The history of electronic music is inevitably related to the history of science. It is scientific advances that allowed the development of machines capable of recording, modifying and reproducing sounds at a time when the composition with classical instruments was habitual. The gender bias in science is something that has been criticized for years Not only are there very few women who can approach the scientific work but also that the few present are usually invisible.
In the development of electronic machinery linked to the musical creation, there have always been women. Many of them besides being mathematicians, physicists or engineers were also composers of music or creators of sounds. It is common to talk about the great pioneers of electronics and recognize names like Leon Theremin, Pierre Henry, Pierre Schaeffer or Brian Eno. Few will remember that Leon Theremin got popular in Theremin thanks to his tour with Clara Rockmore. In the same way, few know that just before Bob Moog created his first synthesizer in 1963, Daphne Oram had already created her ‘Oramics’ in 1957.
The invisibility of women in electronic music has different origins, but it is indisputable that it has a common core.
Patriarchy in the decades between 30 and 70 was characterized by fervently preventing women’s access to studies or working highly-qualified jobs. Many of the women linked to electronic creation saw their projects fail because of their gender: Suzanne Cianito‘s advances in technological research went bankrupt because the shareholders did not trust a woman; Pierre Henry and Pierre Schaeffer fired their assistant for being too creative – which generated the possibility of working at the University of New York and become a benchmark of concrete music*.
*musique concrète – music that was “concrete” because it involved working directly with the sound material. This would come from recordings made in the studio (of voices, musical instruments, and assorted objects) or found in the radio’s capacious libraries. Techniques included playing tapes at different speeds, backward or as loops.
There are women making the most experimental electronic music today, but before? Why are the references to them hidden in the history books? We are talking about great professionals, with musical careers that have led them to be part of the most classic moments in film and television history (footage from movies like Doctor Who The Mechanical Orange were arranged/composed by women). We are talking about pieces that have even become part of the NASA compilations giving rise to women who literally have sounded beyond the earth.
Let me introduce you to very important purveyors of innovation in electronic creation and pioneers of electronic music…
Daphne Oram (1925 – 2003)
Since she was a child Oram was composing and playing the piano and the organ. In 1942 she was offered a position at the Royal College of Music. However, she rejected it and accepted a position on the BBC as a studio engineer and tonal balance of music at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. That was the department of the BBC responsible for the composition of sounds and specific music for radio programs. During that time Oram composed ‘Still Point’, considered the first piece that combines orchestral acoustic music with live electronic manipulation.
In 1957 Oram created Oramics, a machine for the musical creation that was based on the system called Graphical Sound. It consists of the recording of sounds created from images made on a film and later reproduced in a sound system.
Delia Derbyshire (1937 – 2001)
Graduating in mathematics and music, she specialized in the history of medieval and modern music. She worked as an assistant in Radio conferences for the International Union of telecommunications of the UN.She was a pioneer of concrete music and joined the Radiophonic Workshop of the BBC where she gave shape, among others, to the main theme of the series Doctor Who in 1963 by Ron Grainer.
While Grainer composed the basic melody, it was Derbyshire who provided the iconic sounds and form of the theme. Grainer attempted to secure co-writing credit for Derbyshire, but due to rules in place at the time, she was not allowed to receive a songwriting credit. Although the Workshop and she would be regularly credited on the series.
Some of her techniques used for musical composition was the ‘Fibonacci sequence’. Among her work tools were the magnetic tapes she used to record sounds and which she later manipulated with white sound generators, valve oscillators, filters or tape recorders. Delia has posthumously been awarded an honorary Ph.D. by Coventry University.
Wendy Carlos (1939)
A graduate in physics and music, she was one of the pioneers in the use of synthesizers. She researched electro-acoustic technology collaborating in the development of the Moog synthesizer. A precursor of the synthpop, ambient, and new age became popular for her adaptations of Bach pieces for the synthesizer. Because of that, she won three Grammy awards.
In 2005, Carlos was the recipient of the SEAMUS Lifetime Achievement Award “in recognition of lifetime achievement and contribution to the art and craft of electro-acoustic music” by the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States.
Suzanne Ciani (1946)
She studied composition at Berkley. During that time she worked with Buchla welding synthesizers and for 10 years she dedicated himself to explore its possibilities. During the 70s she moved to New York and created her own company Ciani Musica specialized in creating music and sound effects for television and video games. She made commercials for American Express, General Electric, Atari or Coca–Cola. Her work led her to fame by being able to reproduce the sound of a Coca-Cola bottle opening (with a synthesizer).
She also founded the Electronic Center for New Music. However, the society failed because the sponsors did not trust a woman who also composed with a very little known instrument at that time. Thanks to the programming of Sonar festival in 2017, people were able to see her perform in front of an audience.
Eliane Radigue (1932)
Eliane studied piano and worked as an assistant for Pierre Henry during his stays in Paris. However, her creative evolution and her use of the micro and the long loops with ‘Larsen effect’ did not please Henry and Schaeffer, who, considering it too provocative, dispensed with her services. In 1970 she started working with Laurie Spiegel in a studio at the University of New York, using a Buchla synthesizer. Her goal was to work on the creation of concrete music. Much of Radigue’s later work was done with the ARP 2500 synthesizer.