Daphne Oram: Private Dreams And Public Nightmares

Interpretations By Andrea Parker & Daz Quayle

A quarter of a century ago, Jean Baudrillard observed that that which dies in Europe is resurrected in America. Today it might be just as accurate to say that that which dies in the twentieth century is re-issued, repackaged and remixed in the twenty-first. Daphne Oram, who since her death a decade ago has been the object of a veritable archive fever, is no doubt as deserving of this treatment as anyone. There is a strong argument to be made that, as the prime mover behind the creation of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, she is the single most important person in the history of electronic music in Britain.

Without her tireless lobbying of BBC senior staff in the mid-50s, British music might well have turned out very differently. And, as Oram’s friend Delia Derbyshire once implied (in an interview with John Cavanagh for BBC Radio Scotland), had she become the Worksop’s director, in place of her friend from the Drama department, Desmond Briscoe, it might have been very different still. Simon Reynolds has probably written more than anyone about the recent re-issue boom. In a recent article for Frieze he suggests the sheer weight of Oram material being foisted upon the public (at least four CDs worth already – and more to come), combined with the lack of much contextualising information about the specifics of recording dates and techniques employed, is apt to be disorientating – if not altogether overwhelming.

It may be a question of speed. Largely neglected while alive, we are now receiving a lifetime of Oram’s work in the space of a few years. And probably none of it is being arranged and presented in quite the way the composer would have, were she around to do so. This is not necessarily a major problem – and certainly it is best that the stuff get released than that it fester in a cupboard somewhere. But it does increase the importance of certain secondary processes of sifting and re-contextualising. If the arts have learnt anything in the years since Baudrillard noticed history no longer has room for dustbins, then it is that propping up the second half of such a dialogue can sometimes take an artist almost the equal to the first. Enter Andrea Parker: DJ, producer, remixer extraordinaire.

Parker’s relationship with the Oram archive began in 2008, when she was invited to take part in an event dedicated to the composer at London’s South Bank Centre. Initially working with just a few choice cuts from the collection, by the time she was invited to a repeat performance at the Roundhouse the following year and began tentatively working towards the present release, she had unrestricted access to the entire archive (currently housed at Goldsmiths College). The third track on the album is taken directly from the live show at the Roundhouse. It casts a rather ominous threat to "tell your mother" delivered in disarmingly avuncular tones, over the sizzling static fizz from Oram’s music to Fred Hoyle’s (1962) play about galactic warfare, Rockets in Ursa Major.

As her distinctive school marm-ish voice intones on the opening track (sampled from an interview on Radio Four’s Woman’s Hour programme), Oram used "electronic sounds and what I call musique concrète sounds", drawing a diagonal line across one of the most trenchant debates from the early days of tape-based music. To this already potent mix, Parker adds her own digitally created patches to create a three-way conversation between the high-tech present and those ghosts of the future that lurked in the comparatively low-tech past. On the track in question, for instance, we seem to hear the tense shiver of a MaxMSP algorithm slithering beneath the haunting analogue shimmer of Oram’s effects for Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, stretched into an infinite vapour of reverb-heavy spectral resonance.

Admittedly, there’s probably no single track here which has quite the strange unworldly magic of ‘Four Aspects’ or ‘Pulse Persephone’, but Private Dreams and Public Nightmares is not a random selection of old material, gathered up by a record label and tossed out to sea; it is the result of a specific project, of a single journey lasting several years of intense and studied engagement on the part of one artist with another artist’s oeuvre. This makes it a mile away from the countless tossed off mash-ups and re-edits that litter the internet, and it also makes it a vital complement (in the sense not just of necessary, but also living and lively) to the Oram Tapes and the Oramics compilation already released. There is something much more personal happening here, a sincere tribute from a fine contemporary artist to one of her idols. Overwhelmed by the successive waves of her work issued forth, it is somehow perhaps Daphne Oram herself, as a unique person as well as a unique artist, who emerges through the lens of Parker’s own unique vision.

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