BY Simon Reynolds in Opinion | 01 FEB 12
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Issue 145

What’s Behind the Reissue Boom in ‘Outsider Electronics’?

Part of the the romance of this breed of lost experimentalists relates to their financial struggles 

BY Simon Reynolds in Opinion | 01 FEB 12

Daphne Oram using the Oramics machine in her Tower Folly studio c.1960. Courtesy The Daphne Oram Trust

In recent years, there has been a boom in reissuing ‘outsider electronics’. Active during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, the forgotten pioneers of synthesizer and tape-based music were either loosely attached to music institutions or operated as lone-rangers without funding. US label Creel Pone has released more than 100 CD-R albums that immaculately reproduce in miniature the covers of the original out-of-print and obscure LPs. In the UK, Paradigm has unearthed marvels of musique concrète and text-sound by neglected figures like Trevor Wishart and Lily Greenham, while Trunk Records has salvaged works by mavericks such as Desmond Leslie and Basil Kirchin. Both UK labels have archived the extracurricular activities of key members of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, most notably with Paradigm’s Oramics in 2007, a survey of the oeuvre of Daphne Oram.

Oramics came out four years after the composer’s death. Subsequently, a massive cache of unreleased Oram came into the custodianship of Goldsmiths College in London. The first siftings from this 400-tape motherlode are now being released via a new vintage-electronics imprint, Young Americans.

At two-and-a-half-hours long and 46 tracks wide, The Oram Tapes: Volume One (2011) is a dense wodge of experimental sound to digest. Disorientation is intensified by the dearth of background about the pieces: few dates are given, little is known about the techniques employed, and it’s not clear if tracks are finished or early drafts.

The works that seem most realized belong to an apparent series of tracks named after places or institutions, with titles like ‘Eton’ and ‘Manchester 2’. ‘London University’ (1968), takes what appear to be eavesdropped snatches of conversation and whisks them into a meringue of phonemes. ‘Oxford’ seems not so much composed as decomposed: forms sliding into formlessness, a twilight of mossy, sunken-roofed decreptitude. At the other extreme are super-short pieces that sometimes come across like Oram has invented a new instrument (on ‘Wool’, a futuristic version of the dulcimer) but can’t quite think what to do with it. The most endearing of the miniatures here are Oram’s pieces for commercials. ‘Anacin Components’ appears to be an early draft, with Oram first explaining and then demonstrating a set of sounds designed to evoke toothache, migraine and a snuffly, catarrh-thick cold.

Part of the romance of this breed of lost experimentalists relates to their financial struggles. Most, like Oram, subsidized their long-term projects with hackwork: jingles and sound effects for adverts and industrial films, scores for horror or exploitation movies, LPs of library music or jaunty rhythm patterns for children’s Movement & Dance classes. America has its own electronic outsider breed: characters like Warner Jepson and Raymond Scott, whose output also alternated between arty (ballet score commissions) and functional (Scott’s Soothing Sounds for Babies LPs from the 1960s). But there’s something particularly appealing about the British figures, operating intwitchy-curtained suburbia or out in the leafy countryside (Oram’s studio in Kent was originally an oast-house, a building where hops were dried).

The Oram Tapes plays up this quintessential Britishness by including several tracks that feature Oram’s cut-glass voice. Introducing one piece with the words, ‘These pure tones are based on the Balmer Sequence of frequencies for hydrogen as seen on the spectroscope’, she sounds like a chemistry teacher in a St Trinian’s film.

Another recent reissue in this field, F.C. Judd’s Electronics Without Tears (released by Public Information in 2011), also plays up the charming quaintness. Unlike the matronly Oram, Fred Judd speaks with the stilted, respectable-aspiring enunciation of Fred Kite, the bolshy trade unionist played by Peter Sellers in I’m All Right Jack (1959) – except that instead of talking about the Soviet Union’s glorious achievements, he’s discussing the technicalities of musique concrète. The last track on Electronics Without Tears has the east London family man signing off with a ‘cheery bye’.

Daphne Oram painting onto 35mm film in her Tower Foly Studio. Courtesy The Daphne Oram Trust

In the 1950s and early ’60s, the electronic music community in the UK was small. Oram and Judd knew each other and corresponded about their pipe-dreams: her Oramics system of ‘drawn sound’ for converting visual data into audio, and Judd’s Chromasonics technology for converting sound into visuals. Both had similar introductions to the world of electronic sound. Aged only 17, Oram joined the BBC as an engineer in 1943, during a wartime period when women were able to infiltrate professions traditionally regarded as masculine. Judd developed his interest in sound while serving in the RAF Coastal Command as an engineer working with radar.

Despite these similarities, Oram and Judd represented different British types. She was a seeker whose interests in the arcane possibilities of sound took off into a heady-verging-on-cranky realm where science and philosophy merged with mysticism and the paranormal. Judd was in the mould of the pragmatic British hobbyist. In his home in Woodford, London, Judd cobbled together all manner of contraptions, including prototypes for the synthesizer and the drum machine. He released music sporadically through the 1960s, but dedicated more energy to propagating the techniques of electronic music via articles in the magazine Amateur Tape Recording, which he edited for four years, and no less than 11 books.

The title Electronics Without Tears sounds like a guide and the album is appropriately book-ended with ‘do-it-yourself’ voice-overs. ‘China Bowl’ is Judd demonstrating all the things that can be done with a sound ‘produced by striking a china bowl’, such as playing it backwards and slicing-and-splicing it. ‘Musique Concrète is Fascinating …’ displays a composition that Judd sourced entirely from that single original ceramic chime: a shimmering, quivering palace of gelatin strands. Overall, Judd’s work is more dinky-sounding and tuneful than the forebodingly abstract Oram tracks. Pieces like ‘Tempo Tune’ suggest computer game music if computer games had been invented in the age of the Lyons’s Wimpy Bar. But there’s avant stuff too, like the percussive trio of ‘Moving Pieces’, ‘Sprockets’ and ‘Voltage Control 2’, which sound like regiments of Perspex-limbed robots on the march.

Most of Judd’s master tapes were lost after his death in 1992, which holds out the tantalizing if unlikely possibility that somewhere out there lurks a treasure trove on the scale of the Oram archive. This is what boggles the minds of fans of early electronica: so much of this stuff was recorded in the decades immediately following World War II, and while the recent reissue boom has made unmanageable amounts of it available again, it’s just a fraction of what was made. Some of the music enchants because it’s so dated, so evocatively era-bound. Other pieces could jostle convincingly alongside contemporary analogue synth action by artists like Ekoplekz. The fragmented brevity – spores of inspiration that never fully germinate – actually makes it more appealing to ADD-generation ears than the lofty-minded long-form electronic masterworks composed in Europe during the same period.

The acclaim for Judd and Oram has sadly been mostly posthumous. The pathos that hangs over these frustrated careers adds to their prophet-without-honour allure. The back-story has become an indispensable element of the listening experience for this kind of music. Indeed, so strong is the niche demand for ‘lost visionaries, rediscovered’ that recently there’s been a spate of imaginary ones, such as Ursula Bogner, allegedly an Oram-like figure from Germany. Electronic Music in the Classroom by D.D. Denham (2010) purported to be a compilation of musique concrète made by schoolchildren in the 1970s, while Endless House (2011) presented itself as synth music from a 1973 Czechoslovakian arts-lab. You have to be really careful now. When Public Information told me their next project after Judd was made by a German naturist who ran a dance commune in 1960s England, I smelled a rat. His name? Ernest Berk. They swear he’s for real.

Simon Reynolds is the author of books including the postpunk history Rip It Up and Start Again and, most recently, Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and Its Legacy from the Seventies to the 21st Century.