Women And Their Machines: A Think-piece About Female Pioneerism in Electronic Music
- 18 April 2013
Women And Their Machines:
A Think-piece About Female Pioneerism in Electronic Music, Post-post Feminism and Some Sassy Statements On Sexism
An article with such a mighty subtitle is obviously quite a hefty affair. Not only when it comes to the substantial research involved, with the need to dig relatively deep into the history of women electronic music, those involved in analogue technological development and pioneering moments of musical creation, but also in terms of the questions any such project raises. First hand observations and comments made by some of the interviewees - among them veteran punk electronic musician Gudrun Gut, early member of Einstuerzende Neubauten and part of the cult girl band Malaria, and Madeleine Bloom, musician and ex-technical support of the music software Ableton - lead to questions about the impact of feminism and gender equality in the field of electronic music, in which females are still direly underrepresented and, moreover, frequently mis-represented.
Investigating the first generation of women involved in the development of synthesizers and creation of electronic music highlighted the ways in which they dramatically influenced how synthesis was applied, as well as shaping the practice of using prototype analogue technology on broadcasted radio, in science fiction movies and also in what can be called proto-electronics or musique concrete. In doing so, I stumbled upon the a crucial contemporary debate in Germany, which spurred on female electronic music initiative Female:Pressure to gather data that would allow them to evaluate the representation of women in electronic music through looking at the percentage of females on label releases, playing on festival lineups and included in Top 100 lists. The result: according to Female:Pressure, "a 10% proportion of female artists can be considered above average" with most findings putting female representation between 5 - 8%.
Although many argue the issue is tired and rehashed, in light of these figures it is surely important to think about the past, present, and future of electronic music made and played by females? And what about those taking bubblebaths?
Female Techno Heroines
“’Woman’ is not a genre. Stop acting like we’re a passing fad. Delia Derbyshire, Daphne Oram, Wendy Carlos, Doris Norton, Suzanne Ciani, Cynthia Webster… even Goldfrapp and Add N To (X)’s Ann Shenton. These women weren’t on the periphery of electronic music…they pioneered it”, says Mollie Wells of dark pop band Funerals in an Electronic Beats feature on women in electronic music. And she is right. Females have, since the post-war inception of electronically produced music, played a crucial role in its development and presentation. From the work of electronic pioneers, such as Clara Rockmore, Daphne Oram, Pril Smiley, Bebe Barron, Alice Shields, Wendy Carlos and Delia Derbyshire through to Maryanne Amacher, Laurie Spiegel, Cosey Fanni Tutti of Throbbing Gristle, Ikue Mori and Laurie Anderson to second and third generation examples like Diamanda Galas, Gudrun Gut and Sylvie Marks; there have always been amazingly interesting woman involved in some of the most groundbreaking musical advancements. “It’s only now though”, points out Gudrun Gut, when I talk with her on the topic, “that these women are recognised as key figures and credited for their contributive role in history. Back in the days, no one noticed or knew about it much. It pretty much went without saying that these women were doing just their jobs, nothing else.”
In fact, the reality was very much the opposite; these were people not only interested in new technology but also talented musicians, putting them at the forefront of development, as they played proactive roles in exploring how synthesizers and special instruments, such as the Theremin popularised by Bob Moog, could and would be played. Quietly locked away in sound studios and labs, many of the women mentioned would research and work to improve the performance of music technology, making new proposals on how the machines could be built, and then by trying them out by performing them live on a stage. Clara Rockmore (born 1911) was the first classically-trained musician to pick up on the Theremin and play it as a virtuoso, touring the United States and wowing her audience with classical performances played on this strangely appealing instrument resembling a howling ghost, and which she did not manipulate in the traditional way but played by executing precise movements through the air. She was also behind several of the design improvements later made by Leon Theremin, which she outlined in order for it to meet her unique requirements better.
Women On Proto-Synths
In the same vein, Daphne Oram, was a true pioneer. One of the spearhead figures of the BBC´s Radiophonic Workshop, she was also one of the earliest British composers to produce electronic sounds and experiment with music made field-recorded sounds – “musique concrete”, the ancestry of today´s electronic music. Delia Derbyshire, her contemporary at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, reached true cult-hero status due to her 1963 arrangement of the Dr Who Theme, one of the first entirely electronic music pieces used on television, which blew the minds of millions of Brits cosily snuggled away in their living room. Space, time and the universe; all of a sudden these paradigms could be sensed and understood through contemporary composition, and also reach a mainstream audience. Air raid sirens served as her inspiration, her own voice as an instrument, and she routinely employed a lampshade to make music with. Using cut-up samples of her voice and several electronic oscillators, Derbyshire also created the soundtrack to a documentary on the Tuareg desert people in Morocco, ‘Blue Veils and Golden Sands’, as well as producing remarkable proto techno sound pieces, which she apparently made for herself out of mere interest, possibly around the late 1960s. The BBC quotes Paul Hartnoll from Orbital, who says one of the tracks “could be coming out next week on Warp Records”.
It is pure pleasure to delve into the rich cultural heritage produced by these women, who pushed the envelope and managed to receive recognition for their work. Nevertheless, there are many more who have not received the recognition or publicity they arguably deserve; ever heard of Netochka Nesnovas, Mira Calix, Anne LaBerge, Annelies van Parijs, or suGar Yoshinaga…? The list goes on and on (see this website for more). As the author of the essay “Weibliche Elektronik” (who cites even more synth-using women from German-speaking countries) correctly points out, it is not the lack of examples of pioneering women that astounds, its the lack of awareness of their crucial roles. This does not surprise: the role of women in typically male-dominated industries like science and technology is frequently played down and overlooked.
Women And Technology
For instance, did you know that “a handful of pioneering women created the computing revolution, from the world's first computer programmer of the 1800s, Ada Lovelace, to Austrian-American Hedy Lamarr, Hollywood star and mathematician who invented an early technique for spread spectrum communications and frequency hopping – the basis for the WiFi and Bluetooth we use today”, as writes Kathryn Parsons. Probably not. Parsons argues that there is widespread problem of invisibility concerning women in technology, which means there is a lack of role models and mentors, and a warped perspective of tech-women, due largely to the unflattering and presumably ‘masculine’ stereotypes associated with them. This might account for the fact that, despite more equal participation in the workplace, reduction of the gendered wage-gap educational gap, and women outperforming men across all sectors and industries, women don’t visibly participate in or get rewarded within technological work on the same level as men.
It seems as if this predicament, however, has never been an issue for Madeleine Bloom, a musician and ex-Ableton technical support worker. A musician from the moment she was able to express herself, she moved from singing to making music and playing instruments into producing electronic music. “I just couldn't find anyone who had the same musical taste and vision so I ended up making music more and more on my own. I was always good at understanding manuals so I just got into music software”, muses Madeleine. One thing led to another, “I was in dire need of a part-time job because music didn't earn me enough to pay the bills. (…) Ableton were looking for people in tech support so I applied, and since I met all requirements, they hired me.” She later discovered she was the first female tech support to work in the company.
Technicians and Secretaries
It only took some time working behind the scenes until Madeleine noticed some important things about her gender and her new job: there were hardly any female consumers of Ableton products (only 7% of people who purchased products were registered as female) and that, when talking to her, people would generally request to talk to a technician, suspecting her to be just a secretary. Madeleine decided to take a stance, and wrote an essay on “Why Not More Women Make Electronic Music and How This Could Change”. The article had some repercussions – “I only wrote it because I felt I needed to get it off my chest so I didn't think much about it beforehand. It caused quite a stir and yes, it did surprise me. I got lots of positive reactions, but also a bit of trolling in a forum, although not the worst kind. Female:Pressure contacted me and mentioned the article in their newsletter.” - which led her to resign from her job, to offer personalised coaching. “When working as a technical support I realised that I really enjoyed teaching to others. After my article about women in electronic music I was contacted by someone about giving lectures and workshops as part of a festival for women where they can perform and learn more about music technology amongst peers. It sounds very exciting and I really hope we can make it happen.”
Madeleine´s blog makes an interesting read, largely because she explains these shocking statistics by suggesting there are 'missing allures', or less incentives and role models for women, as well a vast gender clichees that are primary reasons for women not being more proactive in persuing skills and careers in electronic music. Gudrun Gut, when asked about this, muses, “to be successful as a female musician is still not viewed as being sexy. And being successful, for a woman, is still not a satisfaction.” Or is it? Talking about her own respective career, she recalls: “I started getting into making music in the punk era, and I did not feel alone at all. There were other girl bands around -- the Raincoats, the Slits, Hansaplast, the ex Tussies. We went to their concerts, some were more up my alley, some less, everybody had their own take on things. It was a great moment, the generation of 1968 really caused a stir and an upsurge of women doing their own stuff, and the questioning of gender and relationsship of men and women led to more liberation. It was a huge topic, there were all-female newspapers, and in Berlin we found the perfect climate to be ourselves. Not the usual feminine stuff people were used to, like the flute-playing knitting feminists, but clad with black boots, screaming and making a lot of noise. People loved it. I already knew at that time that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, I really enjoyed it and wanted it to go on and on.”
On And On
Gudrun today is not only looking back on countless years in an array of ground-breaking bands and outfits but also funded her own label, Monika Enterprise, which serves as a platform for other females and their projects. “And now, thinking about it, and talking about it, again and again, I am really starting to believe that we are losing out massively if we do not take a stand. Music is not sexless, music is a language. A voice. A statement. You can express things with it. That´s a huge massive statement you can make in a society. So why are we women not taking our opportunity to make ourselves heard?” Is the reward – power through self-empowerment – not alluring enough?
It is, for some. One person who´s heard her calling in recent years and taken up music to transmit her very own message is Nina Kraviz. It seems, however, she is not being heard but rather being seen (in a bathtub! public outcry!) and judged by the same standards that she is trying to break out of. Nevertheless, being sledged by the double-sided sword of double standards is so typical when it comes to being a woman - in music, in this world. And although people are tired about the outcries and 'gossip-mag' style reporting, the controversy about Nina Kraviz taking a bubblebath (Madeleine Bloom also wrote a great piece about this), while being filmed for Resident Advisor 's 'Between The Beats' documentary, serves as a perfect example of what it means to be a woman in the electronic music industry.
DJs In Bubblebaths
While some take it with a sense of humour, some also get downright agressive about it. Many people, including a certain high-profile male DJ, have critizised Kraviz heavily for having had the courtesy of letting the team film her in a bikini on a beach as well as in a bathtub, part of her routine when jetsetting around on an average weekend as a DJ. Whilst this is an outrage for many, its imposible to find people critizising someone like DJ Tiesto from the same perspective. The world's top DJ has scored himself an advert campaigning for Guess. Why it is cool if a man is seen with two ladies on his side, one brunette, one blonde, is just beyond my imagination. Is it trying to suggest that Tiesto is so megahot he can have them all? Now this would be a sell-out worth complaining about!? Most interestingly, it shows how a man can market himself, without backlash, using his sexual manhood as an argument. But however big the advertisement and the implied sexism, it´s always the women who take the blame. If they are sexy, they are criticized for their looks. If they are technically good, they are ignored, as they are simply not sexy enough. If they just simply step up to the challenge, looking good and being good at the same time, people just go ballistic and some get downright envious. Often this envy is canalised into attacks against our gender. Why? All people suffer hardship overcoming their own limitations. Let´s just try to help each other instead of attacking others.
Whether the world likes it or not, Kraviz is a woman leaving a benchmark as a sensual singer-songwriter trapped in the body of a “Siberian temptress’” (as Greg Wilson puts in his article about Nina) writing compelling songs, which also sparkle with sparse rhythmic arrangements and interesting sounds (and if you hear her music without knowing what she is like physically, her sex and her looks are the last things that spring to mind, despite her music being very sexy). It´s remarkable that Nina is frequently undervalued for her skills as a music maker but rather judged by the way she looks, dances and enjoys being herself. Nina has her own vision of her as an artist and thankfully does not shy away of defending herself. On her Facebook she wrote, "Guys, are you serious? Aren't you bored about this ten times dead topic about females in the industry, the idea that any boy can do what ever he wants and it's all fine and a girl needs to behave? ‘Behave’ as in ‘not even put on make up because ‘oh my god, she can't be taken seriously if she is pretty and feminine’- if she is herself. Since when, guys?”
Sexism Must Die
Good question. Until when, one would like to add. Nina continues: “If you think I am gonna change because you don't feel it or you are full of cliches and sexism: You think you can control people and tell them what they should be like. No, sorry it doesn't work this way with me. I am producing, exploring, digging records for ages, sharing music with people -- all by myself. You can't control artists and their creativity. Sexism and all similar bullshit must die. And the first step to it is to let artists be who they are regardless of their gender, skin color, sexual orientation etc... People, cliches are for those who have less crafty brains. I hope one day you will find yourself on the other side of the road.”
Words by Katrin Richter