By Daphne Oram
(composed 1948 — 9)
for Double Orchestra, Treated Instrumental Recordings, Three Prerecorded 78rpm Discs, Five Microphones, Echo and Tone Controls
Deep Minimalism Festival, St. John’s Smith Square, London.
(24 June 2016)
Commissioned by the Southbank Centre.
In 1948, whilst working as a radio programme engineer at the BBC and assisting the composer Ivor Walsworth, Daphne Oram began work on a new and highly innovative symphonic piece, entitled ‘Still Point’. Its title was likely inspired by TS Eliot’s poem ‘Burnt Norton’ (part of Eliot’s poem cycle ‘Four Quartets’, published in 1943) within which Eliot explores ideas of time and transcendence - “at the still point, there the dance is”. Another highly influential text for Oram was Francis Bacon’s 1627 utopian novel ‘New Atlantis’, which she re-versioned and returned to throughout her life. Oram was particularly influenced by Bacon’s musings on a futuristic sound world:
“We have also divers strange and artificial echoes, reflecting the voice many times, and, as it were, tossing it; and some that give back the voice louder than it came, some shriller and some deeper; yea, some rendering the voice, differing in the letters or articulate sound from that they receive. We have all means to convey sounds in trunks and pipes, in strange lines and distances.”
During her early career at the BBC, Oram often worked as a recording engineer in the Royal Albert Hall, balancing the microphone feeds of concerts for both recordings and live broadcasts, an experience that was highly influential on her compositional practice.
‘“Balancing” is very much akin to focusing a photograph – our subject is an orchestra and our camera is the microphone.’
(Oram, c.1948, ORAM/3/1/023, personal notes)
Oram was only 23 years of age when she began composing ‘Still Point’, and the piece reflects her innovative ideas concerning the spatial and acoustic aspects of orchestral performance, and the potential she saw in the live manipulation of recorded sound. ‘Still Point’ is the last piece she wrote for orchestra before co-founding the BBC Radiophonic workshop and going on to establish a studio at Tower Folly in Kent, devoting herself to the development of the revolutionary optical synthesis technique ‘Oramics’ alongside numerous innovative tape compositions, writings and music educational projects.
This unique and as yet unperformed work is thought to be one of the first examples of an orchestral composition for recorded sound and live electronics:
“Among her early instrumental compositions, the unperformed, 30-minute Still Point (1950) stands out. In it, the orchestra is combined with pre-recorded instrumental sounds and live treatments - using standard radio equipment of the period. It is almost certainly the earliest composition to specify the real-time electronic transformation of instrumental sounds.”
The full score, completed in April 1950, which details “pre-recordings to be mixed in at varying speeds, backwards & with filterings plus reverberation” was submitted to the BBC as a possible entry for the inaugural Prix Italia in 1950, only to be turned down by the BBC on the basis that the work could only be judged as a “straight score” and the adjudicators wouldn’t understand the “acoustic variants and pre-recording techniques” utilised. Brian Hodgson, a colleague at the BBC (and fellow member of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop) later commented to Oram that “if they had understood one feels they would have been even more ‘anti’!”.
This finalised copy of the score has been lost since Oram’s death, with a hundred or so detailed pencil draft pages remaining in her archive (now housed in the Special Collections at Goldsmiths, University of London). Over the last year the artists Shiva Feshareki and James Bulley have been researching and exploring the work in order to realise a world premiere performance of ‘Still Point’ with the London Contemporary Orchestra at St.John’s Smith Square, London on 24 June 2016. The premiere is part of Oliver Coates and the Southbank Centre’s ‘Deep Minimalism’ Festival that will happen across 24-26 June 2016.