Oram started work at the BBC in the 1940s, where she learned about broadcasting and recording technologies. She was able indulge her interest in manipulating and generating sound, but her unconventional ideas occasionally found resistance from her superiors. Inspired by the musique concrète developments in Europe, Oram petitioned the BBC to start their own experimental studio, The Radiophonic Workshop, which opened in 1958. As its studio manager, she would use the equipment outside work hours for her own creative ends.
Meanwhile, the BBC's commercial goals left Oram uninspired and inhibited. After striking out on her own, she began work on the then-revolutionary Oramics synthesizer, which allowed the user to draw waveforms and then produce sound from their own scribbles. Oram had trouble raising funds for her project, so her art and efforts languished in obscurity until recently. The machine was profiled in an RA feature back in 2011, and it was also the subject of two comprehensive compilations, Oramics (reissued in 2010) and its follow-up Oram Tapes, releases made possible in part by the Oram trust.
That last part is where Walls come in. Late Junction, a show on BBC Radio 3 that sets up new projects between artists, approached the group. The show's collaborations can be live jams recorded in the BBC's Maida Vale studio or remote "electronic file-sharing projects," so posthumous work wasn't out of the question.
"We were looking for another electronic session of this kind and invited Walls because we liked the production of Coracle and wanted to give them the chance to experiment," explains BBC Radio 3 producer Felix Carey. "We talked to them about possible names and one of the ideas Sam and Alessio came up with was Dick Mills, a member of the original BBC Radiophonic Workshop. He wasn't available at the time, so I suggested looking at the archive of the Workshop's founder Daphne Oram. Oram's collection is held by the Electronic Music Studios at Goldsmiths College, where they're currently in the process of digitizing all of Oram's tapes, some of which have never been heard."
Natalizia had been familiar with Oram's work for over a decade, while Willis was a more recent convert. The two were given almost free reign over the Oram archives at Goldsmiths, where they met with Dr. Mick Grierson and PhD student Tom Richards, who manage the archive. Amidst all the quarter-inch tape recordings were handwritten notes, schematics from the Oramics synthesizer and, most evocative of all, a large collection of Oram's private photographs. Non-musical artifacts like these gave the duo a more personal and intimate connection with Oram and her art.
The vast archive comprises roughly 600 quarter-inch tapes, half of which have been digitized so far, according to Richards. "Much of the material is working tapes, raw sound elements, etc," he explains. "Much of it is music from other artists—pieces Oram just felt like taping from the radio—so I don't think it's likely we will find many hidden masterpieces. However, much of the stuff which is unreleased (nearly everything) is very interesting. You can come in the archive and listen to the digitised material on an iPod in the reading room. But, as the archive and trust makes much of its income from record sales, these are not currently accessible on the internet."
"For the most part, it was almost like needle-dropping on a record for samples to try and find stuff that immediately spoke to us," says Willis. "We tried not to get too bogged down in overthinking things because it would have been too overwhelming to try and absorb all of the content. We set to work with utilizing our own equipment and processing her recordings. Both myself and Alessio worked independently, and then came back together to continue work on those sketches into more finished pieces."
They kept their setup simple, avoiding anything that might have sounded intrusively new or futuristic. Among their arsenal was a Korg MS-20, a Juno 106, a Rhythm Ace FR-1 and Natalizia's secret weapon, the Vermona DRM Mk III, a modular drum machine that dates back to 1967.
"We deliberately eschewed anything that felt overly modern," says Willis. "We started off with a mental picture of how we wanted this to sound, and where we wanted to take it, and that was within that world of compositional music and early synthesis. The era of Buchla and Moog and EMS, and obviously Oram and her Oramics machine. We wanted to broaden our palette and bring in other forms of equipment that we could then process and keep them all in the right context.
"We're utilizing her textures and tones—it's all recorded to tape through a spring reverb so anything we used had an immediate and obvious character to it. There's a vintage and saturated atmospheric quality because of those factors. It was an aesthetic we laid out for ourselves: we didn't want to use an 808 or 909 as it felt incongruous to the spirit of Daphne's music, and certainly something people would have said would have been sacrilege or disrespectful. Much in the same way you imagine a particular type of film stock that was used for a series of vignettes you were trying to turn into a film—you would try and locate similar lighting, cameras, lenses etc—it was a similar thing we tried to do with this."
Working with such a wealth of material, Willis and Natalizia didn't really know where to start. Their eventual compositional method was almost accidental. You can hear it in Sound Houses, which is unpredictable, switching from more rhythmic material to a standstill at the drop of a pin. It's easy to imagine the duo sitting in the studio playing with loops and fragments of sound until inspiration struck. A few tracks use just a sliver of Oram's sounds, while others might be built on whole melodies or motifs. They created the album's unique sound by augmenting the samples with Natalizia's violin and using drum machines to beef things up.
"We were acting instinctively rather than thinking too specifically," Willis explains. "I was particularly pleased with 'A Very Large Metal Box.' It sticks out like a sore thumb but at the same time there's a playful quality to that melody, because that's basically her melody that we looped and then added parts of her stuff around it—it's mostly her. The drumbeat was added by us and some other droney bits around it, but to me there's an eccentricity and a slightly wry aspect to music from that era of the Radiophonic Workshop. Most of the time it's quite a serious record in terms of mood, so it was good to have a moment of levity on there."
For anyone familiar with Walls' past work, the greyscale atmosphere of Sound Houses might be surprising. The record has a darker tint than usual: it's foreboding and tense on the kraut-y "Or-chards + Gardens," and strangely regal on the two "Rendering The Voice" interludes. There's an abrasiveness to it that doesn't exist in Walls' more manicured compositions. "There's a pregnant emotive quality in Oram's work that was certainly inspiring to us," says Willis. "There's an allure to it which I don't think is very common in music—some beguiling aspect that draws the listener in, and certainly a femininity as well."
"The first Walls record came together very quickly," he says, "and Coracle was us perfecting what we tried to achieve. With this one and the next Walls record, the feeling is that we want to push in both directions: more guitars, more noise, more feedback, and more beats, more dance floor intensity. Sound Houses has been an instructive, positive and inspiring project for us."
Working with a deceased artist's music comes with lot of pressure and ethical quandaries. "It's like a game of tennis, you know—the ball comes over the net and you hit back the best you can," Willis says. "Obviously, in this case, it was like hitting a ball against a wall rather than having a living person on the other side of the net. Our role in this project is almost as custodians, to bring to life original pieces of music from these parts that we were given access to. Her touch, her sound is very evident in all those pieces. "
"We were very privileged to work with this stuff," Willis adds, "and we had to raise our game to do justice with this material. That's what it is—some of it was music, but this record is also a reflection of where our evolution as Walls is headed. It's been heading in more of a focused and perhaps more extreme direction—we want push things further than we have before."
The original commission that started the project was only for three or four tracks—15 minutes of music that would have been played on the radio and then tucked away in the BBC archives. But Willis and Natalizia recognized the importance of their collaboration and made it into a full-blown record, giving the world one of the most enlightening looks at Oram's musical legacy yet.
"Given that she was the only one who could work the Oramics synthesizer, we felt like we had an opportunity to use some of those very special and unique timbres, to sample them and re-use them and reconstitute them into more of a song-based format," Willis says wistfully. "A lot of those pieces, like on the Oramics album, this is our way of putting them into a format and a context that we personally enjoyed listening to. We hope that people can take this record and use it to learn more about her work, and who will go an investigate her stuff and look into her contemporaries—Delia Derbyshire, Pauline Oliveros and loads of other fantastic composers. It feels like a rich time for experimental music, from the past, present and future."