Go back to article: Oramics to electronica: investigating lay understandings of the history of technology through a participatory project

Non-expert group 1: The National Youth Theatre

An opportunity arose late in 2010 to work with young students from the National Youth Theatre. The particular group were studying on the ‘Acting Up 2’ access course, which provided opportunities to young adults who had been excluded, or who had excluded themselves, from formal education. The group’s ambition was to produce a theatrical performance on the Museum’s themes; the performance was featured as a public event in the Museum, with a video excerpt incorporated in the Oramics exhibition’s mini-cinema. As potential participants in the Oramics project, these students promised insights into how a group that could be expected to have an active listening experience of music might think about and respond to stories about electronic music, and to the invitation to work with the Museum. The core period covered by the exhibition – given that all of these students were born after 1985 – was outside their direct experience, so it was hoped to gain insights into this group’s sense of the historical aspects of the subject. The approach to the group was via a series of stimulus sessions; after a session introducing the aims of the project, the students enjoyed a hands-on workshop where the sound artist Aleks Kolkowski introduced them to analogue recording – on Edison wax cylinder, 78 RPM gramophone disc and 45 RPM single. In a subsequent session, Katy Price, poet, creative writing specialist and a co-author here, worked with the students to produce short written pieces, which were subsequently recorded by Kolkowski.

Figure 7

Aleks Kolkowski uses an old-looking Edison wax cylinder to record a girl's vocals

Science Museum resident sound artist Aleks Kolkowski records the vocals of a member of the National Youth Theatre on an Edison wax cylinder.

Figure 8

Several members of the National Youth Theatre watch Aleks Kolkowski use an old analogue piece of audio recording kit

Aleks Kolkowski assists members of the National Youth Theatre in recording short pieces of creative writing.

The group were also taken to the British Film Institute to see a selection of films and TV programmes, including the 1969 BBC documentary about electronic music The Same Trade as Mozart and two Geoffrey Jones films soundtracked by Oram, Snow (1963) and Trinidad & Tobago (1964). Finally, the group was taken to the Science Museum’s store at Blythe House in West London, where they were introduced to the recently restored Oramics Machine. Here, they also met Mick Grierson, keeper of the Oram Archive at Goldsmiths, University of London, who told them about Daphne Oram’s work and life, as well as explaining the workings of the Oramics Machine.

Figure 9

Close up view of part of the Oramics Machine, showing strips of acetate on which are pieces of black tape and drawn lines

Oramics Machine, mid-1960s, post-conservation treatment. Used to create electronic synthesized music and developed by Daphne Oram, co-founder of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

Armed with these stimuli, the group developed a theatrical performance they named In Search of Pioneers, which was performed to the public in the Museum’s Flight gallery in April 2011. The scenario for the piece, which included choreographed action sequences and a narrative of one participant’s resistance to Oram’s music, also focused on the importance, from the participants’ point of view, of recognising the significance of ‘unrecognised pioneers’, drawing the audience’s attention to other ‘pioneers’, including the pilot Amy Johnson (whose story is included in the Flight gallery). As Laurie Waller has suggested, ‘The NYT students' performance emphasises the affinities of marginalised youth with experimental inventors; both are the “underdogs” bent on following their individual passion in spite of the hardship and social obstacles imposed on them’ (Waller, 2014, p 202). The main narrative of the performance was an argument between a group of ‘sound scientists’ and a second group of students, in which the scientists sought to persuade the students of Daphne Oram’s significance, which the students resisted on the basis that they have their own music (Ibid, pp 79–80).

Figure 10

Several members of the National Youth Theatre stand with arms outstretched in the Flight Gallery at the Science Museum

The National Youth Theatre's 'In Search of Pioneers', which was performed to the public in the Museum’s Flight Gallery in April 2011.

We may generalise from the evidence of the performance that this co-curating group brought a particular expertise about contemporary music that was at odds with the older kinds of electronic music at the core of the project. This, as literally expressed in the performance’s narrative, was inflected through a resistance to education; the characters they play didn’t wish to be co-opted to the priorities of the ‘sound scientists’. In the end, though, the ‘students’ in the performance co-opted Oram as one of their own. After having seen the performance, Mick Grierson expressed enthusiasm and surprise. He admitted he hadn’t expected the students would incorporate detailed scientific explanations and discoveries in their story, which they did. The play gave him a new understanding of how young people engaged with the scientific subject matter he knew so well. 

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/140206/006