Fetishising female pioneers of electronic music risks banishing them to glass cases, away from the main exhibits in the museum of musical history, says Abi Bliss.
There’s never been a better time to be a sonic pioneer from decades ago, especially if you’re female. From increasing mainstream recognition of the essential role played by women in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop to the enthusiastic reception which greets reissues of landmark albums by artists such as Laurie Spiegel and Eliane Radigue, a flurry of releases and retrospectives has brought such musicians’ work to eager new audiences.
Of course I’m happy to see these women enjoy renewed, or often overdue, appreciation. Yet when I’m greeted by another black and white photo of a serious-looking young woman in front of a bank of dials and patch leads, my joy is often shadowed by a nagging unease. Partly it’s due to a suspicion that every successive rediscovery is being moulded to fit a now-familiar narrative.
As Frances Morgan pointed out in her piece about Ursula Bogner, the idea of the lone woman who shuns the conventions of her era and dedicates herself like a kind of patchbay-nun to uncovering the mysteries of sound is an appealing one that plays easily into the fetishisation of outsider figures. Regardless of whether the musicians in question toiled in obscurity in a self-built studio in the 1950s or enjoyed the facilities of a well funded academic research project in the 1970s, presenting them as oddities and exceptions to the rules of their times risks banishing them to their own special glass cases, away from the main exhibits in the museum of musical history.
My dissatisfaction stems from the feeling that not so much has changed. We’d like to think that things are different now, that were Maddalena Fagandini still alive today, she wouldn’t find her work co-opted by George Martin and released under the gender-erasing pseudonym Ray Cathode. The realms of electronic and experimental music often present themselves as somehow post-gender, as though synthesis and sequencing is enough to disembody music. The illusion is shattered by first-hand accounts such as those posted recently by Grimes and by Elizabeth Veldon, documenting the misogyny (and homophobia and transmisogyny in Veldon’s case) that can be dealt out to any woman putting herself in front of an audience.
I’m angered by accounts such as these. Yet I’m also troubled by other, less overt sexism: those talented but invisible female musicians who you won’t see at a festival gritting their teeth and trying to concentrate in the face of abuse, because they never made it onto the bill in the first place.
The campaigning network Female: Pressure’s 2013 report paints a clear picture of women’s underrepresentation across an international roster of record labels and festivals both large and small.
The electronic music gender divide, as visualised by Female: Pressure
Men may make up the majority of musicians working and performing within electronic and experimental music, but a clear disparity exists between the number of female artists who can be discovered through browsing blogs or platforms such as Soundcloud, and the amount of them invited to appear at festivals, in clubs, in university concert halls or in art spaces. All too often, such line-ups make women seem like a rare species.
As an audience member, I find any event that claims to be forward-thinking but which displays such a lack of women – or indeed, anyone other than able-bodied white men, to take a broader view – mystifying. Do otherwise well-intentioned promoters suffer from a collective blind spot when it comes to curating line-ups, convincing themselves that there just aren’t any female artists of sufficient interest out there? The other, even more dispiriting alternative is that organisers consciously avoid booking too many women out of an assumption that a mostly male audience wouldn’t be interested.
I have to admit to having little clear idea as to why the audiences themselves for such events tend to skew heavily towards the male. Out of the gigs I go to in the north of England, a ratio of around 1:4 female to male seems to be average, although when I saw Swans play in Leeds last month the proportion of women there seemed as little as ten percent.
The answer has less to do with gender-essentialist speculations about different ‘male’ and ‘female’ musics, than with the way that engaging with music that might baffle and alienate your peers is still a more socially acceptable pursuit for young men than for young women. Neither do I see the gender mix of audiences as an inevitable reflection of what's taking place onstage. Women are used to consuming culture in which male experience is universalised and music is no exception.
The patchbay-nun narrative of vision, isolation and belated recognition may make a neat story for reviews sections, but the retrospective celebration of such figures doesn’t prevent sexism from continuing to pervade today’s cultural organisation and consumption. Indeed, reinforcing the idea that such women are exceptional risks normalising in the minds of both promoters and audiences those present day line-ups featuring a sole female artist.
If we don’t want to be reading The Wire’s Boomerang section in 30 years’ time, and be wondering why we never managed to see that month’s rediscovered female innovator perform in her heyday, we need to be asking whether those artists are being given their due platform right now.