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A Quietus Interview

World Of Sound: Walls Discuss The Work Of Daphne Oram
Joe Clay , May 28th, 2014 11:16

Sound House, a new album by Walls based around interpretations and reworkings of material from Daphne Oram's sound archive, is released this month. Joe Clay caught up with the duo's Sam Willis to discuss the magic within Oram's pioneering experiments in electronic sound

There is a long and dubious tradition of music from beyond the grave, with artists like Elvis, Johnny Cash, Tupac and Michael Jackson continuing to release music - and in Tupac's case, even perform as a hologram - long after their passing. In most instances the financial always comes before the curatorial angle – there's a cash cow that needs milking – and the quality is hardly ever on a par with what the living artist produced. So while there is an element of the posthumous release about the 'collaboration' between the Kompakt-signed techno duo of Sam Willis and Alessio Natalizia, aka Walls, and the co-founder of the BBC's famed Radiophonic Workshop Daphne Oram (who died in 2003), the results have merit over and above being merely a curio, and are definitely not made with profit in mind. Last year, Willis and Natalizia were granted exclusive access to Oram's archive that is held by Goldsmiths University in London. The project was the brainchild of the Radio 3 producer Felix Carey, and what started out as an experiment has ended up as a fully-formed album, Sound Houses, released on Walls' own Ecstatic imprint.

Willis has evocatively described it as "a mingling of blood, somehow". Perhaps an oblique yet still apt comparison is with A.I., the sci-fi film based on Brian Aldiss's short story Super-Toys Last All Summer Long. The film was started by Stanley Kubrick, but shelved in the early 1970s as the director didn't feel the available computer-generated technology could do his vision justice. After languishing in development hell for decades, Steven Spielberg picked up the project and it was finally released in 2001. So just as Spielberg built on Kubrick's original ideas, Walls have taken Oram's sounds, sketches and ideas and, utilising the technology available now, used them as the source material for full songs, melodic and structured, while remaining sensitive to her original intention.

In 1958, Daphne Oram became the first studio manager of the BBC's Radiophonic Workshop, constructing a pre-computer environment dedicated to creating recorded electronic noise. According to those who knew her, Oram appeared prim and proper, with a cut-glass accent and tailored clothes, a ringer for Mary Whitehouse, or even Margaret Thatcher. To outside appearances, Oram was prime 1950s "Auntie" Beeb fodder, but there was far more to her than that. When the corporation became concerned about the effect that constant exposure to her weird and wonderful sounds might have on its employees, they brought in a rule forbidding anyone from working in her department for longer than six months without taking a break.

Oram promptly quit after only a year at the helm and moved to Kent, where she established her Tower Folly studio in a converted oast house, turning her experimental approach to making music into a business; composing soundtracks for advertisements, theatre, radio, television and industrial and publicity films. As well as a composer, Oram was also an innovator – her pet project was the 'Oramics' machine, a forerunner of the synthesiser that worked by "drawing on ten strips of 35mm film, which were then read by photo-electronic cells and converted into sound". Daphne Oram scholar and sound artist Tom Richards recently selected a list of ten pieces by Oram for the Quietus; click here to listen to a primer of her work.

"She was a real pioneer," Dr Mick Grierson, custodian of Oram's archive at Goldsmiths, told Radio 3's Late Junction last year. "She was building her own synthesisers and her own studios in Britain long before anyone else. She was a very single-minded, independent person who deserves to be remembered as more than just a professional making music for adverts – she is a composer in the same way that Benjamin Britten is."

Sound Houses, the title for the Walls/Oram album, comes from Sir Francis Bacon's groundbreaking technological utopia The New Atlantis, which foretells with incredible prescience the musical techniques and technologies that would become omnipresent in the 20th century. (Sample: "We have also sound-houses, where we practise and demonstrate all sounds, and their generation... We represent and imitate all articulate sounds and letters, and the voices and notes of beasts and birds.") Oram had the Bacon quote pinned to the wall of the Radiophonic Workshop, so Willis and Natalizia used it as inspiration for the track titles.

In terms of how the music will be judged as a body of work, anybody who is into Walls because they loved the gauzy, drone-jam 'Burnt Sienna' (from their self-titled debut album) and the more recent analogue groove-based excursions might well not find what they're looking for. But by the same token, anyone who mistakenly considered Walls to simply be techno-chillwave (note: they're not, but it's a common misconception) will likely enjoy these darker, more experimental, abstract electronic sounds. The Quietus spoke to Sam Willis on the phone about this very modern collaboration, the recording process, spirituality and the Radiophonic Workshop as a heritage act.

How did you and Alessio come to be granted access to Daphne Oram's archive?

Sam Willis: It came about via the BBC. We were commissioned by Felix Carey, a producer for Late Junction, who normally arranges collaborations between living artists. We had no idea it would be a possibility to work with Daphne's music until Felix got in touch. He was aware of our music and was a fan and thought it would be an interesting fit and we jumped at the chance. We got introduced to Dr Mick Grierson at Goldsmiths, who is the custodian of Daphne's archive. She died in a hospice and not in the best financial state, and Goldsmiths stepped in to prevent her archive from falling into ruin and being thrown away. Goldsmiths have been steadily digitising her private archive and recordings, which were part of her estate that also included old family photos and writings, notes, blueprints – essentially her life's work. So we could look through all of that.

It's a very modern collaboration with a historic artist in that it was all done digitally. We had an online repository of the recordings, all labelled within the catalogue and notes that they'd tried to decipher – sometimes there was writing on the tapes, sometimes not. In amongst it there were more than a hundred recordings of 'Little Brown Jug', because she did music for adverts. So as well as this somewhat tame stuff, there were all these kind of strange experiments with sound and timbre and some of her own compositions that were recorded in her croft. She had a studio there and that was where she made most of these recordings.

Were you able to visit Tower Folly?

SW: Sadly not. The actual recording process itself wasn't that romantic. Once we'd selected the sounds that were of interest to us, we set to work using our usual working methods – myself and Alessio getting together and spontaneously composing around the sounds and music we had.  Individually we did stuff over the top – recording some violins over some parts and processing and pitching them. At times we used her melody and wrote around that, and other times we used it as an instrument itself – taking those sounds and making them into loops, re-pitching it and adding effects. But we didn't want to just ride roughshod over it; we tried to key into the feelings and emotions, rather than just stick a beat under it. The idea was to make them more accessible for the average listener, to come up with more melodic and structured pieces while retaining her intention.

It was quite a fluid process. Some of the songs actually contain reasonably little of her actual compositions in the end, but they were very much in the spirit of the project. The whole process of composition for us is very instinctive, but also very considered in terms of the mood and atmosphere we want to create. We wouldn't suddenly find, "Oh we've written a gabba track with Daphne's sounds!" We set parameters for ourselves of the kind of equipment we could use and our compositional approach. It should feel reasonably faithful to her period, but not limited to it.

What sort of equipment were you using?

SW: We had Alessio's guitar and voice, lots of pedals, synthesisers and Alessio had an Acetone drum machine, which is roughly from that period. There were no drums in any of Daphne's recordings.

So do you feel that the music you recorded was dictated by what Daphne had already created, or how much of it was the typical Walls sound embellished by Daphne's sounds? How did the working process differ to how you normally make music?

SW: It did feel to a certain extent like we were trying to channel her intentions with the sounds. There were some parts that were actually stems from compositions of hers, and there were others that were just literally a violin sound – all she was intending was to recreate a violin sound with the Oramics machine. These incredibly unique sounds will never exist again in a way. She was the creator of that machine. It's like Stradivarius playing a Stradivarius. There was only ever one Oramics machine, though she did have the blueprints to get a more portable one made, but it was so complicated that she was the only one that knew how to work it. One thing that was utterly unique about the process was that there seemed to be this brooding atmosphere that was latent within the music. It was very inspiring and suggestive. I guess it's what it must be like to work with a really great vocalist who creates this incitement within you to step up to the challenge. You want to take this inert matter and create something magical with it.

I suppose in a sense, Daphne was almost like a spiritual collaborator.

SW: Yes, absolutely. There's an interview that I did with Fiona Talkington at Radio 3 where I admit to just that. It was spiritual – not spooky but this feeling of being moved to create, essentially. Apparently her family are all into spiritualism. It was like a musical séance in a way.

Did you ever feel her presence?

SW: Definitely within the recordings. Speaking for myself, I do sometimes enter into a trance-like state when I'm writing. I need to be completely focused on what I'm doing but in an unconscious way. That's how I work. When I'm at my best time just goes and suddenly you notice that it's dark outside. It's a very well explored idea that creative people say it just kind of comes through them – channelling something. Plus, Alessio and I are big fans of analogue equipment – the electricity and idiosyncrasy of real equipment as opposed to software synthesis of whatever kind. It's like using organic ingredients as opposed to Tesco's value tomatoes. They're both tomatoes but I'd rather have the one that's grown in Naples and picked off the vine. For this, the ingredients that we were fortunate enough to work with were so fantastic. And also they were all recorded to tape. Daphne's method was that everything was pre-treated with reverb, so that was another consideration. Everything was slightly out of focus.

The music you've been making recently as Walls is much more groove-based and this takes you in a completely different direction.

SW: I think that's because this is a very special and one-off project that needed to be served in its own way. The material has dictated the method and the end result. We couldn't have made a tech-house record – that would have been sacrilege. This is a headphones record. We wanted to create a sound world that we really enjoy partaking in. But that's the way it's always been with Walls. I think that's the key commonality here – myself and Alessio have always tried to do that. It is a slightly more sombre and austere sound world than our previous records, but it has certainly informed our creative processes. Looking back at our previous records, and looking forwards, we want to have a broad sound range to what we do and I think in the past we've tried to encapsulate it all in one record. So what we want to do is explore and go deeper into the areas that we like. So this is more of an ambient mood space, whereas our last 12" ('Urals'/'I Can't Give You Love') were more intense, groove-based experiments. It's about pushing the boundaries of our sound to its logical conclusion. We have to be sincere in what we're doing and serve the idea and the process.

When the news broke that the Radiophonic Workshop were going on tour, the journalist Simon Reynolds tweeted: "Radiophonic Workshop doing soundchecks. Radiophonic Workshop roadies. Radiophonic Workshop merch stands. Nah, they should have left our memories, our dreaming, intact." How do you feel about that?

SW: Well, I think Simon is entitled to his opinion. He's a critic who is entitled to comment on the validity or lack of validity of things, whereas for me, when you consider the impact that the compositions and ideas and innovations of the Radiophonic Workshop have had on the generations since, I don't have any problem with them actually making some money out of it. These are guys who have lived to witness a massive resurgence of interest in what they did many years ago. There should be a real celebration of that now completely dead, real ale drinking, quiet, humble, British eccentric innovation that took place in those places, compared to the Skrillex generation. I don't see any problem with people going to meet these guys and say thank you for what they did. It's some of the most astounding and thought-provoking and wonderful music.

For more on Daphne Oram's legacy, and the ongoing work to catalogue and archive her work, click here to visit the Daphne Oram archive's website.

Walls' Sound Houses is out now on Ecstatic