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Sisters Are Doing It… All By Themselves?

Essay by Ivna Franić

A few years back, when covering the first Hyperreality festival, I spent an afternoon at Vienna’s mumok. At the time, there were two major exhibitions: ‘Woman’, dedicated to feminist avant-garde of the 1970s, and ‘Oh…’, presenting one contemporary Austrian artist’s bizarre take on mumok’s own collection of modernist and contemporary art.

On display in ‘Woman’ were an extensive collection of stunning and challenging works by women artists like Cindy Sherman, Valie Export and many others, crammed together and categorized around topics typically attached to women such as “household” and “sexuality”, stripped of their respective historical, social and geo-specific cultural contexts that made them important and exciting in the first place.

‘Oh…’ on the other hand exhibited artist Jakob Lena Knebl’s peculiar intervention in the collection of well-known works: a painting by Picasso only visible as a reflection in a blurry mirror, a statue by Giacometti dressed in a shiny red dress and installed on a revolving turntable, and so on. By arranging these masterworks in unexpected situations or even reducing them to a decorative function, she facilitated a confrontational (and fun!) take on a part of the art historical canon that is rarely challenged outside of the realm of critical and academic writing.

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When it comes to historical canon of popular music, there have been quite a few attempts at revising the femme-identifying artists’ position in it. Over the past ten to fifteen years, this topic has not only gained wider traction in discourse on music, but has also started producing some actual results – such as the increase in representation of non-cis-white-male musicians as well as the rise in diversity among music journalists.

These efforts have been especially prominent in the field of electronic music, with many articles and features dedicated to uncovering its forgotten female pioneers. And although interest in the gender critique of, specifically, the history of early electronic music has perhaps waned a little recently, the wider issue of femme-identifying artists’ place in the overall history of popular music is still a highly relevant one. It is 2020 and we have lived to see an album by a woman artist finally reach a rarely seen level of universal acclaim, including one of the highest-ever scores on the aggregate Metacritic and a “perfect ten” rating from one of the most talked-about music websites (whatever you or I might think of them). The significance of Pitchfork’s move in particular lies not only in an attempt to make album reviews relevant again, but in that it provides us with a rare opportunity to see a female artist solidify her position in the canon in real time, instead of through subsequent historical revision.

When it came to reflections on the best music of bygone decade, undertaken by most of the prominent music magazines and websites late last year, women did seem to fare better than they have in previous decades’ overviews, however, they were still better represented and ranked higher if they operated in the fields of pop and r&b – genres traditionally viewed as commercial, and still not typically associated with a strong author vision (despite many examples that easily disprove this outdated point of view). On the other hand, many of the artists most commonly mentioned in the early 2010’s examination of contemporary counterparts to the electronic music’s female pioneers, like Laurel Halo, Jlin, Holly Herndon and others, fared rather poorly in a lot of places, or were barely featured at all. (We could say that these kinds of lists are hardly the best place to look for recognition in electronic music, but the situation doesn’t look much more promising from other angles either. Take Female:Pressure’s FACTS2020 survey of gender distribution in music festival lineups which found that, despite the rise in the number of female acts since 2012, women still make up for barely 25% of all festival acts – suggesting that femme-identifying artists still seem to be considered incapable of “carrying” the lineup.)

It’s not that anyone expects a lot from the mainstream-ish music media, it’s just that it feels like all the fuss about women making electronic music hasn’t amounted to much in terms of shaping a more diverse history of contemporary electronic music, and we have a lot more revising to do before women can be rid of their anomalous status. Any excuse to reexamine old concerns related to this issue; to see how and if things have changed, is absolutely more than welcome.

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Enter “Sisters With Transistors”, a new documentary on female founders of electronic music that sets out to rewrite a part of the popular music history by proving that the role of women in shaping the sounds and methods of early electronic music was central rather than marginal. Directed by the French-American filmmaker Lisa Rovner, the film was shown at this year’s Cph:Dox and awarded with special mention in the Next:Wave category.

In this documentary, rare archival clips and exclusive interviews meet occasional narration by Laurie Anderson, as well as some insightful comments by contemporary artists such as Holly Herndon and Ramona Gonzalez (aka Nite Jewel). As a film, we are talking about a pretty classic documentary, flowing through the individual stories of protagonists one by one, presenting us with a unique glimpse into the thoughts and practices of the likes of Eliane Radigue, Delia Derbyshire, Daphne Oram, Laurie Spiegel and others. The importance of ‘Sisters With Transistors’ mainly lies in the fact that a comprehensive documentary on the topic has not really been made before. Save for the Kickstarter-aided Suzanne Ciani documentary, the available video documentation on women of early electronic music has mostly been confined to individual interviews and occasional national television or radio documentaries.

Once you get over the initial joy of finally (1) seeing and hearing all these heroines discuss their work (2) in one place, it is only a matter of time before certain quandaries reemerge that have plagued the narrative on electronic music’s female pioneers ever since the matter became a frequent topic in the discourse on popular music.

One thing “Sisters With Transistors” definitely delivers on is its pledge to put women front and center. If you saw the film without having much prior knowledge about the history of electronic music, you would be forgiven for getting the impression that this is how it went: any Schaeffers, Stockhausens, Cages, etc. are but side characters. It is not so much that men are scarcely mentioned; it is that the story works just fine without them – in the same way the supposedly universal yet obviously women-omitting documentaries and historical outlines have always exhibited solid internal logic. And this approach actually sounds fun, perhaps even bold and subversive. The film’s restrictive representation, which on one hand results in an introductory-level overview, can at the same time function as an intriguing alternate account of early electronic music.

Upon a closer look, though, this subtle challenge to the dominant history feels more like a byproduct of the chosen art-form’s time constrictions rather than a calculated move. The film inevitably ends up reproducing the old patterns of representation: the specific protagonists might have been replaced, but the dominant narrative structure, with its mechanisms – such as the need to isolate the forerunners – was left intact.

While commendable for its insistence on the image of women as technological innovators, “Sisters With Transistors” does not seem particularly concerned with much more than providing yet another document on the same group of individuals who are now more or less commonly accepted as representative of the “female pioneers of early electronic music” category.

Sure, any opportunity to illustrate the sheer magnitude of overlooked female talent is always welcome, and even bulk representations of possibly entirely unrelated artists make for an effective way to shake up the (formerly?) predominant narrative of the succession of male composers and artists traditionally credited for laying grounds for the development of electronic music. However, lumping all the female artists together, with little regard to actual connections not only amongst themselves, but also between them and their male peers, establishes lineage and/or association between female artists purely on gender grounds and presents female creative work as a separate evolutionary trail in the genre’s history. Ultimately, this ends up relaying a message very similar to the one that the had intended to debunk.

Case in point: One of the most interesting moments in “Sisters With Transistors” is a brief insight into the reception of Wendy Carlos’ breakthrough work among some of her peers, like Suzanne Ciani. Ciani felt that “Switched on Bach” had, in a way, betrayed the newly emerging electronic music. The record in question had an indisputable impact in popularizing electronic music, however, by exposing synthesizer’s potential to replace traditional instruments, it had also negatively affected the perception and recognition of electronic musicians not only as innovators but also as artists creating original work. Why take an exciting new technology and simply use it to recreate an already existing work, when it provides you with the possibility to create something completely new? A remark along those lines, unfortunately, appears only for a fleeting moment, and we don’t get to delve deeper into what might have been an interesting discussion. Instead, we are left with a glimpse of what a more nuanced approach to rewriting this history might have looked like.

Early electronic music pioneers being only a part of a bigger picture, this is something that seems very symptomatic when it comes to the representation of female electronic musicians in general: in an effort to affirm their place in the musical canon and avoid bursting the sisterhood bubble (by possibly uncovering the occasional absence of direct lineage), journalists and documentarians often shy away from exploring any actual relationships between the designated key figures. Old myths are thus merely replaced with the new ones.

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It’s not that anyone expects a lot from the mainstream-ish music media, it’s just that it feels like all the fuss about women making electronic music hasn’t amounted to much in terms of shaping a more diverse history of contemporary electronic music

So, how do we go about rewriting the history of electronic music? And does a historical canon with better gender-balance necessarily guarantee a more favorable framework for contemporary femme-identifying artists? What methods to use, once we have already done some “excavation”, listing and counting, or: what are some practices regarding the present that might render the future revisions redundant?

One area that has seen some positive results, even if they are less tangible than those coming in numeric forms, is the actual writing on music. In part due to the opening up of music journalism to a more diverse pool of writers, and in part due to raising awareness on the limitations of language previously used to describe work by femme-identifying artists, the discourse itself seems to be healing from decades of confinement as a boys’ club. The pool of influential references has widened, and femme-identifying producers are no longer compared only to other women that came before them (or rather: only to a specific few women). The tendency to paint a present-day social and cultural context rather than trace chronological lineage between artists has also proven to be a powerful tool that not only does away with awkward comparisons and the influence guesswork, but questions the very need to establish a hierarchy. And the context seems to be getting wider, too, with more and more talk of racial bias, western-centricity, class issues and the conditions of music production and distribution deservedly overtaking the discourse.

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To briefly return to the story from the introduction: Showcasing a crucial yet regularly neglected portion of art history in an extremely conventional way simultaneously with classics displayed in a highly unorthodox manner, the juxtaposition of the two exhibitions – whether intentional or not – turned out to be quite illuminating. Openly playful and unbothered by potentially coming off silly, ‘Oh…’ exhibition did not so much question the selection of personae and works commonly considered to be canonic as much as it has challenged the concept of the canon itself as the dominant approach to representing and contextualizing the history of any given artistic field or era. It was the approach of this exhibition that made it more convincing, memorable and thought-provoking than the other one.

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Of course, it would be unfair to expect from one project – in this case the documentary film ‘Sisters With Transistors’ – to tackle such a wide set of problems and single-handedly change the way we think about the history of early electronic music. Considering that a lot has been said and written on the issue, it would have just been really nice to see such a comprehensive endeavor dig a little deeper, rather than more or less reiterate what has already been established in a different, but very conventional approach to this media form.

So, yeah. Overviews, lists and statistical analyses that shed the light on underrepresented heroines no doubt make for an excellent tool for advocacy, and as such function as a useful step in the process… But should not be the end-goal. Simply adding more and more new (femme) characters will hardly work unless the roles of the already established (predominantly male) figures are reexamined. Or, better yet: instead of attempting to canonize a new set of protagonists, why not try and do away with the whole competitive form of representation that heavily relies on the myth of individual artistic genius? While retrospective examinations do seem to help in setting up a historical context that leaves better framework for contemporary artists to fit into the picture, a continuous insistence on a more nuanced portrayal of the current landscape might have an even stronger potential to prevent any future omissions of marginalized and underrepresented groups from history. Or, rather, a potential to write a new story – one that is going to stick.

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