Electronic(her) Part One

I’ve been working on a ‘back burner’ research project exploring the lives and work of underground techno DJ/ Producers (DJPs) in the UK for some time now – looking at how to navigate a successful career among the grass-roots of the creative industries and in particular how technology has reshaped the industries these guys work in – for better, worse and all the timbres and grooves in between. I’ve written ‘guys’ for a very important reason, because with one or two exceptions, the DJPs I’ve interviewed and heard interviewed on podcasts (such as Lowering the Tone) are all male. In fact, with one or two exceptions, the DJPs that I know and/ or listen to, are all male. To underscore the naturalness of this fact, my partner’s son (who was 8 at the time) was visibly gobsmacked on discovering my Traktor controller sitting on the sideboard in my house: “You can’t be a DJ, DJs are men!”, he said. Out of the mouth of babes…

Now there are many reasons why I probably can’t be a DJ, but the fact that I am female shouldn’t really be one of them. Choosing, buying, playing and mixing tunes doesn’t require enormous physical strength, excessive body hair, testosterone, or a penis – so far as I have discovered at any rate – but (being a researcher) it got me thinking.

About the same time, I listened to a Setting the Tone podcast, and heard two of my favourite techno producers equate women’s absence from the electronic dance music scene with sexuality, which really hammered home how entrenched sexuality is as a ‘go-to’ explanation for why women don’t progress in certain fields. Whilst there may be some truth in this explanation, being a social scientist, I also know that the reasons are without doubt far more complex and systemic than the fact female DJP’s are put off from having a go because they don’t want to be seen to be using their sexuality to get on. So I’ve decided to put my social science talents to good use to find out why there are so few women working (visibly at least), in the music scenes that I know and love.

These issues are too important to deal with as a footnote to my main project, and so I had put them to one side as something to address once I’ve actually written up the findings from the project I have on the go now (see my previous posts “writing on not writing” and “procrastination”). Preferably this will be with a grant from a nice research council and involve lots of field-work in clubs and festivals around the world #niceworkifyoucangetit. But recently I’ve been reflecting on the gendering of the electronic dance music scene in relation to my own experiences – learning to DJ, how to use the technology, understanding music theory and so on – and so like it or not, I have found myself dipping into feminist writing on gender and technology, and thinking about my own formative experiences as a geeky teenager with a love of synthpop and all things electronica, and who, with hindsight, coveted Alan Wilder from Depeche Mode’s Moog synthesizer more than she idolized him (and that’s a lot).

Watching a ‘Life in Waves’ was the first time I had ever heard of Suzanne Ciani, an American pioneer making sounds from humungous Buchler modular synthesizers. I went to see this film at House of Vans, in the arches under London’s Waterloo station, as part of an event put on by London Modular Alliance who describe themselves on their Facebook page as ”…a live electro act… No laptops, no button pushing, everything is created on the fly using modular synthesizers – live improvisation!” A crowdfunded production, the film tells the story of how Suzanne struggled to get her electronic music taken seriously, but achieved considerable commercial success making what she called ‘music effects’ for TV advertising in the 1970s and 1980s.

The story is part-told by Suzanne herself, partly from commentary by friends and family, and edited with captivating old video footage and clips from the compositions she and her team made for advertisements. It was Suzanne Ciani’s studio who synthesized the fizzing sound of a coke bottle being opened and poured (yep, that’s not a recording of the ‘real thing’), the sound of Zanussi washing machines, and Atari video games, to name just a fraction of her creative output.

What struck me as so goddamn cool about this woman was the fact she seemed to be completely unphased by the technology, blazing a trail not only with a medium heavily associated with men – both computers and experimentation with electronic sounds – but carving out a niche for herself in advertising, a very male dominated industry (think Mad Men…). A Life in Waves makes very little of this, which I liked and appreciated because it was nice to watch something about a woman in a “man’s world” that focused on her achievements rather than her gender and the battles she fought. And it stirred something old and important in me. Why had I not pursued my fascination for synthesizers when I was younger? Until now, I’ve never given this much thought, and as my Mum and Dad will tell you, my request for a “synthesizer” (probably aged around 14) was a pie-in-the-sky Christmas list request waaaay beyond our family’s means, and anyway, where the hell would I have put it when my bedroom was a 6’x7’ box room? But I think there is more to the story than this…

The second film I’ve seen recently was Northern Disco Lights: The rise and rise of Norwegian Electronic Dance Music. This time in a quirky little bar just off the main drag in Cardiff. Another heartwarming documentary about the origins of the ‘Scandilearic’ scene in the rather unlikely – and very northern – Norwegian town of Trømso. Better known for being the gateway to the Northern Lights, Father Christmas, Elves and reindeers, than for radical electronic dance music, we nonetheless heard stories from lads who tuned into pirate radio stations and were inspired to experiment with disco sounds made from cobbled together bits of electronic equipment, building such rave staples as ‘a homemade strobe light’. Apart from two women (one of whom was a protagonist’s mother), once again, this was a story about men’s involvement with electronic music – also mostly narrated by men. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s no less of a delightful and fascinating film for that, but my musings about music and gender were now becoming a repeating refrain, why have there been/ are there so few female DJs and even fewer female Producers?

A friend once told me he understood life’s little coincidences were signs that the universe was assuring him he was doing exactly what he should be doing, right there and right then, and so I was pleased to see a Mixmag article on the ’20 women who shaped the history of dance music’ pop up in my Facebook news feed just as I was thinking about what to write in this post. And even more pleasing was seeing the first woman Lisa Blanning and The Black Madonna include in their list is ‘Delia Derbyshire’, who I had just been hearing all about in Paul Sheeky’s fabulous podcast series on The History of Electronic Music. Clearly, I take these synchronicities as de facto proof that it’s OK to be starting a new investigation when the last one is not yet done [insert eyeroll emoji here]. And even more encouraging is the fact that as I type these very words, the latest edition of Dancecult: The Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture has today published  a special issue on Women in Electronic Dance Music. Vol 9 (1). Including a paper about Delia herself. Just lovely.

Delia Derbyshire produced the first piece of electronic music for television – the Dr Who theme tune – and alongside Daphne Oram, was one half of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop established in 1958 to experiment with electronic music production for TV and film (you can watch a wonderful short film about Daphne Oram in her home studio – looking uncannily like Mrs Merton – on YouTube).

Yet it is the composer Ron Grainer who is credited with writing the Dr Who theme tune, even though he is cited in Sheeky’s podcast as saying “did I write that??” when he heard Delia’s electronic interpretation of his composition.

Debating the line between composing (having the musical ideas) and production (the technical arrangement of the sounds) continues today, and its long been the convention that the ‘writer of the notes’ gets far more credit than the producer of the finished piece – and of course these boundaries are becoming further blurred with the collapse of engineering into the work of the DJ as they increasingly need to produce tracks in order to be taken seriously. But here, what interested me was the effect of the gendered nature of the attribution. History records that Dr Who theme was written by Ron Grainer – Delia Derbyshire only ‘realised’ or ‘arranged’ it, as you can see in the small text below the headline entries above.

As Lisa Blanning reminds us in the Mixmag article:

History can be a tricky business. No matter how many facts are recorded, it’s still written by those in power. Often omitted are the deeds and lives of the oppressed—not only the injustices perpetrated against them but also their accomplishments. Millennia of institutionalised sexism, in tandem with misogynist sexism, have prevented (continues to prevent) half of the world’s population from enjoying access, opportunity, aid and recognition. Women get left out. A lot. Of everything. Dance music is no exception.

It’s the ‘institutionalised sexism’ bit that really interests me in what Blanning says – and Mary Beard’s recent book Women and Power: A manifesto does a good job of reminding us that the exclusion of women from anything public, technological, economic (e.g., valued and powerful) has such a long history that we have forgotten its roots, and over the millennia, women have learned to keep themselves out of these spheres because they don’t feel comfortable. As the 2002 adverts for Yorkie chocolate bars controversially famously told us, we have learned that whatever it is, “It’s not for Girls”. So in the next part of this series, I’ll be sharing some of the things I’m finding out about the ways electronic music has become gendered, and what impact this could be having on the careers of female DJPs, as well as the aspirations of girls and women (young and not so young!) who are taking their first trepidatious steps into electronic music production, all without the aid of a penis.

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