Women (also) make music

A text by Natalia Piñuel, curator of the She Makes Noise Festival at La Casa Encendida, on the occasion of the opening of the Xcèntric 2023 season

In the very early days of photography and cinematography a large number of female inventors and pioneers were already experimenting with sound and images. However, a new genealogy of music cross-referenced with film has been required to salvage some of their names. In the second half of the 19th century Margaret Watts Hughes, singer, composer, scientist and philanthropist, is recognised as the first person to experiment and observe the phenomenon of visualising sound using an “eidophone”, a device she invented consisting of a trumpet with a mouthpiece for singing at one end, and at the other a membrane through which she poured a dense liquid, such as coloured glycerine. Geometric figures were created by placing glass plates and other flat surfaces on the membrane. As she perfected the technique, she began to create entire landscapes and wrote texts to explain her discoveries, stressing they had been made by someone with no prior scientific knowledge. What she was doing was already known as “cymatics” in science and astronomy circles but she was the first to carry this out for purely artistic aims, also turning out to be a pioneer of visual music; i.e. the translation of sound into images. A few years later, the filmmaker Mary Ellen Bute investigated how to visualise sound using animated images by experimenting with the electronic conversion of acoustic signals. For many of her films she used an oscilloscope to obtain this physical visualisation of sound.

Between the 1950s and the late 1960s, three female sound engineers were employed at the BBC studios in London who became very important in the history of electronic music: Maddalena Fagandinni, Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire, converting the BBC into one of the world's great centres of technological innovation. During their careers, Oram and Derbyshire were also involved in creating sound effects for films and in the composition of soundtracks. Daphne Oram was the creator of Oramics, the first electronic sound generating machine that produced drawings on 35mm celluloid film and then transformed them into sound. She also produced music, not only for radio and television but also for theatre, advertising and sound installations. Some of the James Bond films of the 1960s use her sound effects and she was also on the soundtrack for Jack Clayton's horror film The Innocents (1961). Delia Derbyshire joined the network's staff in the early 1960s, having been turned down by numerous studios simply because they would not hire women. At the BBC she produced one of her most popular works, the soundtrack for the series Dr. Who (1963), the first piece created entirely from electronic sounds for a series, which has also become a science fiction classic.

Bebe Barron was an American composer and sound engineer who, together with her husband, Louis Barron, made the first all-electronic soundtrack for a film, Forbidden Planet (1956), which eventually became a cult B-movie of the time. The two studied musique concrète with a tape recorder given to them as a wedding gift. In the early 1950s, the Barrons collaborated with several experimental film directors, doing the sound design for Maya Deren's The Very Eye of Night (1958), which included music by the Japanese composer, Teiji Ito, as well as working with Shirley Clarke on Bridges-Go-Round (1958), a film full of zooms and colour filters that documents the bridges of New York city, which could be considered a precursor to the music video.

The synergies converge between electronic music and the genres of science fiction, horror and fantasy because these are areas where experimentation has always been more widely accepted.  Another example of this convergence took place in the late 1960s with Wendy Carlos, a pioneer not only in the field of music with the use of modular synthesisers but also in the visibility of trans people and the activist struggle for LGTBQ rights. Carlos worked for Stanley Kubrick on the soundtracks for The Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Shining (1980). Two years later, she designed the soundtrack for Disney's retro-futuristic film Tron, incorporating orchestra, choirs, organ music and synthesisers, both analogue and the early digital, paving the way for synthesisers to become the star instrument in all (or almost all) horror and science fiction film soundtracks of the 1980s. Today the connections between electronic music and these genres are thriving more than ever, as illustrated by the alien vibe-laden soundtrack composed by Mica Levi for Under the Skin (2014) and the Oscar finally won by a woman, Hildur Ingveldardóttir Guðnadóttir, with the soundtrack for Joker (2020). Science fiction, but from other places such as the visual arts, video art and performance, is practised by the Colombian composer Lucrecia Dalt who, for years, has provided the sound for pieces by the Spanish artist Regina de Miguel. Other worlds are possible and these speculative fictions that imagine more habitable places can be found in all these women’s careers.

The work of Lis Rhodes, Jodie Mack and Blanca Rego, who investigate the necessary disruption in the hegemony of image over sound, provides a new perspective for the concept of visual music. The case of Rhodes is relevant not only because, through her films, she denounces the lack of visibility of women in the audiovisual sector but also because some of the works created by her in the 1970s are authentic “noise” compositions that encourage reflection regarding the scant attention received by female composers. The strobe effect, so closely associated with live electronic music and the night-time ambience of dance clubs, is very much present in experimental cinema with the kinetic deliriums of flicker films, which create a flickering effect using an accelerated musical synchrony very close to the rhythmic basis of techno. Jodie Mack, whose work is based on the idea of collage, attempts to animate any everyday element. Her creations are related to flicker films, being an amalgam of fireworks, pop psychedelia and brilli-brilli. Also along these lines, Blanca Rego's work often uses data bending, a technique that enables one type of file to be saved in another format. Bending is a form of glitch art, understood in the field of digital images as a "beautiful error" associated with dissidence and formal experimentation. In 2018 Rego was invited to the She Makes Noise festival, where she presented an audiovisual performance entitled she makes noise Makes Noise which provided the audience with an abstract audiovisual experience based on the festival's own code and the music of all the artists taking part that year. Abstraction and noise, where what you see is what you hear. A noise film which, starting with abstraction and light effects, takes after the concept of attentive listening as the core of everything, thereby recapturing the research and approach to life of the Texan composer and academic Pauline Oliveros. Blanca Rego's artistic practice stems from the origins of that magic of cinema, from Watts Hughes’s eidophone, using pixels and contemporary music to encourage an increased awareness among those of us who participate in her work, which goes from the physical to the most sensorial and phantasmagorical, from that cinema of emotions and provocation we like so much.

Natalia Piñuel

You can also consult the Women Light Music playlist at Arxiu Xcèntric

11 January 2023