Women & machines

We tune in to electronic music’s great female pioneers to discover an exhilarating network of influence and innovation.

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 1 Jul 2014
  • min read
Anita Awbi tunes in to electronic music’s great female pioneers to discover an exhilarating network of influence and innovation.

‘We didn’t set out to create a new genre of music, we just made sounds that we couldn’t hear anywhere else,’ shrugs creative powerhouse and Throbbing Gristle co-founder Cosey Fanni Tutti (pictured above). ‘When you’re looking for something and can’t find it – that’s when you create something new. There’s nothing you can do to contrive that situation, it just happens.’

It all seems perfectly natural for Cosey, a British musician who’s been dispensing confrontational performances, edgy new genres and Dadaist mayhem since the early seventies. Her musical output exists in a futurist electronic dream, where gender lines are blurred and traditional roles are mutated. From the proto-industrial blueprint of Throbbing Gristle to the early techno and acid house of Carter Tutti and Chris & Cosey, she always tests the waters in outrageously provocative ways.

Over the years, electronic music has afforded Cosey an anarchist’s safe harbour – a creative space with no rules, no structure and endless possibility. And it’s this tolerant, abstract environment that seems to have led many other women into the genre too.

Cosey crash-landed into it through a fascination with technology and art, influenced from a young age by her dad, who built radios and other gadgets around the house. He picked up on her enthusiasm and bought her a tape recorder so she could capture her own sounds. ‘My introduction to music, and the use and playback of it, was hands-on right from the beginning,’ Cosey remembers. ‘That had a huge effect on me.’

Through dozens of albums, primeval live shows and overtly sexual visual statements, Cosey has gone on to influence scores of female artists and revolutionise the notion of women in electronic music. She’s revered for toying with convention by juxtaposing her progressive music with an active interest in pornography and striptease. And it was this confrontational approach, in theory at least, that has encouraged so many others.

Cosey’s comrades

Leftfield producer Nik Void cites Cosey as a leading inspiration for both her solo project and her work in experimental noise trio Factory Floor. In a pop-will-eat-itself moment back in 2012, Nik began working with Cosey and her partner Chris Carter, giving rise to the Carter Tutti Void project. ‘With electronics you can strip away any humanity or gender,’ Nik says. ‘It’s not about turning female into male gender but actually turning female into non-gender. That’s where the parallels lie when me and Cosey work together.

‘We don’t want to be subjected as females particularly but we don’t want to become overly masculine in order to be taken seriously. In fact, the person behind the music has nothing to do with it – it’s more about the sound. But it’s difficult to displace yourself from that, because of the way music has been perceived for years.’

So does electronic music really offer a tolerant space for creators wishing to escape from the over-genderisation of culture? Estonian artist Maria Minerva, who began her career in London and is now signed to Amanda Brown’s Californian label Not Not Fun, says that you can cut a straight line from Cosey’s work to present day female experimentalists. But she still acknowledges the issues surrounding women in music.

‘When I first started out there was an article in the New York Times about me and a bunch of other women who were making electronic music. There was a huge backlash against it, and people questioned why gender should even be mentioned in the context of us as musicians. So now, it’s almost become taboo to talk about it,’ she says.

‘But you’re talking to me now and I’m referring to Cosey – there is a lineage there. I feel she’s more progressive than me, even though I’ve grown up in a time of possibility and accessibility. She’s already crossed all the limits and used all the technologies out there.’

Before Cosey

Since the advent of electronically-produced music in the post war years, there have been countless female pioneers. Some have been forgotten, while others are enjoying posthumous recognition. With their lab coats and white gloves, they may seem like an altogether different breed from Cosey and her post-modern disciples, but they too have gone on to shape the genre in immeasurable ways, providing today’s producers with another thread to follow.

When Cosey was tentatively beginning her musical career in early seventies’ Hull, a little known BBC Radiophonic Workshop technician called Delia Derbyshire had already been making history for a decade or more, albeit in a controlled laboratory well within the M25. She seems a million miles away from Cosey’s radical edge, but her techniques and signature sounds formed the basis of modern electronic music.

Delia joined the workshop in 1960 and, since her sad passing in 2001, has become the most iconic of all its characters. She’s most famous for realising Ron Grainer’s original Dr Who theme in 1963, but she also produced an astonishing body of revolutionary music and sound effects for radio, TV and theatre.

True pioneers

Commanding two record decks, fashioning loops, sampling sounds, adding effects – this all sounds pretty straight forward for a modern producer. But Delia was dabbling well before the invention of sequencers, samplers and software. Through her work, which was beamed into British homes on a nightly basis, the trained mathematician was unknowingly priming a whole generation of kids to embrace the alien concept of electronic music. Together with fellow workshop innovators Daphne Oram and Maddalena Fagandini, she was at the cutting edge of music technology and recording technique.

‘People forget that these women made music in the most incredible, inventive ways. Today you can make music with very little skill,’ explains music retrograde, label boss and producer Jonny Trunk. He knows Delia, Daphne and Maddalena’s work intimately, having released several BBC archive recordings of theirs.

But for Delia, recognition came too late. ‘There were politics involved at the BBC,’ explains Pete Kember (aka Sonic Boom), a close friend of Delia and himself a musical auteur. ‘As a woman working at the BBC at that time she fell really foul of the culture. She didn’t get any recompense at all for [her contribution to] the Dr Who theme. Yet Brian Hodgson, who made the sound of the Tardis door opening, gets a royalty every time that happens.’

The pair worked together for a long time, sharing techniques and swapping sounds. ‘She was a musical genius,’ Pete continues. ‘She spent hundreds of hours teaching me. We’d trade: I would teach her about sampling. She thought it was a mechanism to steal other people’s sounds. But I told her she’d invented sampling - except when she did it, she had to keep copying tape and piecing it together.’

Naomi Kashiwagi, a sound artist who helped organise the PRS for Music Foundation funded Delia Derbyshire Day, is also indebted to the great electronic innovator. She has written commissions inspired by her work and often co-opts obsolete music technologies to create unexpected audio outcomes. ‘I first became aware of the Delia Derbyshire archive in 2010. Often with electronic music you just encounter the sounds not the scores, so it was fascinating to see how she notated things and see her graphic scores.’

Naomi spent months immersed in the Delia archive at Manchester University’s library, but she remembers one piece in particular that was way ahead of its time: ‘It was called Dance For Noah, it was made for a children’s programme, and it was incredible. It just sounds like techno. You would not believe it was made in the early seventies.’

What legacy?

Alongside Delia, Daphne and Maddalena, Stateside luminaries like Pauline Oliveros, Clara Rockmore, Wendy Carlos, Bebe Barron and countless others, were also pushing the electronic envelope. These women didn’t lurk on the fringes of electronic music, they pioneered it. They built the machines, wrote the notes, recorded the sounds and sculpted the music into shapes that no one had ever heard before.

Into the seventies, musicians and visual artists such as Laurie Anderson and Laurie Spiegel began moving into the electronic world, carving a niche for themselves while drawing on the pioneers’ early developments. And today, there are countless women shaping the genre - as DJs, artists, sound engineers, label bosses and more.

What’s certainly clear is that women who make electronic music are not a new phenomenon. There’s a long and rich heritage of female sound manipulators, and their methods are still influencing a generation of electronic musicians today.

But, unfortunately, the statistics tell a different story. It’s well documented that women make up just 13 percent of PRS for Music’s membership. But a survey last year by electronic music initiative Female:Pressure found that women represented, at best, 10 percent of artists working within the genre. The initiative surveyed record labels, festival line-ups and Top 100 lists, to find that female representation was often around five to eight percent. While the survey was more of a finger in the wind than a broad-based scientific study, it does highlight some issues surrounding the genre.

For Planningtorock, the alter-ego of Bolton-born, Berlin-based electronic artist Jam Rostron, this comes as no surprise. Her last album, All Love’s Legal, was a riotous affair of deep grooves and heady basslines, with tracks carrying provocative titles like Misogyny Drop Dead and Patriarchy Over & Out. Aside from her solo work, she’s challenging the status quo through her Human Level record label, a project she’s dedicated to addressing the gender imbalance. When we talk, I ask her if she sees electronic music as a tolerant and accepting genre.

‘I share a studio with two producer friends – one is rRoxymore and the other is Olof Dreijer, who’s known for his work in The Knife. Together, we’re always talking about the discrimination you experience in the music business. I think it’s a complete fantasy that in the so-called more leftfield side of music production the gender politics are better, because they’re not. They’re just different.

‘But with the last record I discovered how fantastic dance music is as a carrier of ideas. I was dealing with issues that people might find difficult, and to sandwich that in among dance music felt like a really cool recipe that would make my ideas easier to swallow.’

So what about life in the more populist reaches of electronic music? I talk to Little Boots, an artist who overnight went from bedroom geek to major label material. She explains how she found it hard to maintain control of her sound once joining the ‘pop circuit’ but has since learned how and when to say no, and still revels in the comfort of her home studio.

‘I think it’s great there are some female producers coming through at last like Maya Jane Coles, who is really talented and has such a fresh sound,’ she says. ‘I just wish there were a few more - apart from Maya I’m still yet to work with a female producer!’

So, with the electronic sphere increasingly influencing the mainstream, surely dance music is becoming the great technological leveller of our times? As pioneering electronic producer Gazelle Twin, aka Elizabeth Walling, told me, ‘Funny that it should take a machine to level our prejudices rather than our own logic... But then, synthesisers and computers don’t have hormones or wage wars.’

This article first appeared in M52, the summer 2014 edition of M magazine.