Having begun her career at the BBC as a junior studio engineer in 1942, Oram's abrupt departure nevertheless paved the way for the likes of Delia Derbyshire, who had a major hand in creating the original theme music to Dr Who. Beyond her extensive exploratory work with something she dubbed Oramics, Oram's relationship with drama continued after she left the BBC in TV, film and theatre, as well as collaborations with Edinburgh born opera composer Thea Musgrave.
According to composer Anneke Kampman, who is providing the live score for Daphne Oram's Wonderful World of Sound, a new play based on the composer's life, Oram was the victim of institutionalised sexism on two counts.
“When she got her first job, all the men who might have been given it were away because of the war,” says Kampman, who has performed as Anakanak at the Glasgow-based Tectonics festival, and is formerly one half of electronic-based duo, Conquering Animal Sound. “She left because the BBC said that she could only work there for six months, because they were worried about how such experimental work might affect her. They said there were dangerous properties of sound, although they never said that to her male co-founder of the Workshop.”
Fourteen years after Oram's death, Kampman and two other female composers are exploring their own dangerous properties of sound in relation to theatre through three very different stage works which put music at their centre.
Kampman will appear onstage in Daphne Oram's Wonderful World of Sound, created and produced by the Blood of the Young company as part of this year's Mayfesto season at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow. Also at Mayfesto is Music is Torture, in which A Band Called Quinn's Louise Quinn explores the power of music through issues raised by musicologist Dr M.J. Grant. This includes A Band Called Quinn performing as imaginary group, Dawnings.
Meanwhile, Scottish Album of the Year winner Kathryn Joseph has composed new songs with director Cora Bissett for a stage version of Emma Donoghue's novel, Room. This co-production between Theatre Royal Stratford East and the Abbey Theatre, Dublin in association with the National Theatre of Scotland has just opened in London prior to dates in Dundee next month. With all three women coming from a broad pop background rather than straightforward theatre composition, the shows mark a creative leap for them all.
“I've never done anything like this before,” says Joseph. “This is the first time I've ever written songs for someone else to sing, and I'm so set in my ways in how I write, and so obsessive about what I do, that it's been really hard sometimes. Cora and Emma have been great at being able to take things I've done and help put it into a language for someone else, and it's been good for me to let go of it.”
Joseph was contacted after Bissett was on the judging panel of the Scottish Album of the Year Award the year Joseph won with her remarkable debut, Bones You Have Thrown Me, and Blood I've Spilled. Fortuitously, Room was one of Joseph's favourite books.
“I read it when I was pregnant, and I couldn't stop crying,” she says of Donoghue's novel about a five year old boy held captive by his mother, which has already been adapted for a successful film version. “To write for something so beautiful, and to work with these people who thought I would be able to do it has been a real confidence booster. I was very uncomfortable with it before, but this is one of the most beautiful things I've ever done.”
Unlike Kampman and Joseph, Quinn already has experience in theatre, having worked extensively with the Mischief La Bas company, and appeared with A Band Called Quinn in Vanishing Point's co-production of The Beggar's Opera at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh. Quinn studied at what is now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland at the same time as Bissett, whose own musical past began playing in bands Darlingheart and Swelling Meg. Director of Music is Torture, Ben Harrison, has worked extensively with Bissett, while it's interesting to note that in 2005, the Tron produced Standing Wave, a play about Delia Derbyshire penned by Nicola McCartney, who was dramaturg on The Beggar's Opera.
Set in a recording studio, Music is Torture is another example of mixing up forms which Quinn has pursued, both in theatre and in a band context with her Tromolo theatre company, and follows on from the company's previous show, Biding Time (Remix).
“I really wanted to push things as far as possible and integrate music as part of the narrative,” she says. “It's not just a case of it being actors with a band.”
Such an approach is coming increasingly to the fore in what has become known as gig-theatre, and which, during these increasingly cash-strapped times, chimes with a punkier DIY aesthetic. Joseph says she'd like to work in theatre again, “but I can't imagine being so obsessed with something like I was with this.”
With Kampman's solo work becoming noticeably performative over the last couple of years, the experience on Daphne Oram's Wonderful World of Sound has allowed her to explore her relationship with other art forms.
“I find I can be more experimental in terms of creating in this kind of context,” she says. “It expands things, and you don't have to work within traditional musical structures. With Daphne Oram, it's been really exciting being part of the making of it. One thing I've learnt from Blood of the Young is a desire to tell a story that's really textured, but which can still have broad appeal. You don't have to know about oscillators to enjoy it.”
Despite this, Kampman's endeavours might not necessarily manifest themselves through narrative theatre.
“I'm more interested in exploring sound in other mediums, working with text or film or theatre and in gallery spaces.”
Kampman has already begun work on a series of what she calls 'sound films'.
“I've done some work with a choir on a piece about Florence Lawrence, who was regarded as the first Hollywood actress, and that's made me think about how you can use the voice to tell a story, but also be experimental through theatrically staged vocal performances.”
Quinn too is focusing on fusing music and theatre. While Kampman looks to Oram and Lawrence, Quinn has her own female icons.
“I'm thinking about doing a show called Lives of the Saints,” she says. “It's reimagining female saints as pop stars and superheroes. When I was a kid we had this book of saints, and the women in it were the only female icons I had until they were replaced by Debbie Harry and Chrissie Hynde. It says a lot about how icons can inspire you.”
Daphne Oram's Wonderful World of Sound, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, May 9-13, then tours until June 2; Music is Torture, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, May 18-20, then tours until June 1; Room, Theatre Royal Stratford East until June 3, Dundee Rep, June 13-17, Abbey Theatre, Dublin, June 24-July 22.
The Herald, May 9th 2017