Being a musician or just a fan of music it`s quite common to want to learn about your favourite artists and genres. Where did it come from? What did it mean? Who did it first? Such questions will always spark often very passionate discussions or straight up arguments.
These days when there
s more focus on feminism and equality, or rather equity. We see articles about representation of women and people of colour, transgendered people and more within the various subcultures we`ve all come to love.
And yet, I rarely see much talk about the female pioneers of electronic music. Surely if you
ve looked into the history of synthesizers and electronic music youve come across names such as Don Buchla and Bob Moog who both deserve all the credit and praise in the world for their inventions but there is a vast amount of women who worked within this genre, shaping and forming it into what it has become and that`s who I want to shine a light on within this article.
I want to start this off with someone who I believe might be a little more well known, at least compared to the other women I will be highlighting here, I also want to say that this is by no means a comprehensive list or to say that only the people in this articles contributions mattered, this is but a sliver of the history of pioneering women in electronic music.
Wendy Carlos, who is still with us today although some people seem to be under the impression that she`s dead, is perhaps most famous for creating the score for movies such as The Shining and A Clockwork Orange.
Wendy, born Walter, Carlos, is originally from Rhode Island but met Bob Moog while attending Columbia Universety during the early 60s.
She acted as advisor and offered technical assistance for the creation of the first Moog synthesizer which she herself would later go on to use for the creation of jingles and sound effects to be used in TV advertisements.
Fun fact: It was Wendy who made the suggestion to Bob Moog of adding touch-sensitive keys as opposed to the knobs and wires of early synthesizer.
Her career truly began however by recording the album that became known as “Switched On Bach” in 1968. The album consisted of several pieces written by composer Johan Sebastian Bach written by Wendy entirely on an early Moog synth and actually went on to become a commerial success and helped along the process of the synthesizer being seen as a musical instrument as opposed to just a random noise box.
So where is she today? As I mentioned she is indeed still with us although she has retreated from the spotlight, refusing interviews, her website hasn`
t been updated since circa 2009 and she won`t even confirm her whereabouts.
Finding her music can be quite a task as well aside from of course the soundtracks she provided for The Shining, Tron and A Clockwork Orange, even in these modern times of the internet. In fact her only form of appearing in public has been in the form of lawsuits to remove her compostions used without consent in a variety of Youtube videos.
As far as we are aware she hasn`
t released anything new since 1998s “Tales Of Heaven And Hell”
Her choice to remain underground is absoloutely well deserved, she brought a revolution that changed music forever and while I could certainly go on and write some sort of biography I hope the information provided here may spark some interest leading you to do your own research.
Let me introduce you to Daphne Oram, a woman who`s success was prophesized by a supposed medium at age 17.
Wether the medium was truly in contact with the other side or not didn`
t seem to have much effect on Daphnes father who based on the predictions allowed his daughter to put nurse training on hold in favour of pursuing a career in music. Daphne herself had ideas which we could certainly classify as mysticism and perhaps that too is a bi product of her early experience with a medium?
She was offered a place at Royal Collage Of Music in England when she was only 18 although she turned it down to work for the BBC where after just a few years she began work to set up a studio to create electronic sound effects as well as music.
The earliest form of electronic music came as tape manipulation, something Daphne saw great potential in right from the beginning.
During the early 50s she wrote that just as how cameras and film could “explode time and space” in telling stories, tapes and microphones could do the same for music.
She began experimenting with tape, slowing it down, speeding it up, layering and splicing them together. This was a practice which was seen as quite radical for it`s time and definetly belonging to the avant-garde scene.
While in most European countries such experimentation was government funded , in the UK this was out of the question and especially so when coming from a young woman, but Daphne had conviction and didn
t give up that easily. She eventually convinced the BBC to let her set up what became known as the Radiophonic Workshop although it wasnt exactly filled with money nor was it given the best, up to date or even new equipment she made due with what she had untill she quit after being told they were worried about the effects radiophonic signals may have on the human body, of course, this was not a worry that extended towards her male collegues.
She eventuallly created her own studio and went on to compose music from tape manipulation which later on was heard at the Queen Elizabeth Hall as well as a commision piece for the Royal Academy Of The Arts.
There`s even stories of people such as Mick Jagger or The Beatles coming to see her, asking for her contribution on their albums only to be turned down, something Daphne very simply justified by saying it wasn`t her type of thing and that is a great example of her as a person, she was a stubborn, headstrong woman filled to the brim with conviction which are all of course traits that would be considered “bad” for a woman of her times to posess but regardless I applaud her and so should you.
Before we move on to our next queen of synthesis we must discusss the Oramics machine, Daphne`s own invention.
After having seen an oscilloscope, a device which shows the shape of a sound, what most of us may know better as a waveshape. Daphne thought about reversing this processs so you create an image and based on it`s shape you will get a sound. She was essentially drawing her own sounds.
This could be seen as a prototype of the sequencer as this method allowed Daphne to determine the speed and pitch by the form of her drawings as well as vibrato, timbre etc.
Daphne viewed this form of composing as something quite organic and human rather than the product of machines which is very much in line with the ideas of west coast synthesis pioneer Don Buchla which I only mention to draw parallels, Daphne saw music as a whole as an inherent part of humans, she was inspired by the fact that we are at our core a collection of vibrating, noisy atoms, to use a quote from Daphne herself; “Sound is at the core of who we are”.
If you`re finding yourself becoming increasingly fascinated by this woman I reccomend you get a hold of a copy of her book “An Individual Note Of Music, Sound And Electronics” where she not only explains the functionality of electronic circuits but also draws interesting analogies between circuits and the human body and mind.
The next High Priestess Of Electronic Audio Manipulation I want to introduce you is someone who`s creation you may very well already have heard at least one rendition of without even knowing it!
Her name is Delia Derbyshire and she is the one to thank for the eerie sounds which has opened every single episode of Doctor Who from it`s first episode all the way up to whichever season is currently running.
Delia here has a direct connection to our previous Lady Ov Circuit Magick as she worked out of the BBC`s Radiophonic Workshop created by Daphne Oram.
Delia was known to be quite stubborn, in fact that may be what got her a job at the Workshop. You see, people were assigned to work there rather than being able to apply for a job there but Delia, after trying out a few other jobs and whatnot all related to sound, decided that this is where she wanted to work and lo and behold; not long after making this known she did indeed end up working there and stayed on for 11 years by which point she had contributed hundreds of compositions for both radio and TV programmes.
One of her first and most well-known compositions is the opening music for Doctor Who. This piece was written by Ron Grainer which brought it to Delia for her to interpret electronically. To be clear, Ron Grainer had not recorded the actual music, at this point the song was but notes on a piece of paper for Delia to work with, something I`m sure she was no stranger to as she played piano from the age of eight.
At this point in history electronic music was but a fetus, there was no other TV show with electronic music as it
s theme song so I imagine if you`d be flipping through the few channels you might have had during that time to suddenly hear the wailing sounds of the Doctor Who opening it might very well be a frightening experience sure to haunt you for a very long time
The first time she played it for Ron Grainer he was so shocked by what he heard he was in disbelief over the fact that he had written this, so much so that he had to ask Delia for confirmation, to which she replied “Most of it”.
Ron tried to have Delias efforts be credited as one should but unfortunatly the BBC prevented him from doing so as they prefered the workers of the Radiophonic Workshop to remain anonymous and all compositions to be seen as a product of the group rather than one singular person.
Due to this decision Delia didn
t receive the on-screen credit she deserved untilll the 50th anniversary episode of the show. Her original arrangement was the shows theme song for the first seventeen seasons, after which a variety of different versions came along without Delias approval, in fact she had quite the negative reaction to this and the only version she approved of was her own, which honestly, I cant blame her. Having read about her and watched whatever video footage I could find of her and learning just how much of a perfenctionist and how stubborn this woman was I`m surprised they ever had the balls to change it up in the first place.
After Delia`s death several hundred recordings of her were discovered in her attic although due to various copyright issues none of these have been released. I certainly hope the legalities of it all can be swiftly taken care so we can hear more of this womans creations and further push her name out there for people to discover.
I leave you with this short documentary on her for your viewing and learning pleasure.
Pioneering, groundbreaking women are found all over the world, not just in England and the U.S. So let me introduce to Eliane Radigue from France.
Now, I could be wrong of course but I feel like out of the ones we`ve talked about so far, Eliane might be the one I hear about the least so I hope that by including her here some day someone might stumble across this little article and be exposed to her as well as the other wonderful women mentioned here.
Eliane studied under Pierre Schaefer, the father of Musique Concrëte. As she started discovering her own sound Schaeffer as well as her other mentor Pierre Henry felt she strayed from their ideals by her use of droning microphone feedback and tape loops.
She received her training on Musique Concrète via tape loops which she foud to be an eye opening experience discovering that any tiny fraction of sound can indeed be musicial in some way or another.
During the 60s she began experimenting with tape loop feedback and developed a fascination for music containing minimal development over a longer period of time ; In other words, she may very well be the mother of Drone.
During the 70s she experimented on a Buchla synthesizer as well as Moog before landing on the ARP 2600. Her goal was to create slow unfolding music more comparative to the minimalist scene of New York at the time rather than the Musique Concrète techniques exhibited by her fellow frenchmen.She used the ARP 2600s exclusively for the next 25 years.
In 1974 she released her first piece of music “Adonis I” which caught the attention of a group of french music students who suggested she look into Tibetan Buddhism as they saw parallels between her music and meditation.
She followed their suggestion and ended up devoting the next three years of life studying and learning under her guru who every now and then sent her back to her music allowing her to release “Adonis II” in 1979 and “Adonis III” in 1980.
During the late 80s and early 90s she devoted most of her creative time to a three hour long composition entitled “Trilogies De La Mort” inspired by the Tibetan book of the dead as well as being a sonic interpretation of the six states of conciousnes.
Now, at the start of this presentation about Eliane you may remember I said that I feel as if out of all the women mentioned thus far she is the least known, regardless she did receive an award in 2006 and is still alive today so there is certaily still time.
ELSE MARIE PADE
Continuing with pioneers from Europe the next great woman I want to talk about is Denmark`s Else Marie Pade.
While refering to the music of all these women as otherworldly wouldn`
t be so strange there are some cases where it can be applied in a sense that doesn`t just refer to the sounds themselves but also their reason for existing, Daphne Oram is definetly an example of this and so is Else.
You see, Else spent a great part of her life bedridden due to illness, specifically kidney inflammation. She used to lay in bed and listen to the outside world, creating aural images from these sounds which would later on heavily influence her work.
She was the first danish composer of electronic music starting out in 1954 as well as being a student of Pierre Schaeffer and his Musique Concrète whom she collaborated with along with other electronic music icons such as Karlheinz Stockhausen.
Else was not just a great electronic pioneer, she was also part of the Danish Resistance which she was introduced to by her piano teacher, so much so that one day while walking past a line of German soldiers she spat in the face of one of them who then ran after her but failed to capture her as Else knew the city better than him and thus had no issue escaping through alleyways.
She was trained in the use of weapons and explosives, she distributed illegal newspapers, and got involved in a plan to identify phone wires which would be blown up at the arrival of the British invasion so that the Germans couldn`t make use of the phone lines. However she was eventually arrested by Gestappo and legend says she saw a flashing star from her prison cell window which made her feel music playing inside herself, she then scratched the notes for this music on the wall of her cell with a buckle from her girdle and the song later became “You and I And The Stars” or “Du og jeg og stjernerne” as it would be called in Danish.
After being sent to a different prison she began composing, holding concerts for gatherings of other prisoners, some of which also provided musical entertainment to try to keep their spirits up despite their dire circumstances.
Once the war ended and she was released from prison she discovered Pierre Scaheffer who she managed to get in touch with via some French family. She recognized something in his music which resonated with her earlier aural images made from ideas birthed by sounds she heard outside as she was forced to stay in bed due to disease.
She composed the piece “A Day At Dyrehavsbakken” and it became Denmarks first electronic piece of music.
As we have reached the end of this little history lesson we turn our heads back towards America and more specifically to Suzanne Ciani who much like Wendy Carlos might be some of the more well known names on this list but is still deserving of praise.
Suzanne is dubbed the first female synth hero of America and has even been nominated for five grammies.
Originally from Massachusets she ended up in California to study in pursuit of a masters degree at the Berkley Universety where she met Don Buchla during her first year who she would end up working for after graduating in order to save up money to buy a Buchla synthesizer for her self.
Considering she felt as if shipping of her own children whenever a synthesizer was built, finished and sent to the buyer it`s clear she had quite an affinity for this particular instrument early on. Although she did try out a few different jobs such as a failed furniture company she eventually returned to Los Angeles during the early 70s to focus on music and released her debut album in 1970 with only 50 copies being made of the original pressing.
In the mid-70s Suzanne headed to New York with nothing but a bag of clothes and her synth, she would spend up to nineteen years in the city performing at the Bonino Gallery as a solo artist as well as becoming a session musician. She couldn
t however make a steady income and at one point refered to herself as being "homeless and happy" but soon she would begin composing jingles for companies such as Coca-Cola, so if you`ve ever seen a commercial and heard the sound of the bottle opening then you have heard Suzanne`s sound design.
She also worked on a disco version of a Star Wars soundtrack as well as scoring an experimental documentary about Mother Theresa in the 80s.
Durng the early 90s Suzanne was battling breast cancer but thankfully she made it through and is still with us here today, during the period of the illness the relocated to California where she still remains and you can now find several interviews, speeches and of course performances by her on Youtube and other places around the web.
In June of 2019 an unreleased album recorded in 1969 named “Flowers Of Evil” was released at last which features a recital of the poem “Elevation” by Charles Baudelaire with Suzanne performing on a Buchla synthesizer, I will leave a link to that below as well as other interesting footage of her for your enjoyment.