Critical 5: Female Electronic Pioneers
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The mothers of electronic music.
For many casual music fans, the roots of modern-day electronic music will be traced back to one (admittedly influential) group: Kraftwerk. That impression was recently affirmed when a week-long live retrospective of the German mensch-maschines sold out within minutes. There's no arguing that Kraftwerk's music played a crucial role in the development of hip-hop, electro, techno, house and myriad electronic genres too obscure or marginal to mention, but what about electronic music's pre-history: the dark ages before commercially-available synthesizers, drum machines and vocoders? Who were the figures that led the way?
True, it was mostly all men: a lot of stuffy academic types, a few scientists and mathematicians, as well as some inventors (Leon Theremin, Maurice Martenot) made the initial steps. But a fair number of women played pioneering roles in establishing not only the creative language but the technical means of translating circuitry into strange new sonorities. Not discounting the contributions of many others, including Clara Rockmore and Joan La Barbara, here are five of the most influential.
Along with husband Louis, Bebe Barron is best known for composing the first entirely electronic film score, for 1956's Forbidden Planet. Despite that bit of commercial work, the Barrons actually got their start in the bohemian art scene of 1950s Greenwich Village, hobnobbing with the likes of avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren and literary titans Henry Miller and Anais Nin. But it was the cybernetic theories of MIT mathematician Norbert Weiner that inspired the Barrons to build electronic circuits whose unpredictable characteristics mimicked the complexities of the natural world. Utilizing newly developed tape recording technology, the couple manipulated these raw recordings using such basic means as speed control, tape loops, and splice edits, creating an odd new sound that seemed tailor-made for the burgeoning sci-fi film genre.
In 1942, Daphne Oram gave up a spot at the prestigious Royal College of Music to work as a music engineer at the BBC. In the post-war period, after becoming aware of developments by French broadcasters in the fields of musique concrete and electronic sound, Oram became a champion for the establishment of England's first electronic music studio. What resulted was the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, the official sound effects wing of the British broadcaster and a creative hotbed for innovations in so-called ‘synthetic sound.' But the schoolmarm-ish Oram's most unusual contribution to the field of synthesis is her namesake technique known as ‘Oramics,' an ingenious system that used drawn shapes on clear 35mm film stock to modulate sound - and, with its use of a binary system of programming, is sometimes considered to be a precursor to modern, digitally controlled synthesizers.
After being rejected work as a recording engineer at Decca Records because she was a woman, Delia Derbyshire followed in the footsteps of Daphne Oram and joined the BBC as a trainee studio manager. She eventually landed at the Radiophonic Workshop in 1962, where she created some of the BBC's most memorable radio and TV theme music, all using the most provisional, rudimentary technology of time. Fascinated by the possibilities of using electronic sound to evoke strange and mysterious moods, Derbyshire - with her almost preternatural ability to translate raw sound into musical pitch - helped realize Ron Grainer's score for the classic British sci-fi series Doctor Who. Using just military-grade test tone generators and magnetic tape, without even the benefit of multi-track recording, the ever-resourceful Derbyshire painstakingly crafted the show's hauntingly iconic theme music, yet never received any credit for her efforts from the BBC. Post-Workshop, up until her death in 2001, Derbyshire continued to promote electronic music in the U.K. via her organization Unit Delta Plus, contributed to David Vorhaus's landmark album of ‘60s electronic psychedelia White Noise, and collaborated with Spacemen 3 alum and avowed Radiophonic fan Pete "Sonic Boom" Kember.
A maverick American composer whose theories of "Deep Listening" and "Sonic Awareness" employ resonant spaces and environmental sound to create consciousness-expanding works, Pauline Oliveros began with the accordion as her chosen instrument, later elaborating upon its sound-making potential with a complex network of tape delays that she dubbed "the Expanded Instrument System." A founding member of the San Francisco Tape Music Center, Oliveros began using tape recorders as compositional tools as early as 1959. Working against the splice-edit, collage approach of Frenchmen such as Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry, Oliveros used tape recorders in series, threading spools of tape through both recording and playback heads to create intricate time-delayed and spatialization effects, prefiguring by nearly two decades similar experiments by Robert Fripp and Brian Eno. Oliveros, while mostly unsung as an early figurehead of ambient music, is perhaps more spiritually akin to modern-day drone and noise artists, a legacy that's easy to recognize upon listening to the composer's Four Electronic Pieces: 1959 - 1966, a collection of early oscillator and tape compositions saturated with the sounds of harsh overtones and singed circuitry.
Widely acknowledged as the composer that popularized the use of synthesizers in classical and pop music, Wendy Carlos cracked the Billboard Top 40 in 1969 with her album Switched-On Bach: a rare feat for a classical music album, much less one created entirely on a Moog synthesizer. A childhood prodigy who went on to work at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, Carlos - herself an electronics and computer whiz - consulted Robert Moog during the early stages of the development of the Moog synthesizer, advising the inventor to add musician-friendly features such as velocity sensitivity and aftertouch. After conquering the pop charts, Carlos went on to notable soundtrack work - A Clockwork Orange (1971), The Shining (1980) - as well as a groundbreaking album of proto-ambient works entitled Sonic Seasonings (1972).
|Louis & Bebe Barron – “Main Titles Overture” (Forbidden Planet Soundtrack)|
|Daphne Oram – “Pulse Persephone”|
|Delia Derbyshire & Ron Grainer – “Original Theme Music” (Doctor Who, 1963)|
|Pauline Oliveros – “Mnemonics III”|
|Wendy Carlos – “Title Music from A Clockwork Orange” based on "Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary" by Henry Purcell|