Oramics to Electronica at The Science Museum, London

I have long been fascinated by electronic music – not the repetitious, beat reliant, night-club screamers, that make my eye brows rise in disbelief at the predictability and obviousness of the music created – but the pioneering years from the 1950’s to the 1970’s, when synthesised sounds were exciting and exploratory, strange and often a little difficult on the ear.  It was a time when science, mathematics and art combined their respective strengths and worked together like frontiersmen to create sounds and music that had never been heard before.

Oramics to Electronica – Revealing Histories of Electronic Music is curated by a group of people, in collaboration with the Science Museum, who had something to do with the founding of electronic music or are involved in the current creation of it.  For instance, Dr. Peter Zinovieff (one of the founders of EMS (Electronic Music Studio)) was on the curating team as was Dick Mills, Brian Hodgeson and Steve Marshall who all worked in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, along with younger musicians, writers and producers.

There were of course much earlier electronic musical instruments than the ones on display here, and there are many strands that the exhibition could have taken, but it wasn’t until the 1950’s and 60’s that things really started to take off in terms of the brave new world of electronic sound.

Before what we now regard as synthesisers existed, original non-traditional sounds were generally created by manipulating recordings on tape, and the history of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop is normally seen in two eras – pre- and post-synthesiser.  These range from 1958 (when it was established by Daphne Oram) to 1970 (when they acquired their first commercial synthesiser, the EMS VCS3) and 1970 to 1998 (when it was disbanded).  I had of course heard of Delia Derbyshire who is well-known for arranging Ron Grainer’s theme for a new television series called Dr Who, I also knew a few other names, but strangely had not picked up on Daphne Oram’s before this exhibition.  With the help of Desmond Briscoe she pressured the BBC into setting up an electronic music department for creating interesting effects and music for TV and radio, but left the BBC shortly after to establish her own recording studio in Kent and to start work (with the help of Graham Wrench) on the device that this exhibition is centred around, the Oramics machine.

Encased in a large glass case the Oramics machine was a continually evolving contraption which took the idea of an oscilloscope wave pattern in reverse – rather than the sound drawing the wave on a screen, the operator would draw a wave onto a slide and manipulate its components (volume, pitch, reverb and vibrato) by again drawing on blank 35mm film strips.  It had no traditional interface, such as a keyboard or strings, the sound was purely manipulated graphically.  The output sound could then be either amplified or recorded for further manipulation.  As an exhibit it has the pull and fascination that comes with once pioneering but now redundant technology, it inspires wonder at the lengths which people went to in an attempt to create something which was, at the time, quite literally out of this world.  About half a century later similar results could quite easily be achieved on a home computer, but this does not detract from the brilliance and importance of the original equipment and it is great to see that this is being recognised and preserved (apparently the Oramics machine was recovered from a barn in quite a poor state by Dr Mick Grierson, Director of The Daphne Oram Collection).

The Oramics to Electronica Exhibition includes a wide range of electronic music making items (housed in what look like Victorian display cabinets) from the egg slicer and lamp shade of the early Radiophonic Workshop days to an example of the current trend for lo-fi circuit bending of hobbyists and fringe musicians (represented by an altered Speak and Spell toy).  I believe many of these items were taken from the Science Museum’s storage and included the Fairlight CMI which was a commercially available and widely used (but extremely expensive) digital version of the Oramics machine designed and build in Australia from 1979 (although I don’t believe the Australian designers had any knowledge of Daphne’s creation).  There is the hardware, which includs the EMS VCS3 (and the portable Synthi-A version – a synth in a briefcase) but there was also some software including Koan (development started in 1990 and was commercially released in 1994) which uses a home computer to generate its own unique music (Brian Eno used it for an album called Generative Music 1 (1996)).

Before I found the exhibition I wandered round the Science Museum, something I hadn’t done since I was at school, and I found it fascinating – I tend to gravitate towards the Victoria & Albert Museum (and it is significantly quieter without all the kids running around!) but the Science Museum is another of London’s truly great institutions.  I had just come from the British Design Exhibition at the V&A, which cost £12, to see a supposedly  15 minute free exhibition (although I’ve no idea how long I was there!) and I thought it was a far more satisfying experience (in part due to my excited re-discovery of the museum as a whole).  the exhibition did not seem to have a particular structure and there are many other stories of electronic music which were not touched on (understandable in such a small space), but the exhibits that were included had fascinating stories of their own – it was great to see prominence given to an aspect of music which seems to be largely ignored or forgotten about.

If you are at all considering having a look, or have the vaguest interest in electronic music or technology in general (there’s plenty in the museum to satisfy your curiosity!) then do go – you only have until December 2012!

By the way there is another interesting free exhibition opposite the Oramics display all about Alchemy (Signs, Symbols, Secrets: An Illustrated Guide To Alchemy) – I’m not sure if the similarity of Alchemy (using science and art to turn one thing into another) to electronic music (using science and art to create something out of nothing) was realised by the curators, but it certainly works well as a companion exhibition.

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