Over a month ago Else Marie Pade died, and this has stuck with me more than other recent musician deaths.
For the very fact Else did more in her life than most of us ever really will. She had an uncommon passion for jazz, musique concrete, and fighting Nazis. The last part by the way is absolutely true, she was a demolitions expert for the resistance during WWII, and was eventually imprisoned for it.
I have often linked the relationship between avant garde music and jazz, but Else really makes this connection especially strong as an electronic musician. While there are many other members of the Avant Garde music community in Europe who were jazz musicians at one point, Else had an uncommon passion for the musical style even if she didn’t pursue it in traditional way. She really did bring a love for it into her music.
This passion eventually lead her to musique concrete and early electronic music. It is how she took this passion is what makes her unusual, in that she basically took oscillators to tape, and created the early groundwork to more austere experimental electronic styles. While Oram was playful in here compositions, Else droned and mangled. Else embraced the more chaotic elements of early electronic instrumentation. The reality is people like myself are in fact standing on the shoulders that Else laid the groundwork. Especially those of us who bring free improvisation and chaotic leanings to electronic instrumentation.
There is something that deeply interconnects those of us who are so rooted in passion for avant garde electronic music and improvisation with Else. It is a deep love, almost nerdiness, for the edges of sound. One does not go about making avant garde music without some deeper need to explore, to connect. Else had that, and the world is a better, and wonderfully weirder place for her contribution to the art of sound.
There is a special place in my heart for Pyramid Atlantic Art’s Center in Silver Spring. Sonic Circuits, which is a local experimental music group regularly put shows on there, along with it’s annual festival. I was lucky enough to play some of these shows myself, and as such the venue remains close to my heart. I regularly spent my Saturdays there listening to some amazing avant garde and jazz performances, and maybe a couple I would like to forget.
This Saturday the last Sonic Circuits show at Pyramid Atlantic in Silver Spring is happening, as the venue is going to be leveled to make way for condos, or apartments. I am not sure it even matters. Make no mistake, it will be like losing a second home to me, as well as many of the other performers and artists. Memories are going away with the wrecking ball.
This could be a commentary on how gentrification is ending arts venues in the DC area, because Pyramid Atlantic is not the first to go. But it can also be how art’s spaces end up being a critical part of forming communities, but also help discovering them in the first place. Sonic Circuits, and Pyramid Atlantic helped me find my community here in DC, and I will never forget that.
Pyramid Atlantic itself, the printshop, is moving to Hyattesville. Where Sonic Circuits, as a music organization goes is another question. Sonic Circuits when it started was one of the few offering avant garde music in DC. In fact it’s how I found the music myself. In truth without Sonic Circuits, I doubt I would be as active a live musician. Jeff, the organizer, often referred people to me. I was able to refine myself as a performing artist because of Pyramid Atlantic being available as a venue through Sonic Circuits.
There is a big question mark right now over Sonic Circuits in terms of where it will play. While Jeff has some ideas, in a rapidly gentrifying city where venues are closing regularly, it really is hard to say. Make no mistake, when the red building on Georgia Ave comes down, it will be taking a little piece of my heart with it, and is a blow to the music community in DC.
Either way, come out to see the final show this Saturday, the information can be found on Sonic Circuits website. I will not be playing, but help me mourn as another music venue in the DC area sees it’s end.
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.
I have written about synthesizers extensively at this point, but I think it is time to bring up electronic music itself. While electronic dance music has exploded in popularity, I think when one approaches electronic instruments they should not feel limited to making such music. The beauty of electronic music is the fact it can be expansive in scope, it has unlimited potential. One can approach synthesis as a way to make music one loves, or to expound the boundaries of what is considered music.
Electronic music has modern classicists like Wendy Carlos and Suzanne Ciani, it also has deep roots in the Avant Garde. In fact much of early Avant Garde music was produced with electronic instruments and techniques. The technological innovation of these instruments was coming out of participants in the avant-garde community. Some of these instruments were solely created by and used by composers, Daphne Oram’s Oramics synthesizer being a prime example. Others, like Don Buchla’s modular synthesizer found a wider commercial market. The intent of both the instrument maker and those playing the instruments was to push the boundaries of music with these new concepts, and to create unique sounds and experiences.
Electronic music works within the bounds of existing and potential technology for sound. This can be as simple as a tape player, or as complex as an artificial intelligence. The reality is there really is no right way to make electronic music, and no wrong way. There may be a right way or wrong way to operate equipment, but that is all. Electronic music does not have to follow the constraints of notes, rhythm, and melody. Musique Concrete, noise, and drone are all legitimate forms of musical expression, in electronic music. As such synthesizers can take on many forms, and the instruments themselves can become as abstract and strange as the music. Music is nothing more than intentionally presented sound, how that music is intentionally presented is only limited by invention and imagination. What the listener gets out of these sounds comes from our pattern matching biases as a species. which is by in large, subjective.
What an electronic musician does is use technology to present that sound of intent. This can be to evoke a response, such as fear or agitation, or to make a person dance by presenting a structured melody and rhythm. While traditional musical knowledge can help in that presentation, so does learning how to use the underlying technology and it’s limits.
My Own Musical Philosophy and Approach
For the past few years I have had an electronic music project myself called PraxisCat, here is a sampling.
I should note, I composed much of this album on a unique modular/semi-modular instrument made for me by Peter Blasser of Ciat-Lonbarde called a Dousk. My interest in modular synthesizers largely stems from having instruments that match both my workflow and philosophy, the dousk is one of the primary instruments I play these days.
My own music is not notational, it is more sculptural, organic, or mechanical. It is laid out in a forest of patch cords, or waves on my computer screen, and the effects I use to refine my sound. The goal is not to even have a clear structure around the music I present. I embrace the more chaotic and unpredictable elements of music to present a mood, feeling, or even a sense of place.
I have a very good understanding of my instruments and how they work and can sound, this is especially true with my synthesizers. I have also been playing musical instruments for years, and took years to develop the music I make now. I have a pure obsession about learning about synthesis and sound design, and have very clear concepts of the type of music I wish to make. While I do take on some aspects of musique concrete, ambient, and radiophonics,but I am not limiting myself to that history, or those constraints. While I bring chaos into my compositions, that does not mean I do not interlace it with melodies, and more rythmic elements to bring a sense of order or beauty.
I am an avant-garde composer and musician, and I compose and perform with musical happenstance, sequences, and noise. The point is to present the beauty in the seemingly random, or just as often, to make weird and interesting music.