-to-reel machines together in a vacant studio. By linking them up via a mixing desk and playing test oscillator recordings into them, she was able to complete her first experiments in purely electronic music.
According to her own account of events, she continued to operate in this clandestine manner between 1953 and 1957. In the latter year she composed the music for Amphotryon 38, a TV play, and used the opportunity to employ some of the electronic techniques she had been experimenting with. This led to a series of requests within the BBC for electronic music soundtracks and incidental music. Meanwhile, the BBC were finally starting to take notice of developments in electronic music on the European continent as well.
This flurry of interest culminated the following year with the establishment of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Oram was appointed its first Studio Manager, a nod to her influential role in bringing about the new department. Evidence that the idea of graphical music was still at the forefront of her mind is provided by the budget for equipment requested for the Workshop, namely that a sum should be allocated for research into reproducing a printed waveform onto glass, or the periphery of a wheel. Even at this early stage, her vision for how the graphical music system would work seems to be clear.
Oram's time at the Workshop was short-lived. The emphasis on creating music to accompany plays and television programmes did not fulfil her desire to compose music for its own sake. (One can't help but think that Oram was jealous that Stockhausen and Schaeffer were afforded complete creative freedom in their respective state-funded studios.) Thus in 1959, just a year after the Workshop began, she resigned to set up her own studio, the Oramics Studios for Electronic Composition, and to begin work in earnest on her system for graphical music, the Oramics Machine.
The idea of painting a sound might seem odd, but for most artists making electronic music today, it's second nature. Every note that is drawn into Logic or Cubase—and every thread of automation data that dictates the cutoff or resonance of a filter—is in some sense an act of painting sound. It's only in recent years, however, that this would seem strange. For centuries now, composers have written notes for musicians to interpret. Prior to electronic music, though, a composer who was not also an instrumentalist was powerless to realise the exact sound they desired, and even skilled performers had to struggle with the physical limitations of their bodies and their instruments to realise the score's intention. Oram's goal was to create a machine that would directly link the composer to the sound in almost the same way that a painter can see the effect of his brushstrokes on a canvas in real time.
The Oramics Machine allows the composer to feed a series of slides into the machine which give instructions about pitch, vibrato (the level of pitch modulation), tremolo (the level of volume modulation), overall volume and timbre (basically its harmonic content). Using a brown ink, the composer draws shapes onto the slides which influence those five parameters as they are read. The machine was designed so that there would be some continuously changing (or gliding) parameters, but so that the pitch would be "stepped."
To build the Oramics system, Wrench used a Cathode Ray Tube, a piece of equipment which projects a dot of light onto a screen. (This is the same piece of equipment employed in CRT televisions to create a picture.) A photomultiplier at the other end would detect the presence of light anywhere on the screen. By using the ink-drawn slide to obscure the light at various points, it was possible to create a continuous voltage proportional to the outline of the waveshape drawn on the slide. By repeating this process very quickly—and by scaling the voltage to a sensible level—a continuous tone was produced. A similar mechanism was used to read the shape of complex level, vibrato and tremolo envelopes.
Continued private funding meant that Oram was able to record her first composition on the machine in 1968, entitled "Contrasts Essonic." Alongside other compositions performed on the Oramics Machine, "Pompie Ballet" and "Brociliande," it appears on the CD anthology Oramics, released by Paradigm Disks in 2007. Only a small number of pieces on the CD were recorded using the machine, which begs the question as to why—after so much work—it effectively fell into neglect. One clue can be found in the book Oram published in 1971, An Individual Note of Music, Sound and Electronics. In it she wrote that "one lifetime is not enough to build [the machine] and fully explore its potential." Listening to the recordings she made, you have the sense that she indeed did not succeed in harnessing its potential. Compared to her other work, which deployed the tape loop and microphone manipulation techniques pioneered by Shaeffer in Paris, they sound experimental and unbounded, and few exist.
Bottom: Oram palling around with movie star Peter Sellers
Nonetheless, she continued to tinker with the idea. In 1977 when the Apple II personal home computer was released Oram sought to manifest the Oramics Machine as a piece of computer software. Perhaps the technology the system initially relied on—despite being years ahead of its time—was too rudimentary to make it easily "playable." Rumours exist that at times artists like the Rolling Stones and The Beatles were interested in recording at her studio, but she wasn't embraced by the music industry as a whole, instead relying on creating music for adverts to carve out a living. One wonders what might have happened had she been afforded the creative freedom to explore the possibilities of her machine without financial pressure at the Radiophonic Workshop, the institution she was so instrumental in creating.
The story of Oram and her work has until now been a question of "What if?" It's clear that alongside names like Stockhausen and Schaeffer she was crucial to the development of electronic music during the '50s. Had her machine been developed and been available in the BBC studios, would it have changed the way people composed popular music? We will never know. Recently, however, the story has become less tragic than it seemed only a few years ago. At the very same point in history that the iOS has made freehand data input an almost universal possibility, interest in Oram's work is experiencing a fresh lease of life. The Oramics application for the iOS platform means that her system can be purchased for experimental purposes by composers who own an iPhone or iPad.
The aforementioned exhibition at the Science Museum in London is also showing the Oramics Machine alongside some history of its construction. What this exhibition will achieve in terms of publicizing her technical achievements is significant. Moreover it recognizes the vision of an artist and an inventor who never sacrificed her integrity, choosing a difficult independent life for the sake of continuing her experiments with electronic music.