Electronic Musicians

Louis & Bebe Barron | Forbidden Planet (Soundtrack ...
Bebe (1925 – 2008) and Louis (1920 – 1989) Barron were credited with the first entirely electronic film score for Forbidden Planet (1956). Norbert Wierner’s Cybernetics: Or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (1948), played an important role in the development of the Barrons’ composition. Cybernetics proposes that certain natural laws of behaviour apply to some complex electronic machines, as well as animals.

Sisters with Transistors is a 1h25m38s video about electronic music’s female pioneers. It begins with an assertion that the history of women has been a history of silence. Undoubtedly, an old male is not the best person to comment on this or on any of the challenges female composers/ musicians faced. However, there are similarities with pop art, where female painters, the initial innovators of the art form, were removed from its history, to be replaced by second-wave male copyists, who had the right connections.

These pop artists include: Dorothy Grebenak (1913 – 1990), Corita Kent (1918 – 1986), Elaine Sturtevant (1924 – 2014), Rosalyn Drexler (1926 – ), Marisol = Maria Sol Escobar (1930 – 2016), Marjorie Strider (1931 – 2014) who is my favourite, Idelle Weber (1932 – 2020), Kiki Kogelnik (1935 – 1997), Evelyne Axell (1935 – 1972), Pauline Boty (1938 – 1966) and Marta Minujín (1943 – ).

I suspect a similar situation may very well be the case with these female electronic music pioneers. Once again, one has to ask how much credit men are taking for creative work undertaken by women?

Two of the composers in this film have been featured in previous weblog posts that promote female composers/ musicians/ songwriters/ singers. These are Pauline Oliveros and Delia Derbyshire. Sisters with Transistors also provides insights into other female composers/ experimenters/ musicians who use audio technology to liberate humankind from traditional instruments and to transform how music is produced.

Keyboard instruments are versatile. A single player can play up to ten notes simultaneously on, say, a piano. With foot pedals and stops, organ players can produce even more. However, a synthesizer offers even greater capabilities, particularly in terms of its ability to construct tones that defy the physical limitations of acoustic instruments. Thus, a synth based composer/ musician has an ability to create a personal sonic universe, then shape the music allowed within it.

The video is particularly useful in presenting a new history of electronic music. That is, it examines visionary women whose radical experimentations with machines redefined the boundaries of music. These women include: Clara Rockmore (1911 – 1998), Bebe Barron (1925 – 2008), Daphne Oram (1925 – 2003), Éliane Radigue (1932 – ), Pauline Oliveros (1932 – 2016), Delia Derbyshire (1937 – 2001), Maryanne Amacher (1938 – 2009), Laurie Spiegel (1945 – ) and Suzanne Ciani (1946 – ).

Two minutes into the video viewers are told it is 1974-04-30. Suzanne Ciani, is speaking. She describes the Buchla synth she will be playing a concert on, then says: “I think they are sensual. May I have a cigarette?” One is immediately taken back into a time period when smoking was an acceptable activity. It was an era when pants/ trousers were not fully acceptable as female attire, when women were expected to give up their identity and assume that of their husbands.

Assignment #1: What collective noun would readers prefer to be used to describe multiple synths? For example, one has a choir of angels, a bunch of bananas, a deck of cards and a cluster of diamonds. Some suggestions are provided, towards the bottom of this post.

The appeal of a synth

As one of the film’s subjects, Laurie Spiegel explains: “We women were especially drawn to electronic music when the possibility of a woman composing was in itself controversial. Electronics let us make music that could be heard by others without having to be taken seriously by the male dominated Establishment.”

As promotional materials for the video express it, within the wider social, political and cultural context of the 20th century, “the documentary reveals a unique emancipation struggle, restoring the central role of women in the history of music and society at large.”

With Laurie Anderson (1947 – ) as narrator, the video examines the evolution of electronic music: how new devices opened music to the entire field of sound, how electronic music not only changed the modes of production but the very terms of musical thought.

There is little point in discussing the details of this documentary further, without the reader/ listener/ viewer having an opportunity to hear and see it. Thus, readers are encouraged to find the video, enjoy it and reflect on it.

Assignment #1 (revisited)

Collective noun suggestions for synths, include 1) general terms for musical groups: band, choir, combo, ensemble, orchestra; 2) quantity related: duo, trio, quartets, quintets, sextets, septets, octets; 3) computer related: cluster, network.

Interested readers may also want to read: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2021/apr/23/sisters-with-transistors-film-electronic-musics-forgotten-pioneers-clara-rockmore

This post was originally scheduled to be published 2021-08-07 at 12:00, but was postponed to allow for further reflection.

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