“The history of women has been a history of silence. Music is no exception.”
Due to the intrinsic composition of the artist pool within the industry, the term “electronic music” is still often associated to male producers. In 2019, it was estimated that less than 10% of DJs, and only 5% of recognized electronic music producers were women, or artists identifying as female*.
Thankfully, from the ‘70s onwards the times have been slowly changing, with diversity starting to grow and iconic female figures like Laurie Anderson, Laurie Spiegel, Suzanne Ciani, Wendy Carlos and Nina Kraviz gradually reshaping the standards and establishing themselves among the biggest electronic producers in the industry.
This trend has further progressed in the last decade, with once uprising names as Amelie Lens, Logic 1000, Charlotte de Witte, Caterina Barbieri, Elkka, Nora En Pure, Bella Boo, The Blessed Madonna, Anja Schneider and Sofia Kourtesis among many others, who have now firmly cemented their position among the leading producers in the electronic space.
But what are the origins of this gender unbalance? It's likely that if you think of whoever invented electronic music, you’d imagine some men tinkering computer tools, pressing buttons and knobs. Although it's wrongly common to think of electronic music as a boys' club, the truth is that since its earliest days women have played a crucial role in the invention of the tools, techniques and tropes that have helped shape sound as we know it now.
A remarkable documentation of this emancipative struggle is very well portrayed in Lisa Rovner’s film “Sisters with transistors” from 2020. With the wider social, political and cultural context of the 20th century as backdrop, this archival documentary reinstates the central role of women in the history of music and society at large, including Laurie Anderson herself as main narrator.
As one of the film’s subjects, Laurie Spiegel explains: “Women were especially drawn to electronic music when the possibility of a woman composing was in itself controversial. Electronics let us make music that could be heard by others without having to be taken seriously by the male dominated establishment.”
Rightfully featured in the movie due to her visionary contribution to electronic music, there’s another special figure which deserves a dedicated space in this article: Daphne Oram. By the picture below you probably wouldn’t foresee it, but with her cat-eye spectacles, classic outfits and standard ‘50s teacher hairstyle, she has been one of the leading pioneering minds in electronic music.
Born in England in 1925, Daphne Oram was one of the first electronic music composers in the world and one of the first voices to fight for its recognition as an art form. In fact, if you listen to Aphex Twin today, it is also thanks to her. Since she was a child, she was passionate about music, but she did it in her own way: she learned to play the piano, seeking the notes that cannot be seen, those that laid in the space between the keys. She turned down an opportunity to study at the Royal College of Music, to work as a sound engineer at the BBC.
She spent all her days in the studio, experimenting with tape recorders to see what sort of sounds might come out. She would have to wait sixteen years before the men guiding BBC realized the relevance of her effort and agreed to fund a studio for the production of electro-acoustic sounds, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (1958). Her experimental needs, however, did not sit well with the commercial needs of the studio, pushing her to quit the job and start working on her own. She founded Oramics Studios, inventing the Oramics Machine, an instrument capable of reading music that had previously been drawn on any 35mm film. Thanks to this invention, it became possible to control nuances of sound that had hitherto been impossible to capture.
Despite her genius, perseverance and tenacity, she had to continue to accept collaborations with various commercial sectors because no one was ready to support her experimental studies financially.
She died in 2003, leaving behind a legacy that we perhaps still struggle to understand today.
Daphne Oram symbolizes the kind of woman who, despite all kinds of adversity: cultural, economic, social, is still able to go her own way. But she only does so by accepting compromise, by accepting to remain in the shadows, by accepting silence. It makes us wonder what she could have achieved if the institutions had allowed her to realize her creative potential to the full.
It is everyone’s responsibility to make sure stories like hers are told and not forgotten, drawing together a future where every deserving person will have the same opportunities, no matter their background or gender.
*Samanthan Warren, Professor and research lead in Organisation Studies and Human Resource Management