Meet Four Women Who Pioneered Electronic Music: Daphne Oram, Laurie Spiegel, Éliane Radigue & Pauline Oliveros

My small city is still com­ing down from the ela­tion of last month’s Moogfest, a three-day extrav­a­gan­za of per­for­mances, work­shops, sem­i­nars, films, and oth­er activ­i­ties relat­ing to music made by the syn­the­siz­ers designed and influ­enced by Robert Moog.

This year’s fes­tiv­i­ties includ­ed sev­er­al per­for­mances from New Wave star Gary Numan; appear­ances by leg­ends like Devo’s Mark Moth­ers­baugh, Parliament-Funkadelic’s Bernie Wor­rell, Negativland’s Chris Grigg, and Can’s Mal­colm Moony; and trib­utes to recent­ly deceased Japan­ese synth mas­ter Isao Tomi­ta and British prog rock super­star Kei­th Emer­son…. And yes, many excel­lent younger female artists per­formed and gave work­shops and talks, but as a new­com­er to the scene, you’d be for­giv­en for think­ing that ear­li­er gen­er­a­tions of elec­tron­ic musi­cians were almost exclu­sive­ly male.

And that impres­sion would be entire­ly off the mark, even if it has been rein­forced again and again in ret­ro­spec­tives, doc­u­men­taries, and pop­u­lar his­to­ries. But per­spec­tives are shift­ing, and we’ve tried to high­light some of the alter­nate his­to­ries of elec­tron­ic music that doc­u­ment female artists’ indis­pens­able con­tri­bu­tions to the field.

Recent doc­u­men­taries about influ­en­tial BBC Radio com­pos­er and musi­cian Delia Der­byshire, for exam­ple, have rein­tro­duced her work to a new gen­er­a­tion. A wider appre­ci­a­tion came in the form of KPFA’s “Crack O’ Dawn” pro­gram broad­cast­ing sev­en hours of music by over two dozen impor­tant women com­posers and musi­cians from 1938–2014.

On the live cir­cuit, “’all-female bills,’” writes Jen­nifer Lucy Allan at The Guardian, “have gained trac­tion to address the stark gen­der imbal­ance in dance and elec­tron­ic music book­ings.” But “they can feel tokenist, where gen­der comes before tal­ent… not so at London’s South­bank Cen­tre next week­end: its Deep Min­i­mal­ism fes­ti­val presents com­po­si­tions by some of elec­tron­ic music’s ear­ly fron­trun­ners, going as far back as the 1950s. They just so hap­pen to be almost exclu­sive­ly female.”

One ear­ly fron­trun­ner, Daphne Oram, was a con­tem­po­rary and col­league of Delia Der­byshire. Oram, writes Allan, “noo­dled with mod­u­lar machines at the BBC Radio­phon­ic Work­shop in its ear­ly days, before the stu­dio cre­at­ed the sem­i­nal Doc­tor Who theme” (large­ly Derbyshire’s doing). That descrip­tion does­n’t do her jus­tice. Oram was in fact a co-founder of the huge­ly influ­en­tial Radio­phon­ic Work­shop, and her work deserves, and has begun to receive, the kind of crit­i­cal re-eval­u­a­tion that Der­byshire has attained recent­ly.

The Wire mag­a­zine cen­tered Oram’s work in a 2012 dis­cus­sion, “Attack of the Radio­phon­ic Women: How Syn­the­siz­ers Cracked Music’s Glass Ceil­ing.” They fea­ture much more info on Oram on their site, includ­ing a “Daphne Oram Por­tal” with links to arti­cles about her sophis­ti­cat­ed work. At the top of the post, you can hear the sub­tle drones, ring­ing, and echoes of Oram’s “Pulse Perse­phone,” and just above, lis­ten to a 2008, 40-minute radio doc­u­men­tary on her work called “Wee Have Also Sound-Hous­es,” made in cel­e­bra­tion of the Radio­phon­ic Workshop’s 50th anniver­sary.

Oram has been laud­ed by the BBC as “the unsung pio­neer of tech­no” and there is cur­rent­ly a Kick­starter cam­paign to repub­lish her book, An Indi­vid­ual Note: Of Music, Sound and Elec­tron­ics, and to “write Daphne Oram back into music his­to­ry.” Oram’s book explains her phi­los­o­phy of sound, which she called “Oram­ics.” Like many an ear­ly elec­tron­ic musi­cal pio­neer, she not only cre­at­ed orig­i­nal sound designs but designed orig­i­nal equip­ment to make them—in her case, an “opti­cal syn­the­siz­er” called the Oram­ics Machine (read about it here). Just above, see a clip from Atlantis Anew, a film about the Oram­ics Machine.

Anoth­er pio­neer­ing com­pos­er, Lau­rie Spiegel, is also an engi­neer and soft­ware design­er with a long resume that includes work­ing with syn­the­siz­er design­ers (and Moog com­peti­tors) Buch­la and Elec­tron­ic Music Lab­o­ra­to­ries. See her above in 1977 play­ing the Alles Machine, a very ear­ly dig­i­tal syn­the­siz­er she worked on with Hal Alles at Bell Labs. Spiegel worked for Bell Labs for sev­er­al years, cre­at­ing one of the first com­put­er draw­ing pro­grams in the mid-70s, and she is wide­ly known as the design­er of Music Mouse, a MIDI pro­gram cre­at­ed for Apple in 1985.

Spiegel, writes Allan, “pro­grammed synths before com­put­er-based con­trollers were a twin­kle in the tech­no DJ’s eye.” If her list of accom­plish­ments as an engi­neer seems impres­sive, her con­tri­bu­tions as a com­pos­er and musi­cian cer­tain­ly are as well. In 1977, her real­iza­tion of Johannes Kepler’s 17th cen­tu­ry com­po­si­tion “Har­mon­ices Mun­di” (“Har­mo­ny of the Worlds,” above) was cho­sen as the first musi­cal record­ing on the Voy­ager probe’s “Gold­en Record,” a cul­tur­al time cap­sule sent into space for ears of extrater­res­tri­als (“assum­ing they have ears,” writes Pitch­fork in a glow­ing pro­file of Spiegel).

Spiegel has com­posed sound­tracks for tele­vi­sion shows and films, includ­ing a 1980 PBS adap­ta­tion of Ursu­la K. LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heav­en. That same year, she released her acclaimed first album The Expand­ing Uni­verse, now a recent­ly re-released clas­sic. (Hear the album’s 28-minute title track here.)

And though it isn’t includ­ed in the offi­cial chart-top­ping sound­track album, Spiegel’s 1972 com­po­si­tion “Sed­i­ment,” just above, appears in the first Hunger Games score, a “left-field” devel­op­ment that Spiegel views very pos­i­tive­ly. “There are quite a few films and TV shows late­ly that have strong female pro­tag­o­nists who aren’t just co-stars to a male hero,” she told Wired, “We have yet to get to the point where we see a lot of female com­posers appear­ing in sound­track cred­its, but maybe that will change.”

Per­haps it already is, very, very slow­ly. The work of French com­pos­er and one­time Spiegel col­lab­o­ra­tor Éliane Radigue was among the two dozen elec­tron­ic, orches­tral, and avant-garde pieces on the sound­track for Ale­jan­dro Innaritu’s The Revenant, for exam­ple. Radigue began her career study­ing musique con­crete with exper­i­men­tal pio­neers Pierre Scha­ef­fer and Pierre Hen­ry in the 50s. She began mak­ing synth-based music in 1970 on a Buch­la syn­the­siz­er while she shared a stu­dio with Spiegel. “In the begin­ning,” says Radigue above in a doc­u­men­tary about her life and career, “there was a cer­tain music that I wished to make. It was this par­tic­u­lar music and no oth­er.” That music—slow, dron­ing, immersive—became reli­gious in nature when she con­vert­ed to Tibetan Bud­dhism.

Radigue’s Bud­dhist-inspired piece “Jet­sun Mila” (Hear Part One above, Part Two here)—excerpt­ed in The Revenant—is “deeply med­i­ta­tive,” writes Oth­er Music’s Michael Klaus­man, in its “explo­ration of inaudi­ble sub­har­mon­ics and over­tones,” which have a “way of phys­i­cal­ly chang­ing the land­scape of the room her music inhab­its.”

Radigue is a fanat­i­cal­ly patient com­pos­er, “an impor­tant, intrigu­ing fig­ure with­in the Euro­pean musi­cal avant-garde,” as Elec­tron­ic Beats describes her in a 2012 inter­view; her “work is defined by its painstak­ing cre­ation and sin­gu­lar method­ol­o­gy.” From 1970 to 2004, when she tran­si­tioned to writ­ing acoustic music, Radigue’s work was “cre­at­ed exclu­sive­ly on the unwieldy but bril­liant ARP 2500 mod­u­lar synth,” a machine inspired by Wendy Car­los’ use of Moog’s syn­the­siz­ers on her Switched on Bach album.

The three women pro­filed above rep­re­sent a small sam­pling of too-often-over­looked elec­tron­ic com­posers, musi­cians, engi­neers, and the­o­rists whose work deserves wider appre­ci­a­tion, not because it’s made by women, but because it’s inno­v­a­tive, tech­ni­cal­ly bril­liant, and beau­ti­ful music made by peo­ple who hap­pen to be women.

And yet, it’s like­ly the case that the work of Oram, Spiegel, and Radigue flies so far under the radar because so many his­to­ries of elec­tron­ic music focus almost exclu­sive­ly on men. One salient exam­ple is the exclu­sion of Pauline Oliv­eros from many of those his­to­ries. “A con­stant pres­ence” at the upcom­ing Deep Min­i­mal­ism fes­ti­val, Oliv­eros was “at the van­guard of elec­tron­ics, work­ing with tape machines,” writes Tom Ser­vice, and she “col­lab­o­rat­ed with Ter­ry Riley… and Mor­ton Subton­ick,” as well as Steve Reich, all very well-known exper­i­men­tal com­posers.

She also hap­pened to be a “friend, col­league, and per­former of John Cage and his music.” Oliv­eros’ phi­los­o­phy of “Deep Lis­ten­ing” had a pro­found influ­ence on Cage and many oth­ers, but her name rarely comes up in dis­cus­sions of exper­i­men­tal, impro­visato­ry min­i­mal­ist music. (Cul­tur­al the­o­rist Tra­cy McMullen has her own the­o­ry about Oliv­eros’ obscu­ri­ty rel­a­tive to Cage.) You can see Oliv­eros describe her phi­los­o­phy in the TED talk fur­ther up, lis­ten to her ear­ly, 1965 com­po­si­tion “Mnemon­ics III” just above, and learn much more about her fas­ci­nat­ing life and work in Ser­vice’s Guardian pro­file.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Two Doc­u­men­taries Intro­duce Delia Der­byshire, the Pio­neer in Elec­tron­ic Music

Hear Sev­en Hours of Women Mak­ing Elec­tron­ic Music (1938- 2014)

The His­to­ry of Elec­tron­ic Music in 476 Tracks (1937–2001)

The His­to­ry of Elec­tron­ic Music, 1800–2015: Free Web Project Cat­a­logues the Theremin, Fairlight & Oth­er Instru­ments That Rev­o­lu­tion­ized Music

The Mas­ter­mind of Devo, Mark Moth­ers­baugh, Shows Off His Syn­the­siz­er Col­lec­tion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (4)
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  • Synapsenkitzler says:

    Thanks a lot for this arti­cle and the audio and video exam­ples. Amaz­ing, and good to have some doc­u­ment­ed women pio­neers too.

  • John Broadfoot says:

    And… Wendy Car­los!

  • says:

    Please add JANBET BEAT to this list as I was the 2nd man com­pos­er of elec­tron­ic music in the UK. M 1st musi­ue con­crete pieces date from the late 1960s.
    Also in wikipedia

    Janet Beat

  • says:

    Please add JANET BEAT to this list as I was the 2nd female com­pos­er of elec­tron­ic music in the UK. Her 1st musique con­crete pieces date from the late 1960s.
    Also in wikipedia

    Janet Beat

    Typos cor­rect­ed as iI have a bro­ken wrist & typ­ing is dif­fi­cult

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