All that I am comes from a woman. My curiosity, compassion, love for music and learning, the subsequent need to share what I find, and fierce advocation for social equity, were gifts from my mother. She poured herself into me – forming the man whose words lay before you. They are as much hers as they are mine. Because of my upbringing, I associate the feminine voice with truth and wisdom. I am drawn to it, and far more willing to trust her lessons than those of a man. I am an intuitive feminist. This term wasn’t something that I faced until after my mothers death, forced to grapple with the meaning of her life, and the impact she had on so many, not the least of whom had been myself. A teacher by trade, and a vigilant advocate for the importance of education as a means to destroy social barriers and class distinction, she was also a woman whose life was riddled with paradox – brilliant, yet never receiving the intellectual respect she deserved, a product of Second-Wave Feminism, yet unable to escape the paradigms of gender, family, patriarchy, and emotional intimacy that had defined generations past. As I began to examine my mother’s life, and its silent reality, I grew angry. Being the man I was, I naturally believed that women were the source of good in the world. I had never been forced to examine the truths of gender inequity. What I assumed to be logical was far from the reality that most face. Women endure struggles and discrimination on countless fronts that few men can claim. It is for this reason the term Feminist exists. It is the the reason I claim it – to stand with others against this inequity and attempt to force it into submission.
A photo capturing the author’s bedside reading a number of years ago.
History is a strange entity. It constantly warps and rewrites itself to suit external agendas. In the late 90’s and early 2000’s, when I first waded into the waters of Feminist thought, the term was largely viewed as a pejorative. Society had “moved on”, and was haunted by displaced visions of angry women in the streets. It was shocking how many brilliant and sensitive women cringed and shied away from my use of the term. The conservative forces of the Reagan, Bush and Clinton eras, combined with fatigue within the political left, had done their job well – teaching women to fear the very ideas that fought on their behalf. Over the last five years I’ve watched this change. The word has slowly returned to a framework of empowerment – embraced cross-generationally. Despite this being an important development, it has grown from a tragic reality. Right-Wing agendas across the globe have increased their attacks women’s rights, to the point were the erosion cannot be ignored. The new movement has grown out of anger, and finds its efforts stepped back from what previous generations achieved. Meanwhile the internet has created new contexts for the widespread bullying, intimidation, and objectification of women – as well as establishing a means to collate and understand those abuses, and a network through which (new and old) feminists can connect and organize. Despite overwhelming access to information, the lessons and ideas of historical Feminism remain largely obscured. These concepts have four distinct “waves” (though many argue toward a fifth) – each responding to, learning from, and adjusting to the lessons of predecessors, as well as shifting to meet new contexts (some of which also rightly address the connections between economic, racial, and gender inequity). Because the new movement is fractured from a total vision of itself, potentially dangerously regressive trends are bubbling from below. Increasingly I hear arguments toward separatism which, often unknowingly, mirror ideas of the Second Wave that defined the 70’s, polarized that movement, and led to its downfall. These were rightly abandoned by countless Feminist thinkers in the decades since. The return of these ideas stem from an intuitive logic. They make sense within the context which has instigated them, but effectively undermine the work done by many dedicated and brilliant thinkers since they were originally put to rest. By ignoring history, they destabilize the potential of the movement. Divisionist thinking within the Left should be understood as a service of Right-Wing objectives. Only together can we achieve the equity deserved by all – not to mention that I have no desire to live in a world were the voices of women are absent, subjugated, segregated, or speaking only among themselves. They are the beauty from which so much springs, without them I would be lost.
Having spent the bulk of my intellectual life as a member of the Experimental Music community, I have taken great pride in the way we embrace and support the voices of women, but saddened by the notable disparity of gender representation in audiences. Questions regarding the later will have to wait for another day. In the face of so much opposition, it seems important to take the time to celebrate what so many women have achieved within this world that we’ve built together. I know of no other like it. Not once have I seen a women objectified on stage. I can’t imagine anyone being denied equal respect, consideration, or representation. In our world the quality of the work comes first, and because of that, it is one of the few musical legacies which displays something close to gender equity. Of course there are battles to be fought, and improvements to be made, but I honestly believe that anyone who chooses to join us will be offered the same respect, opportunity, and regard as the next.
Over the last few months I’ve noticed the appearance of a number of articles focusing on the history of women within the avant-garde – particularity regarding their role in the development of electronic and electroacoustic music. Truthfully, given that I’ve never offered preference or critical distinction to the efforts of either gender, I’m not sure how to negotiate something that does. Though it’s important to recognize that women have a unique voice and sensibility which no man could hope to achieve, and that there is immense value in this, framing a context which only embraces one background, be that gender, race, class, education, or conceptual framework, is risky ground – particularly when a music does not have a distinct cultural association. Despite this, I am doing just that – though for different reasons. Though the articles I’ve read have their place, they’re often clearly motivated by a need to generate content on the internet. They tick boxes, but rarely offer more. By creating distinction without answers, they run the risk of undermining what they otherwise might achieve.
Women represent the majority of the world’s population. There isn’t a person alive who doesn’t owe their life to one, yet their voices retain far from an equal share. In order to balance the scales, it is important to give them greater platform, whatever form that might take, but to also explain why. Even within the Experimental Music world, which enjoys far more gender equity that most, it’s crucial that we make women’s voices heard beyond our borders, and encourage more to join us here. Their voice and presence define, enrich, and make us whole. For our sonic world to be all we hope it might, we must fight for it to be balanced, fair, and to offer everyone a equal share.
Aware of all the pitfalls, I have set out to make one of the hardest lists I could imagine – important records by some of my favorite female artists within the musical avant-garde. How could I possibly choose? As picked them from my thoughts, the number grew to unmanageable scale. In an effort to constrain myself, I imposed personal taste, included only living artists, and attempted to represent as many generations as possible. The hope was to draw attention to the past, and give an indication of what the future might hold. Even narrowed to nine, with ages ranging from 20’s to 80’s, and albums bridging six decades, I cringe to omit as many as I have – before I began I had already failed. This list wasn’t built from an arbitrary conceit. It has a political objective. It is an attempt to highlight what the experimental music world has achieved toward gender equity, often without internal or external acknowledgment. By drawing attention to it, I hope we might aspire to do more, and construct an example for the broader world. Most importantly, it is an attempt to recognize a group of artists, who through the pure power of their work and intellects continuously smash the gender divide without sacrificing what makes a woman’s voice distinct. They have raised the bar, proving more often than not, that women do it better.
Eliane Radigue – Adnos I-III (2002)
Not only was Eliane Radigue one of the first experimental musicians I encountered, but since that discovery, she has been among the most dear to my heart. She is a giant. I adore everything she has created, and everything about her. She is a light in the darkness for us all. After working with Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry during the 60’s, Radigue began quickly making her mark across the following decade, sculpting a deeply intimate exploration of sound and extended musical practice. If I had to choose a single figure to highlight from the entire electroacoustic cannon, she would be it. No one has reached into the depths of my soul the way she has. One of the wonderful things about Radigue is the duration of her practice. Her current work feels bound to the territories in which she began, while retaining a pitch perfect relevancy to the contemporary landscape. Her careful explorations have never waned, or failed to yield unfolding revelations to the listener. Adnos is a grand work composed over the second half of the 1970’s. It wasn’t released until the early 2000’s when Table of the Elements issued it. Sadly, there has yet to be a vinyl edition. The sections of the work spread over three and a half hours, and like most of Radigue’s output, were composed and recorded on her Arp 2500. The are slow meditative works of sublime subtlety. Discrete tones pass and cross over each other so carefully that you could miss them and assume that nothing had changed. I love her entire body of work equally. The task of picking out a single album was nearly impossible. I settled on Andos because of it’s profound subtly, the way it takes us into ourselves, and forces a more active relationship to listening for beauty in the world around us. Though the original version is out of print, Important reissued it a few years back. You can get it direct from them here, and listen to an excerpt below.
Eliane Radigue – Adnos I (excerpt)
Pauline Oliveros – Accordion & Voice (1982)
If Eliane Radigue is the grand-dame of the French avant-garde, then Pauline Oliveros is America’s. The woman is incredible. Across more than half a century she has been one of the country’s most important musical innovators – offering as many ideas as she has sounds. She was a founding member of the legendary San Fransisco Tape Music Center with Morton Subotnick and Ramon Sender, as well as the collective Creative Associates which included Morton Feldman, Lukas Foss, and Julius Eastman. Beyond these associations, she has been connected to nearly every major figure and realization of the American avant-garde since the 60’s, never losing sight of her singular vision. Like Radigue, my relationship to her work stretches to my earliest introductions to avant-garde music. Her current gestures are as relevant and exciting as the day she began, which led to great difficulty when making my selection. In the end I decided on Accordion & Voice because it was the first album I heard and bought, and it’s one of the most important Drone records ever recorded. The first side’s composition Horse Sings from Cloud is constructed from slowly shifting accordion chordal drones accompanied by Oliveros’ voice. It’s stunning. Despite the delicate force and power of her instrument, her harmonic vocal accompaniment defines the piece and makes it like no other I can call to mind – despite simplicity, slowly pushing and pulling the work in unexpected ways. The second side’s work Rattlesnake Mountain Proving Grounds is very different. It’s work for unaccompanied Accordion which draws heavily on Indian Classical Ragas and Islamic music. It vacillates between the meditative and ecstatic. Though references to some of Terry Riley’s organ work can’t be helped, Rattlesnake Mountain somehow feels more sensitive, risky, and exploratory than the work of her friend. As a whole the album is one of the most beautiful I own. I reluctantly relinquish it here, thinking of all the contexts and articles I might have been able to place it in. If ever there is an essential album, this is it.
Pauline Oliveros – Horse Sings from Cloud (Part 1)
Pauline Oliveros – Horse Sings from Cloud (Part 2)
Pauline Oliveros – Horse Sings from Cloud (Part 3)
Pauline Oliveros – Rattlesnake Mountain Proving Grounds
Jocy de Oliveira – Wave Song Para Piano E Fita
Jocy de Oliveira – Estoria IV
Joan La Barbara – Voice Is The Original Instrument (1976)
Joan La Barbara is undeniably one of the most important figures in the American avant-garde. Though much of her early career was spent in the spotlight and she remained very prolific through the 90’s, her incredible legacy seems to have escaped many younger listeners. In my view this is partially due to the fact that she hasn’t released many recordings in the last twenty years – and this goes a long way toward keeping your efforts in the minds of audiences, as well as the character of the work itself. It falls among the most challenging gestures of the last century. It’s completely uncompromising, deeply demanding of those who encounter it, and offers little way of release or easy entry. Like Jocy de Oliveira above, La Barbara has spent much of her career bridging between the worlds of a performer – working with John Cage, Morton Feldman, Robert Ashley, Steve Reich, countless other luminaries from the art and music worlds, as well as with her husband Morton Subotnick, and as a composer creating a striking and singular body of work. Within her own efforts La Barbara defined the field of extended vocal technique. No one has contributed more to our understanding of the sonic possibility of the human voice – at once drawing on its primal root, while pushing it forward into the unknown. Her debut album Voice Is The Original Instrument was a revelation to me – not only for its striking sounds and dynamics, but for its risk and raw honesty. Where most of her male counterparts built worlds of sound, La Barbara is completely exposed. There is nothing to hide behind – with slight exceptions on the second side, it is her voice alone. The first side finds her voice bubbling, squealing, and scraping across two extended works – at times mirroring the sounds of the most raw electroacoustic pieces of its era, but without displacement, and with nothing between the creator and the listeners’ ear. The second side contains a single, long work which finds her voice run through processing and delay. It’s incredible. Again mirroring the sounds of electroacoustic research, but organic and delicate in a way that I’ve heard few people achieve. The album is absolutely essential. Though the original is fairly hard to find, I just saw that the wonderful English label Arc Light Editions is reissuing it as we speak. You can pick it up from them directly here. Absolutely essential!
Joan La Barbara – q-/-uatre petites betes
Ellen Fullman – The Long String Instrument (1985)
Fullman began her life and studies as a sculptor. As is often the case, the creative spirit and ingenuity of visual artists is well-applied to the world of sound. Though she had made music prior to moving to NY, after she arrived in the early 80’s she began experimenting with new ways to achieve otherwise elusive sonorities, and built her first “long string instrument”. To create the sound and duration she desired, Fullman stretched a series of (approximately) 25 meter, carefully tuned wires from one end of her studio to the other. This instrument has been central to her practice ever since. It is played by dragging rosined hands along its length. What she achieves is both familiar and unlike anything you’ve ever heard. Fullman’s music is built around drones. Though this has become a well-traveled path in experimental music, the territory she occupies is incredibly distinct. Her drones are somewhere between the sustained electronics of La Monte Young and a tanpura. They shift, resonate, rise and fall in waves of harmony and dissonance. Fullman’s work is distinct because of the incredible sensitivity of her touch and ear. Her first album, featured here, is one of the great triumphs within the second wave of Minimalism. As her hands drag and drift over the wire, the subtle shift of sonorities and overtones, coupled with her humanity, is completely overwhelming. Over the last few years, I’ve been thrilled to see Fullman begin to gather greater acclaim. The Long String Instrument was recently reissued by Superior Viaduct, introducing her to new audiences. The last decade has been particularly productive for her. She’s released a number of beautiful solo gestures, as well as collaborations with Deep Listening Band, Konrad Sprenger, and Barn Owl. She has also continued to perform extensively and often collaborates with others – bringing incredible range to her already dynamic career. You can get it from Superior Viaduct here.
Ellen Fullman – Woven Processional (1985)
Okkyung Lee – Ghil (2013)
Okkyung Lee is easily one of the most exciting and ambitious voices within my own generation of the avant-garde. I’ve seen her play countless times, in dozens of collaborations, and she absolutely kills it. Everything she touches defies categorization, and finds her pushing the bar upward. I can think of few players, present or past, who can touch her. Whether her cello finds itself in discourse with other musicians, history, or herself, she is fierce and singular. Within the traditions of improvised music there is a subset of recordings which largely grew to prominence through the efforts of members of the AACM – the solo-improvisation. It is profoundly challenging to player and listener, but also among the most rewarding. It’s easily one of my favorite idioms. Ghil is just that, though in moments, do to remarkable production work on the part of Norwegian artist Lasse Marhaug, I made the mistake of thinking there were overdubs in sections. The album was recorded on a portable cassette player in locations as varied as Marhaug’s studio, a back alley in central Oslo, a cabin in the forest on the Nesodden peninsula, and a former hydroelectric powerplant in the mountains outside Rjukan, all attempting to best capture the purest raw expression of Lee’s playing. It finds her out on her own, exposed, and full of fire. However you approach the record it’s fantastic. It’s structurally thrilling, sonically mind blowing, and emotionally challenging. It’s got it all. Few players can achieve the delicate subtly and outright furiosity in a single stroke. Her attack is so intense, I’m slightly surprised her cello survived the recording sessions. When I first encountered Lee she filled me with hope for the future, and there hasn’t been a moment since where I lost the feeling. Ghil is a perfect place to start with an incredible artist; it pushes at the wall and gives you everything she’s got.
Okkyung Lee – The Crow Flew After Yi Sang (2013)
Okkyung Lee – Two Perfectly Shaped Stones (2013)
Moniek Darge – Soundies (Selected Work 1980-2001) (2009)
Moniek Darge is a fascinating figure. Her practice is almost impossible to pin down, bridging sound-art, ethnomusicology, field recording, improvisation, composition, performance art, instillation and beyond. Soundies is a fantastic introduction to her expansive discipline. As the subtitle suggests, it is a grouping of archival recordings that stretch across Darge’s long career. Drawing from a range of works including electroacoustic works generated through the manipulation of tape, field recordings, collage, and instrumentation, as well as outright improvisations for violin and voice, it displays a stunning body of work. The level of ambition, often asserted in the most discreet ways, is overwhelming. When I first heard it, I was overwhelmed by the feeling that I was hearing one of the bravest composers working today. Her sonorities delve to depths that few others can follow, feeling intimate and filled with emotion and intellect. The disc was released by Kye back in 2009, but is still widely available. I can’t recommend it enough.
Moniek Darge – Fairy Tale (1983)