Guest Curator: Tara Rodgers

Daphne Oram, An Individual Note of Music, Sound and Electronics (Galliard Paperbacks, 1972).

At the outset of An Individual Note of Music, Sound and Electronics (1972), Daphne Oram greets her readers with this declaration: “Music, sound and electronics… each of these subjects has been well covered recently by sober academic textbooks; I am certainly not going to write another of those!” Sure enough, the roughly 150 pages that follow are animated by her whimsical sensibility and wide-ranging imagination.

Oram was one of the first studio managers at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. She left shortly after its inception and went on to develop the “Oramics” system beginning in the early 1960s, a novel machine for generating electronic sounds from hand-drawn shapes using photoelectric cells and oscillators. Her experiences as an inventor and composer allow her to move with ease across technical, creative, historical and philosophical topics in the book. Note, for one example, the curious array of concepts listed in the index under the letter ‘V’: “variants of reality; violin recipe; voltage control.” Oram’s foremost philosophical contribution in An Individual Note is to theorize “a strange world where composers will be mingling with capacitors… and music and magnetism will lead us towards metaphysics.” She makes speculative analogies between humans and capacitors, noting that both can be characterized in terms of their abilities to store and release energy over time. Given such affinities, harmonic relations among sounds become a useful metaphor for human interactions; both, in Oram’s scheme, are matters of proper tuning and careful adjustment.

Oram emerges as a transmedia author before this was named as such. Hand-drawn shapes and symbols were the foundation of her Oramics system, and such figures are integrated into her writing as well. She often inserts shapes to accompany her neologisms and, as in this discussion of waveforms on p.23, to indicate that words alone are inadequate representations of electronic sound:

Oram’s frank manner of writing demystifies complex processes of music and electronics and makes these realms accessible to a wide range of readers. Like porridge and ginger snaps, she implies, sine waves and square waves (and their more delectable variants) are part of the diet of everyday life.

While An Individual Note is unique in its scope and tone, it is perhaps best contextualized within a limited genre of books by experimental composers that simultaneously serve as a historical document of their creative process and an articulation of their philosophical approach to sound and music. Harry Partch’s Genesis of a Music, John Cage’s Silence: Lectures and Writings, and Pauline Oliveros’s Software for People: Collected Writings: 1963-80 are a few other notable examples of this genre (and surely there are more). Compared to the wide circulation of comparable writings of Partch and Cage, it is important to note that Oram’s and Oliveros’s books have been out of print for many years. This suggests that full recognition of these two women as experimental composers, inventors of new musical instruments and audio-technical systems, and philosophers of music and sound has been relatively slow in coming. Only since her death in 2003 has Oram’s work begun to receive attention in museum exhibitsdocumentaries, academic journals and magazines.  An Individual Note is now archived in the Her Noise collection at the London College of Communication, in the Oram collection at Goldsmiths and online at Ubuweb. It remains a singular contribution to the history and philosophy of music, sound, and electronics that promises to inspire many who are interested in these fields.

— Tara Rodgers, 2012


Tara Rodgers is a musician, composer, and feminist technology scholar. She is Assistant Professor of Women’s Studies and Faculty Fellow in Digital Cultures & Creativity at the University of Maryland where she coordinates the Women’s Studies Multimedia Studio. Rodgers is the author of Pink Noises: Women on Electronic Music and Sound (Duke UP), emerging out of the online community she founded in 2000 and published in 2010, which she has kindly donated to the Her Noise Archive. Additionally, an interview with Tara Rodgers for Her Noise has been planned for the spring of 2013.

For further reading:

Rodgers, T. “Butterfly Effects: Synthesis, Emergence, and Transduction.” Leonardo Electronic Almanac 14, no. 7-8 (2006), “Wild Nature and the Digital Life” special issue, edited by Sue Thomas and Dene Grigar.

Rodgers, T. “‘What, for me, constitutes life in a sound?’: Electronic Sounds as Lively and Differentiated Individuals.” American Quarterly 63, no. 3 (Sept. 2011), Sound Clash: Listening to American Studies special issue, edited by Kara Keeling and Josh Kun: 509-30.

Rodgers, T. “Toward a Feminist Epistemology of Sound: Refiguring Waves in Audio-Technical Discourse,” in Philosophy After Irigaray: Selected Papers from the Proceedings of the Luce Irigaray Conference, edited by Mary Rawlinson, Danae Mcleod, and Sara McNamara (SUNY Press, forthcoming).





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