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Oram Awards ceremony and winners’ show reviewed

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The Oram Awards 2020: A vibrant live medley from innovators in sound

This year’s Oram Awards, a ceremony and live-streamed series of performances by winners Loula Yorke, NikNak, Pouloumi Desai, Una Lee, Vicky Clarke and Yifeat Ziv, took place on the evening of December 17.

Founded in 2017 by the New BBC Radiophonic Workshop and PRS Foundation, the Oram Awards is an annual event championing the pioneering talent of women, girls and gender minority artists in music and sound. It is named after Daphne Oram, a pioneer of musique concrète and creator of the Oramics sound technique. Oram was also the co-founder of the revolutionary BBC Radiophonic Workshop sound studio, which was responsible for major innovations in early electronic music.

In collaboration with arts group SonitusLIVE, 2020’s Oram Awards were the first to be broadcast exclusively online via Twitch. Based in Suffolk and co-founded in 2016 by Oram winner and sonic artist Loula Yorke, Sonitus quickly rose to prominence for its workshops and live jams, as well as its dedication to inclusivity in music and sound art.

Out of over one hundred applicants, this year’s winners were announced on November 1st, and were awarded bursaries and special commendations for their future efforts. To celebrate, Thursday’s ceremony saw them each perform a remote, 30-minute live gig comfortably from their own homes. Graced with the opportunity to attend, we watched with zeal.

First up was multidisciplinary artist and curator Pouloumi Desai, whose improvised performance of recordings and found sound melded with imagery of women’s emancipation and protest. At one point, Desai produced a giant bow in order to play what looked like a prepared double bass. Later on, she twirled a wooden ratchet before reading aloud from decolonial-surrealist academic text ‘Refusal of the Shadow’. She also produced what Twitch spectators called a ‘green interdimensional time orb’; whatever this impossible instrument was, it produced an odd trembling sound, and emitted a hypnotic alien green light from its anterior.

Leeds turntablist, soundscape artist and Anna Meredith collaborator NikNak soon followed. The first turntablist to receive an Oram Award, her stream was arguably the most visual, with the actual live video of her taking up less than a quarter of the stream window. Most of the screen was a visual haze of multicoloured swirls, nebulaic clouds, kaleidoscopes and natural imagery. Using timecode control vinyl – a special kind of vinyl which can play back digital audio – she was able to produce a far-off world of echoic scratches and children’s shouts.

Bleepy live modular electro and hip hop was checked by composer Loula Yorke, who appeared behind an enormous complex array of cables, units, and knobs. Her set was straightforward and effective, a barrage of high-voltage industrial dance sound with a machinic, bugged-out rainbow backdrop. At points, Yorke appeared to gesticulate and speak, as though she was explaining her music to someone, but we couldn’t hear her over the beats. It seemed to convey the failure of trying to explain what electronic music is, or should be, in words.

Vicky Clarke, who works with sound and sculpture, likewise played a dance set combining self-made instruments with electronic hardware. In keeping with her research on machine learning, Clarke performed next to an image of what looked to be an AI-generated block of flats. The music contained strange synth mumblings, minimal no-wave beats, longing vocals and dub techno stabs, interspersed with snippets from radio. At one point, the stream camera switched angles, revealing a pre-made hanging gong made from bent metal, which Clarke struck fervently.

Among the most high-concept performances was Una Lee’s, who played two exclusive pieces, ‘Life of a Plant’ and ‘Ophelia’. The first track, a spoken-word piece undercut by wood creaking sounds, narrated the life of a giant plant. Its inner world was topical: “in these past nine months, every human had to adapt to changes. I am very adaptive in the big picture, but I don’t know how much longer I can survive without my soil.” The second track, Ophelia, was a choral epic, combining the sung chant of “Ophelia” with faded spoken word memories of literary, matrimonial and meteorological sexism. Stopping and starting between speaking and singing, Lee pondered issues surrounding Shakespeare’s Hamlet character, questioning the theatrical trend of “picturesque madness”, the Bechdel test, and the United States’ tradition of giving storms traditionally feminine names.

The ceremony concluded with a live ambient performance from vocalist and free improviser Yifeat Ziv. Compact and efficient, and broadcast from her own attic, Ziv appeared immersed in the natural world, surrounded by plants and shifting, lens-flaring lighting effects. Naturally stemming from her research in acoustic ecology and the human voice, and singing in her own improvised language, Ziv seemed to be tapping into a meditative ‘dialogue’ between her and the audience.

This year’s awards, overall, suggested a sense of artistic solidarity, as well as nascent optimism about the relationship between music, technology and human wellbeing. Being live-streamed, it was undoubtedly the most defiant ceremony yet; it would have been all too easy to submit to the pandemic and call it off entirely. With this resilience in mind, it is no wonder former Oram awardees have achieved acclaim in recent years. Both Klein and Loraine James, 2017 and 2018 winners respectively, have gone on to sign with UK label Hyperdub. 2017 winner Ewa Justka’s self-made electronic instruments have also featured in Resident Advisor. Given their successes, we’ll certainly be hearing from this year’s winners once again.

Full clips of 2020’s Oram Awards ceremony can be found on SonitusLIVE’s Twitch channel.

Jude Iago James