The Allure of Avant Garde Music for Women

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.

Moog Mother-32, Part 2: A Reflection on Moog Music

The Mother-32 represents a new beginning for Moog.
The Mother-32 represents a new beginning for Moog.

The Mother-32 is not only the first Eurorack modular instrument for Moog, it is also something much greater, the first instrument that Moog released to a wider market as an employee owned company.  I actually spent the day not only reviewing the Moog Mother-32, but also speaking with the people who had a hand in creating and marketing the instrument.

Moog is a unique company because it remains how Bob Moog originally envisioned, the entire company, from design, production, repair, distribution, and marketing,  remains on site in Asheville. When he established Big Briar, which later reclaimed the Moog moniker, he did something that was counter-intuitive in the age of outsourcing. He kept production in the US when he rebuilt the company, and that is where it has remained since his death.

This is the Moog Mother being made in Asheville, NC.
This is the Moog Mother-32 being made in Asheville, NC.

Between Moog’s death, until recently, Moog was almost entirely in the hands of one his partners when he re-established the company. At some point, I think it was realized the best way to really keep  Moog’s legacy, was not as part of some large conglomerate which could put the company at risk once again, but in the hands of the employees.

In some ways this is conscious of the history of Moog Music itself. Moog was a company that Robert Moog lost at one point, only for the moniker to won back later in his life. The fact that the company is still growing even after his death is a testament to the path he left the company on. The the company he re-established really is on a solid foundation.

I normally do not get to talk about economics and business with regards to synthesizers. Moog is a growing company precisely because while it is steeped in its past and Moog’s circuits and his legacy, it also has its foot forward into the present. In this respect, the Mother-32 really is the perfect representation of this. The technology and manufacturing techniques used, basically a digitally controlled sequencer and a surface mount technology PCB board, are very much a part of modern manufacturing and instrument technology. The voice though, is taken directly from Moog’s legacy in all analog signal paths, and his filter design, the modular nature of the instrument itself uses the very same principles of the larger Moog modular instruments.  While the current larger Moog Modular systems are historically accurate instruments down to the hand drawn PCB boards, the Mother-32 is much more reflective of the direction Moog was taking the company before his death. The recognition that while one looks to the past, creating analog instruments can also be about the present manufacturing techniques as well. The minimoog voyager for example was at its core an acknowledgement of the importance of change and evolution.

I had about a nice discussion/interview with two of the three engineers who designed the Mother-32,  Steve Dunnington and Amos Gaynes. The information they provided did help me write the review. The other thing I found is both were enthusiastic about designing synthesizers, and were looking beyond Moog for inspiration in terms of the design from the interface to the functionality of the sequencer. This was while keeping an eye on the aesthetics, feel, and sound of Moog instruments.

But the truth is I found out how the people in the company whether it was Emmy, Jim, and others who worked for Moog, also had a hand in these decisions. The beauty of it is how the people at Moog have input into the instruments which were being created, but also in production. This is a company that was put into a single place to run as a collaborative effort, and it works. I appreciated the invitation into the chocolate factory to do the review. The real legacy of Moog came out not just in its instruments, but in the people who work there, but also how things are done.This was all very hard to appreciate until I encountered it first hand, there is something special there. Essentially, it did create a model that other American synthesizer manufacturers have since followed. People often forget that many of the Eurorack modular manufacturers from Make Noise to Pittsburgh Modular, use a very similar model in terms of doing business. In the case of Make Noise Music this is for very good reason, it was founded by a former Moog employee. I have a very hard time seeing the success of modern modular systems without the involvement of Make Noise Music. While Make Noise makes very different synthesizers than Moog, drawing more inspiration from Buchla and Serge, it is obvious that something did carry over into their efforts, and they have grown as well.

There is much to be said about the problems in the American music and manufacturing industry that are negative, but the revival of the analog and modular synthesizer in many ways has been a bright spot. This is in some ways because of the way things are in fact different at Moog and how this has served as a model. The fact the company is transitioning to one that is employee run can improve on this even further. The symbolic nature of the Mother-32 is pretty important in this respect, since it was an instrument that evolved out of the collaborative nature of the people at Moog.  As much as the company is named after a sole inventor, a significant amount of music technology comes from collaborative efforts, and the Mother-32 was no exception.

Another bright spot is Moog Music does make an effort to highlight both the women who are theremin virtuoso and the importance of Wendy Carlos contribution with regards to the popularity of the synthesizer during the tour. It was something that made me elated to hear.

I am likely to return to Asheville area in the near future, I really need to get around to visiting Make Noise Music as well, though I look forward to revisiting Moog Music.