Electronics and Equality

Portraits

Gender awareness is slowly increasing in electronic music. But it hasn’t yet done much to change the underrepresentation of women. What’s going wrong?

Theresa Beyer - 2019-10-21
Electronics and Equality - ©Norbert Bruggmann
©Norbert Bruggmann

Time and again, you have to resort to statistics. For example, we have numbers for the composers performed at “Nachtstrom”, the concert series of the Electronic Studio of the Basel University of Music, which has been held at the Gare du Nord in Basel since 2016: 58 men, 4 women. Then there are the students who have done a Master in Electroacoustic Composition at the Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK) since 2009: 13 men, 3 women. Or the authors of the book about the history of electroacoustic music in Switzerland (Musik aus dem Nichts. Die Geschichte der Elektroakustischen Musik in der Schweiz1): 19 men, 2 women. 

If we add all this up, we get a rough average of the number of women involved in the Swiss electronic music scene. It lies somewhere between 5% and 20%. And once you’ve done your sums, indignation sets in, because hardly anything has changed about these figures in recent years. In the end, you realise that these statistics are only a reflection of a whole society in which women are structurally disadvantaged.

And yet things aren’t quite so simple. Because electronic music – which encompasses electroacoustic composition, sound art, computer music and experimental club avant-garde music – has an even lower proportion of women than other sectors of our cultural industry. Electronic music – just like New Music – likes to claim that it’s future-oriented, visionary, and delights in experimentation. So for this very reason, we have a right to come down hard on it when it comes to gender equality2.

A portrait of the sound artist Iris Rennert from Zurich. She teaches “Hardware hacking” at the Bern University of the Arts HKB and sees herself as a mentor for young women musicians.

 

Masculine technology – an old cliché 

If we look for explanations for the underrepresentation of women in electronic music, then we can’t avoid first getting to grips with old prejudices. Rosa Reitsamer works at the Institute of Music Sociology at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna, and she explains that women are still being confronted with the cliché about having less of an affinity for technology: “Technical knowledge plays a bigger role in electronic music than it does in other genres. And technology still has a masculine connotation in our society”.

According to Iris Rennert, an artist and musician from Zurich, this prejudice is “like an unwelcome, nasty guest who just rolls up, and whose impact is usually trivialised”.  She recalls what things were like when she started out in the 1980s: “On the path I chose, it really wasn’t easy sharing my curiosity and eagerness to experiment with others, because I was working with computers and musical instruments that were generally assumed to be the domain of my male colleagues”.

Pessimism and prejudice

Joana Maria Aderi also knows all about these clichés – she too is a musician from Zurich, and she established herself on the electronic music scene in the 1990s and 2000s with her own electronic project Eiko: “Time and again I felt that I wasn’t being taken seriously by sound engineers. As soon as there was a technical problem, I got these vibes about it being typical for a woman. It was difficult not to get pessimistic about it”.

Just don’t lose heart! Joana Maria Aderi from Zurich and her electronic music project EIKO

 

In order to dismantle these prejudices, School of Sound, a training centre for electronic music production in Zurich, is offering courses in the music software Ableton that are given exclusively for women. Aderi runs one of these courses, and she’s seen how the younger generation approach technology: “Even in such a protected, ‘women only’ environment, I notice that young women still have a very low degree of self-confidence when dealing with technology”. 

Different careers – different approaches

Behind these fears lies a gender-specific process of socialisation, and Rosa Reitsamer is convinced that it hasn’t changed much in the past 30 years. “To this day, girls are not encouraged by parents and teachers to get to grips with a synthesizer, to learn programming or to produce beats. That’s why they often start a career in electronic music later than boys, and it’s frequently a disadvantage”. For boys, by contrast, engaging with technology is a means of improving their status. And for them, entering early on into a technical or technological profession is something that simply corresponds to societal expectations. 

Germán Toro-Pérez works at the Institute for Computer Music and Sound Technology (ICST) at the ZHdK, and he is of a similar opinion. “My male students were often technologically oriented as teenagers. They made club music, acquired experience in sound engineering and then got their artistic qualifications by studying with us. My female students tend to be lateral entrants. They might have studied musicology, architecture or the flute before coming to us, and it’s having worked in those professions that has given them self-confidence”.

This gender-specific socialisation also results in different ways of approaching electronic music, says Michael Harenberg, the joint programme coordinator of the Sound Arts programme at the Bern University of the Arts HKB. “There are more technology enthusiasts among our male students, and they’re focused on tools, devices and programming. Women students approach technology in a much more reflective way, more goal-oriented. They’re primarily interested in making an artistic statement”.

“Kontext” on Radio SRF 2 Kultur: How is the electronic music scene dealing with the underrepresentation of women? The programme visits the Female*Music Lab DJing Workshop and the Berlin Festival “Heroines of Sound” (in German only).

 

Technology isn’t hocus-pocus          

The audio designer and sound artist Veronika Klaus is a former student of Harenberg’s, and she agrees with him: “In and of itself, technology doesn’t interest me. I’m interested in what I can do with it”. Klaus came to electronic music via the electric violin, and she’s consciously trying to dispel any mystification of technology: “Perhaps we can break away from this masculine connotation of electronic music if we see technology less as some kind of complicated hocus-pocus, and just as a multitude of instruments and sounds for us to play with”.

For many women musicians in the realm of electronic music, being playful and taking pleasure in experimentation is part and parcel of their feminist self-awareness today. But such an approach isn’t anything new, as we can see if we take a closer look at the early days of electronic music in the radio stations and electronic studios. For example, Johanna Magdalena Beyer (1888–1944) composed a work entitled Music of the Spheres for three electric string instruments as early as 1938. The French composer Eliane Radigue (*1932) created minimalistic electroacoustic music back in the 1960s, while Daphne Oram (1925–2003) was beginning her work with tape-recording techniques in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop at the same time. But these women pioneers have been left out of the history of electronic music. And there are hardly any visible female role models in Switzerland either3.

The German-American composer and pianist Johanna Magdalena Beyer has earned a place in electronic music history. Here’s her composition “Music of the Spheres”.

 

Electronic music – a disembodied art?

Throughout its history, electronic music has repeatedly been seen as a disembodied art. In order for it to sound, the body is either completely unnecessary or, in the case of “classical” laptop performances, it’s only needed for minimal movements. So it’s more machine than man – that’s the utopian idea of it, at least4. In her book Gendertronics – Der Körper in der elektronischen Musik (“Gendertronics – the body in electronic music”, edition suhrkamp, 2005), the curator and journalist Meike Jansen links the absence of the body in electronic music with the absence of women on the scene itself. 

The notion of a “disembodied music” was propagated by techno in the early 1990s, but it’s something that could only have been thought up by a man. The Irish composer Jennifer Walshe is convinced of it: “Absolute music is a luxury that only male composers can afford. None of the women composers I know believe in it – perhaps because they know what it means to be judged by their looks throughout their lives”. 

In her audio-visual concert performance “The murmuring of things”, the Bernese composer and voice artist Franziska Baumann unites live electronics and vocal choreography. Its world première took place at the Musikfestival Bern in 2019.

 

A refusal to thematise gender (or just believing that it’s unnecessary) is thus a male privilege. So it is hardly surprising that feminist approaches to electronic music often quite consciously incorporate the body – whether through gestures, through sensor-driven electronics, or through the utilisation and alienation of the voice5. All these approaches are about more than just creating a new, performative situation that challenges the classical (normative, masculine) laptop performance. It is about reinterpreting gender, reversing it, deconstructing it. If we are to find a path to more gender equality in electronic music, then such aesthetic ideas will have to find a place – and they will have to be expanded by non-binary, queer approaches too.

Masculine networks

Stefan Mousson is also on the lookout for new aesthetics and performative approaches. He organises and curates the Bernese edition of the festival for electronic and experimental music called Les Digitales: “I am sick of seeing only men behind the faint light of their laptop screens”, he says. But this openness of his hasn’t done much to diversify his programming. In the last edition of Les Digitales in 2019, only 19% of all performers across Switzerland were women. In 2018 it was 12%, and in 2016 and 2017 only 16% each time. This gender distribution is similar to our statistics on club culture (such as in Bern in 2018: 13.02 %)6 and on international electronic music festivals (14% women between 2012 to 2017)7.

A glimpse into Bernese club culture. In the year 2018, the artists appearing at the Dachstock, Dampfzentrale, Gaskessel, Kapitel and Rössli clubs comprised 2344 men and only 351 women (according to a 2019 study by Luz Gonzales).

 

Mousson is unhappy with this imbalance, and isn’t averse to self-criticism: “If most of the people on our committee are men and we curate the festival from this perspective, then we can’t be surprised that women are underrepresented”. Les Digitales regards itself as a family festival, and it takes place in public parks and squares. Mousson sees this fact as further proof of their responsibility to change: “If we present electronic music in those venues as the preserve of men and nerds, then that gives a wrong picture of it”.

The power of unwritten codes

There does seem to be an awareness of inequality and a will to change things at Les Digitales. So why has the proportion of women remained so low all the same? Just as it is impossible to map out and delineate those male networks, no male curator or booker would ever admit that he consciously discriminates against women. And because exclusion mechanisms often function according to unwritten codes, it is all the more difficult to get to the bottom of them. 

Yet a glance at how Les Digitales is organised can help us to understand something. The festival does not function according to classical booking rules, but via a call for participants – and as a rule, 90% of those who answer it are men. But if the call itself appeals more to men, this could also be because it’s only publicised on the homepage “lesdigitales.ch” and on Facebook. This allows a typical “filter bubble” problem to emerge: the Festival call only reaches those who already know about it, or have already performed there8.

The festival “Les Digitales” takes place all over Switzerland, and in 2018 it assumed responsibility for achieving better gender equality in electronic music – precisely because it takes place in public spaces. ©Alexandre Dell'Olivo

 

As a sociologist, Rosa Reitsamer sees this multiplication of male knowledge as a dynamic typical of informal networks: “In my studies on electronic music, I have observed how men find their way into the network of a scene primarily through male friends. In my interviews with women, they have repeatedly spoken about being shut out, and how they get noticeably fewer bookings than their male peers”. Joana Maria Aderi has suffered so much from these old-boy networks that she has meanwhile decided to put her solo project Eiko on ice.

The special position of “woman”

There is another issue that has made electronic music a tough place for women. If a festival features one woman alongside ten men, then she’s far more exposed than her male colleagues. Veronika Klaus recalls situations in which she felt very uneasy: “If I was the only woman to have been booked somewhere, I didn’t want to give the impression that I was just a token. That’s why I put a lot of pressure on myself and tried to be better than the others”.

In her performances, the sound artist Julie Semoroz from Geneva works with field recordings, live microphones and her own voice, challenging the relationship between human beings and technology.

 

As soon as women are excluded from male networks, they are automatically noticed less. For bookers, curators and event organisers, this means in turn that they have to go out and actively seek women musicians. You can only counter the male domination of festival programmes if you engage in an intensive search and actively look beyond your own clique – though online databases can help here, such as female:pressure (which currently has 2,500 members in 78 countries), the “Helvetiarockt” network, or the music search platform “norient.com”.

Gender sensitivity in curation is possible in practice, as is proven by festivals such as Rhizom in Zurich (which in 2019 was 50 percent women) or cultural centres such as the Dampfzentrale in Bern (33 percent women in 2018). It has also been proven that if you enact a diversity policy when appointing people to important positions – such as booking officers, festival managers and curators – then this has an impact on programming too. The media can also provide women with greater visibility, as can diversity when awarding cultural prizes. One example is the Swiss Music Prize, which was awarded in 2019 to the Swiss-Congolese music producer Bonaventure.

The Swiss-Congolese producer Bonaventure won the 2019 Swiss Music Prize.

 

Universities of music have a responsibility too

But traditions and conventions mustn’t just be questioned on the music scene itself, among event managers and informal networks. It also has to happen at the universities. Most professorships in sound arts, computer music and electroacoustic composition go to men (90.1% of them, according to current statistics from Germany)9. If it’s mostly men who teach and lecture, who sit on appointment committees or are invited as guests, then it only means that similar exclusionary mechanisms are at work there as on the music scene. A lack of female role models means that women are discouraged from studying in the first place. 

Yet there is also a positive example that shows what can be achieved when tertiary institutions take their responsibilities seriously. In the study programme “Sound arts” at the Bern University of the Arts HKB, female students were underrepresented for a long time. But a gender-sensitive recruitment policy was able to bring about change over the years. More and more women were appointed – both as professors and as lecturers and assistants. Today, the genders are more evenly balanced. This has also had an impact on the number of women students: in 2014, only 14% of students were young women; by 2019, women made up 27% of the students on the Sound arts programme.

Sometimes the differences between the genders are subtle. Like here on these photos by Norbert Bruggmann. He’s photographed the hands of students in the Sound Arts programme of the Bern University of the Arts HKB. Minimal movements at the controls of a mixing console. Is it a man’s hand, or a woman’s?

 

Gender equality isn’t just for women

Concrete measures on the electronic music scene have thus far been primarily initiated by women offering each other mutual support (see Helvetiarockt and female:pressure), organising podium talks and festivals (“Les Belles de Nuit” in Zurich), initiating discussions (such as when the SRF moderator and DJ Rosanna Grüter spoke about sexism in electronic music in Switzerland in August 2017), or simply running private events among themselves (such as Joana Maria Aderi, who set up the electro-jam sessions “Female Electro Nerds” for women, and Iris Rennert, who has been active as a mentor for young women musicians).

But is this really enough to provide a counterbalance and to lay claim to greater visibility? Not on its own. Adrienne Goehler is the curator of the German Capital Cultural Fund, and at the 2017 Donaueschingen Music Days she took part in a discussion entitled “(K)eine Männersache – Neue Musik” (“New Music: (not) just a matter for men”), where she insisted that funding institutions also have a responsibility to promote greater gender equality and more diversity among musicians and organisers. In the case of Switzerland, that could mean incorporating a women’s quota in the service contracts of institutions subsidised by the state. 

Men go on the offensive

The change in awareness that began with #MeToo and the women’s strike of 2019 is also having an impact on the music scene. It’s time, too, that men went on the offensive. In 2016, a number of male journalists came together and set up the hashtag #men4equality. The signatories promised that they would no longer take part in podium discussions where only men were involved. So why not create a hashtag for electronic music too? What if male musicians refused invitations to festivals if too few women were invited? We would even be satisfied with a women’s quota of just 35% – because this is a sociological threshold value signifying a point at which women are no longer perceived as being a minority. But even such voluntary obligations could make event organisers, bookers and festival managers break out into a sweat. It wouldn’t just compel them to a sense of gender awareness. It would also force them to act. And that would be effective!

 

This article was first published in June 2018 in dissonance 142 – the Swiss journal for music research. This version is a slightly shortened, updated version from September 2019.

 

Theresa Beyer is a music journalist with Swiss Radio SRF 2 Kultur and belongs to the core team of the international music network Norient. She has often delved into the field of “gender and music”, both in long radio programmes such as “Kontext” and “Musik unserer Zeit”, and as a Norient curator. In 2016, Theresa Beyer was awarded the Reinhard Schulz Prize for writing on contemporary music.

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1 Musik aus dem Nichts. Die Geschichte der Elektroakustischen Musik in der Schweiz, ed. Bruno Spoerri, Zurich: Chronos-Verlag 2010.
2 This article is based on ten interviews with women musicians, event organisers, researchers and institute heads from German Switzerland and abroad (carried out in 2017 and 2018): Joana Maria Aderi, Rosanna Grüter, Michael Harenberg, Veronika Klaus, Stefan Mousson, Erik Oña, Rosa Reitsamer, Iris Rennert, German Toro-Pérez, Jennifer Walshe.
3 There are a few women’s names in the book Musik aus dem Nichts (see note 1 above): Geneviève Calame, Charlotte Hug, Franziska Baumann, Trixa Arnold, Sibylla Giger and DJ Tatana. But there is no individual portrait article for any of them.
4 Christoph Co, Wie wird Musik zu einem organlosen Körper? Gilles Deleuze und die experimentelle Elektronika, in: Soundcultures. Über elektronische und digitale Musik, ed. Marcus S. Kleiner and Achim Szepanski. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp 2003, pp. 162–193.
5 For example: Joana Maria Aderi, Franziska Baumann, Cathy van Eck, Imogen Heap, Holly Herndon, Lydia Kavina Julia Mihaly, Milena Patagonia, Clara Rockmore, Jennifer Walshe etc.
6 Luz Gonzales: Bachelor thesis at the Bern University of the Arts HKB, “Frauen*Repräsentation in der Clubkultur in Bern 2018” (2019).
7 Fact survey by “female:pressure”, updated 2019 version.
8 At closer inspection, we see that the followers of the page are ca 35–40% women, a proportion similar to the audiences at the concerts. Just how many of them are active musicians remains unknown.
9 Internal research on gender distribution in teaching posts in the subjects composition, electroacoustic composition and music theory at the German universities of music. Bundeskonferenz der Frauen- und Gleichstellungsbeauftragten an Hochschulen e.V., 2019

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