A Pioneering Electronic Composer as Grist for Theater, Music and Movement

Victoria Finney plays Daphne Oram in the Flea Theater's production of Sound House. Photo: Marina McLure

Feb. 23, 2018

The next time you mess around composing music on GarageBand, or listen to the latest auto-tuned hit, think for a moment about the evolution of electronic music. This is what occurred to me as I watched Sound House, the New Georges production now playing at the Flea about the real life of 20th-century pioneer composer Daphne Oram. Her story, of the invention of a groundbreaking music producing machine, is interwoven with that of a contemporary New Yorker as both seek companionship and recognition. Written by Stephanie Fleischmann, it’s a charming and intriguing evening of theater, music and movement.

British actor Victoria Finney is outstanding as the eccentric Oram. She consistently maintains Oram’s clipped speech, a pinched expression and bird-like movements. This is all done while reciting passages taken directly from Oram’s original notebooks, which recorded the minutiae of her life in obsessive detail.

Fleischmann’s writing deftly creates a narrative from the staccato entries covering anything from the weather to the music Oram played at her  “recorded music society”: “31st December, 1989. Windy. Damp. (I am 64 today),” she dryly observes. Fleischmann has a lot of fun with an extended anecdote describing the composer’s disdain for members of the audience and the snacks they bring to the concerts. “Stuffing their faces with sausage rolls and cucumber sandwiches, chocolate digestives and Madeira Cake,” she says in snobbish horror.

You can check out a slew of YouTube videos about the real Oram and see that Finney does her justice. Her performance and Oram’s words steal the show with warm-hearted support from James Himelsbach as Horace Ohm, her long-suffering sound engineer. The harder part falls to Susanna Stahlman as Constance Sneed—a needy, lonely New Yorker whose name may or may not be a pun. Constance connects through some kind of time warp with Oram but her story of seeking to be “seen” pales next to the quintessential English eccentricity embodied in Oram. Debbie Saivetz fluidly directs the three actors so that their stories symbolically bind together through a series of gentle “dances”.

A note about the real Oram—I confess I was introduced to her by the play. After joining the BBC during WWII, she began to produce avant-garde music for TV shows. But when the BBC proved too conventional for her ambitions, she struck out on her own. She invented a one-of-a-kind machine called the Oramics that made music from shapes drawn on blank film stock. Her compositions are regarded as the vanguard of synthesized music and, like many a pioneer, she has enjoyed more plaudits posthumously than when she was alive.

Ranks of retro-looking machines with dials and buttons represent the analogue world of music recording on the set created by Marsha Ginsberg. The sound design by Tyler Kieffer and Brandon Walcott clearly draws admiringly on Oram’s composition and on her interest in New Atlantis, the 17th-century Utopian novel by Francis Bacon, which she frequently quotes in the play:

“We have harmonies which you have not,

Of quarter sounds and lesser slides of sounds.

Divers instruments of music likewise to you unknown.”

On stage, as Oram’s musical career flounders, she becomes more and more isolated and imagines that someone is constantly ringing her doorbell. The writing is less compelling in the parallel story where Constance Sneed grows concerned about her ornery and elderly downstairs neighbor, Mrs. Goldblum. While Oram’s story ends on a bleak note, Sneed finds meaning in keeping Mrs. G company. It’s a heartwarming outcome but a little mundane in comparison to Oram.

Sound House is playing in rep with another new play This is the Color described by the Time by Lily Whitsitt. New Georges is a regular company at the Flea and reliably brings some great new writing. The real challenge is getting to the shows that generally have very short runs.

Sound House is playing now through March 4th at the Flea, 20 Thomas St. It runs 1 hour and 45 minutes with no intermission