Recently there was a list started up called “Many Many Women” which is a running total of composers, avant garde musicians, and electronic experimental musicians. Much ink has been spilled about how few women there are in electronic music, but I think that is often through a very narrow lens of what electronic music is. It is often through the narrow lens of electronic dance music. The thing is, electronic dance music is itself a subset of electronic music. The roots of electronic music are not in popular dance music though, and never was. The origination comes in the 1920s, but really began to blossom in the 1950-1980. This was before a single electronic dance track was ever produced, and much of the music was post-classical and avant garde.
While there are very few women in EDM, in experimental music the story is somewhat different. While women are still under-represented, it is not nearly as pronounced. While I have highlighted figures like Daphne Oram, Suzanne Ciani, and Laurie Spiegel, the truth is this activity with experimental music never ceased to be. In fact I have noticed many women I know who are musicians often find themselves doing experimental music in some form as they grow older. Slate did a piece on the women who are active in experimental music in NYC, which can be found here. The fact is if anybody has any experience with any experimental music scene, women as active participants is not that hard to find.
Experimental music has many things going for it that makes it an attractive space for women. It is hard to become a musician, producer, or composer, without getting the opportunities to perform or record. The reason there are more women in these communities is because the door is open to perform and be heard. That may not sound like a big deal, but it really is.
The first is the history itself, experimental and avant garde music has always been open to both women. Women were instrumental in fact creating the first recording workshops and performance spaces because they could not find their works performed in the classical conservatory setting, or by other musicians. Tapes, Objects, and Electronics began to be a stand in for bands and orchestras. Experimental music attracted female composers early on because no other space was open to female composers during much of the twentieth century. So they began to take part in creating a new spaces, with new concepts. Musique Concrete, Radiophonics, Minimalism, and the list goes on and on. This slowly spread and evolved over time to an ever larger number of cities, but the same concept is often at the heart of these communities. Judgement free spaces for the expression of sonic art, and sometimes the advancement of music technology.
This gets down to a deeper truth that exists within the experimental music community for women, and really anybody else, there is both friends and mentors around with shared experiences. The community is just that, a community, not a hostile competition. We go to each others shows. We talk about methodology with other practitioners, and we seek collaboration. I am not saying the experimental music community is always a friendly place, but more often than not, it does feel that way. As much as I do talk about synthesizers, the experimental community is where I really call home. Here in the DC area, that is Sonic Circuits and Union Arts now. Even if I am not able to make it to every show, I know I can find friends there. Online though I have friends all over the world who are practitioners.
Experimental music communities do inter-mingle with other music communities as well. In some places which are more noise focused, this is with punk scenes, in DC, where I live, the Jazz community and the Experimental community have a close relationships. This expands the community of musicians itself.
When music is communitarian, and not hyper competitive, it is often far more friendly and open to artists who are women. Experimental music, though it has changed through the years, has never lost this aspect. So many of the women who produce electronic music, often enter through the experimental community precisely because the doors are open and there is room to grow as an artist. Even if the goal is the avant garde, the reality is those who seek the novel sounds, do often seek kindred spirits.