Ada Lovelace Day 2010: Electronic Music

Recently I’ve been playing around with a number of electronic music tools, after a several-year break from composing. It’s fun, it can be very hands-on, but there’s also a huge number of potential tools and software to make sense of. I’ve been reading about how other people do it, trying to understand their workflow, and in the process I realized that almost none of the artists I was seeing mentioned are female. This surprised me, because I didn’t think electronic music was particularly “male”. Like a lot of tech areas, it’s not that women aren’t out there doing interesting things, but maybe we need to be reminded to pay attention.

Let’s jump back a bit.

The first electronic music artist I became really aware of, back during the summer before college, is Laurie Anderson. When William Burroughs died in August 1997, KBOO played a day-long tribute to his work, and I listened and listened as I talked to friends online, on dial-up (!), being amazed at discovering all of these things at the end of someone’s life. One of the pieces they played was “Sharkey’s Night“, which stuck with me so strongly that’s it’s half of why we have a cat named Mudshark (the other half being Lucas’s Frank Zappa obsession).

I love how she uses sound manipulation to not just make music, but to flesh out the story. In “The Cultural Ambassador”, she says,

I’ve done quite a few of these sort of impromptu new music concerts for small groups of detectives and customs agents [while traveling overseas during the Gulf War] and I’d have to keep setting all this stuff up and they’d listen for a while and they’d say:

”So uh, what’s this?”

And I’d pull out something like this filter and say:

”Now this is what I’d like to think of as the voice of Authority.”

And it would take me a while to tell them how I used it for songs that were, you know, about various forms of control, and they would say:

”Now, why would you want to talk like that?”

And I’d look around at the SWAT teams and the undercover agents and the dogs and the radio in the corner, tuned to the Superbowl coverage of the war. And I’d say:

”Take a wild guess.”

“O Superman” is another of my favorites, combining synthesizers and choral effects and the opening beat, “ah ah ah ah ah ah”, which she sings along with and imitates as the song progresses.

Let’s jump back a bit further.

The most hardcore, old-school, everything built from scratch electronic musician I know of is Delia Derbyshire. She’s best known for the original performance of the Dr. Who theme song, but more of her work has been resurrected from the archives in the last few years and you can find a decent sampling on YouTube and fan sites. What impresses me about her work is that there really wasn’t a roadmap at that point for how to work with these tools, but she tried things and worked it out, and inspired others, to beautiful effect.

To finish, someone more recent.

I only started listening to Imogen Heap‘s music in the last year, when I picked up a copy of her most recent album, Ellipse. I bought the bonus track version, which for a couple dollars more gives you instrumental versions of all of the tracks. Sometimes the vocals in a song can push the instrumental parts to the background, so the opportunity to hear how it works without them is really helpful. In interviews, she talks about recording layers and layers of ambient noises, acoustic sounds, then manipulating them digitally to get the desired effect. So I listen, to try to understand how the song is put together, and bridge the gap from what I know how to do with software and synthesizers to the effects I’m hearing.

Electronic music is perhaps not the first thing people think of when we talk about technology, but to me it fits right in. The process of learning to use new synthesizers and mixers reminds me of what it felt like to be learning to turn my beginner code skills into the ability to write a full application. Sometimes we create technology, not for a specific functional goal, but for art.

A footnote: I had “women in electronic music” in the title of this post until an editorial by Bitch Magazine reminded me that I’m kind of tired of only seeing my name on “women in tech lists” and rarely-to-never on lists of Rubyists, geosocial enthusiasts and experimenters, or things related to the actual tech I work on, and my colleagues in music might feel the same way. So, if you search for “women in electronic music”, you might find this post, but I want to emphasize the point is that some of my role models are women like me and not so much “hey, women do cool stuff too”.

This post is part of Ada Lovelace Day, which is “an international day of blogging to celebrate the achievements of women in technology and science”. You can see more participating blogs and posts at findingada.com.

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