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Pioneers of Electronic Music: Oram, Anderson, and Dudley

Patrice Devincentis

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Three female composers who shattered norms and made their mark in history

In April we took a look at three female composers of electronic film scores: Bebe Baron, Wendy Carlos, and Mica Levi. This month we pay homage to another trio of women: Daphne Oram, Ruth Anderson, and Anne Dudley. Each of them created music that challenged the status quo and pushed the proverbial envelope.

Daphne Oram (1925–2003)

Daphne Oram is widely recognized as a trailblazer in British electronic music. Working from 1958 until she suffered two strokes in the 1990s, she singularly created a world of sound that was groundbreaking and unique but has now become commonplace. She was the driving force behind one of the first electronic music studios in England and cofounded the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. She also invented a unique device for producing electronic music that predated the Moog synthesizer by five years. 

Oram was bright, creative, curious, and scientifically minded. Those characteristics led her to study music and electronics. When she was only seven years old, she imagined that sound could be generated by drawing lines and patterns. She was later influenced by Francis Bacon’s 1624 book New Atlantis, in which he wrote:

“We also have 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. We have also means to convey sounds in trunks and pipes, in strange lines and distances.”

Bacon’s words informed Oram’s approach to making music. Declining a position at the Royal College of Music, she elected to work for the BBC as a “balancing” engineer. When magnetic tape was introduced in the 1950s, Daphne was quick to realize its creative potential, as it allowed sound to be captured, edited, reversed, looped, slowed down, and sped up.

In 1957, the BBC launched a series of programs using what they termed Radiophonic Effects. In 1958 the BBC set up the Radiophonic Workshop, outfitted with cast-off and secondhand equipment.

Running into a conflict with the BBC management in 1959, Daphne eventually set up her own independent studio funded by creating music for film, advertising, and the concert hall. There, her experimentation and cultivation of sound developed apart from commercial evolution. One notable soundtrack she created remarkable sound effects for was the very spooky film The Innocents (1961).

In mid-1960s, with the help of a grant, engineer Graham Wrench used a “video mapper” to help Daphne with the creation of a unique device for music production. The Oramics Machine was a graphical music system that uses photoelectric cells to generate electrical charges that control frequency, duration, amplitude, and timbre determined by the composer drawing on film.

The heady and echo-laden “Pulse Persephone,” which Oram created with this visionary device, was commissioned for the 1965 Treasures of the Commonwealth exhibition at the Royal Academy of the Arts. It is a prime example of the richness of her work. 

Ruth Anderson (1928–2019)

When you think of prominent female electronic composers, Ruth Anderson may not be a name you’d easily recognize. Nonetheless, she was a groundbreaking composer and an inspired teacher to the next generation of composers. Born in Montana, her early music studies were on the flute, which she had studied privately with Jean-Pierre Rampal. She earned both her Bachelors (1949) and Master of Arts (1951) degrees at the University of Washington. She also received two Fulbright Awards to study composition with Darius Milhaud and Nadia Boulanger from 1958 to 1960.

Anderson was one of the first four women that the Princeton University Graduate School admitted. At the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, where she worked closely with Vladimir Ussachevsky, she discovered the compositional possibilities of the electronic medium. While employed as a professor of music theory and composition at Hunter College, she established the Hunter College Electronic Music Studio, the first in the CUNY system.

Dr. Andy Krikun notes of being mentored by Anderson, “We composed all kinds of works incorporating a myriad of contemporary techniques: minimalist, polytonal, serialist, text sound, imaginary and electronic soundscapes, metrical modulation, and more, while exposing us to the works of Philip Glass, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Laurie Anderson, Yoko Ono, Annea Lockwood, and Darius Milhaud as well as several world music traditions. She often quoted her teacher Darius Milhaud, who advised his students, ‘Don’t think, write!’”

Among her most prominent compositions are two sound collages, “DUMP” (1970) and “SUM (State of the Union Message)” (1973). Both are soundscapes that demonstrate her superior skills as an analog editor. In “DUMP,” she employed recognizable soundbites of pop and folk songs juxtaposed with bursts of electronic noise. “SUM” found her drawing on earworms from television commercials to emulate a speech by Nixon. Both these compositions prophesized digital audio manipulation and musical mash-ups. 

Anne Dudley

With our third composer, Anne Dudley, we can draw connections to both Dorothy Oram and Ruth Anderson. Like Oram, Dudley is British and a groundbreaker. Born in 1956, she was the first BBC Concert Orchestra’s Composer in Association (2001). Like Anderson, she is an outstanding academic, achieving both a Performer’s Diploma (with an award for the highest grades of the year) and a Master’s degree from King’s College.

She is a composer who is comfortable in both the traditional and electronic mediums. Her impressive and varied skills range from classical and jazz to pop performance and film composition. When she was at college, she played keyboards in bands in the evening. That’s where she met Trevor Horn, who offered her and her Wurlitzer piano session work.

During the ’80s, Trevor became the producer for the Art of Noise, a successful avant-garde synth-pop band. She cut her electronic teeth on a secondhand customized Minimoog. Anne credits the lack of presets with teaching her a lot about synthesis. The first sampler she ever used was a Trevor Horn’s Fairlight CMI. A true musical explorer, she states that the limitations of early sampling forced her to be creative.

For their song, “Firestarter,” The Prodigy resampled her now-famous “Hey!” from the Art of Noise’s release, “Close to the Edit.” Video producers used the Art of Noise tracks to accompany their work, and those producers asked her to write music for advertising. That furnished opportunities to hone her skills, and it fostered her great love for creating music for visual media.

Always an artist who loved and embraced technology, Dudley continues to explore the compositional possibilities that new technologies offer. Even when the final output may be recorded with traditional instruments—like her Emmy Award-winning score for The Full Monty (1997)—Anne often begins by recording a sample-based demo of her ideas.

An interesting recent offering from Anne Dudley is Plays the Art of Noise. On that recording, she reinterprets the original electronic tracks as solo piano works, using percussive figures, boisterous chords, and ever-changing tempos.

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