p.14 Womxn = Computers
p.19 At the crossroad between digital technology and music
p.24 Fixing broken links
p.25 Polyphony aginst unification
p.27 Gender representation now
p.38 Exposing the circuitry
p.48 System recovery, re-programming our technologies
p.52 Celebrating crash as a reboot strategy
p.64 Melting interfaces
p.71 Weird (queer?) sounds
p.80 The economy of open source project
and alternatives technologies
p. 88 crysoma
p.100 Luisa Mei
In this book, I examine how alternative tools for music production can be a way of emancipation
artists and artists from, gender minorities. For a long time I have wondered how to navigate the
electronic music as an artist from the FLINTA* community. I look for
us from the male dominated field of music production.
When I began this research, I was interested in learning how to build my own systems through
program-ming. I wanted to create tools closely related to my practice, mainly to produce music.
been very interested
in open-source software and started my experiments with PureData. This quickly led me to learn basic electronics
to design a controller for the synth I was developing. I learned more about the history of synthesizers history and digital technologies. It seems difficult to talk about electronic music without talking about digital technologies in general, as while producing, you always use some type of analog or digital machine, ranging from mixers, samplers, computers with
a DAW to a simple tool like a piezo microphone.
The way we view the digital technology field shows
how we view the electronic music field, as the latter is at the crossroad between music and digital technologies. These two are fields where gender representation shows a lot of disparity. On top of discovering more about the history of our digital tools, I navigated the electronic music scene which is very male-identified. Back in 2021, I took part in a workshop in Brussels where members of an Algorave collective were showing us how to code music with Tidal Cycles, a software for making patterns with code and samples. The registering system was on a “first come first served” basis. Out of 15 participants, we were only two female-identifying participants and one non-binary participant in the room.
The disparity we see nowadays in those very male-identified fields actually “represent[s] historically-grown societal power relations, rather than ademographic reality”as documents displaying the important role of female artists in early electronic music are being re-discovered. If archives are now being brought to daylight, there are a lot of stories and living experiences that we might never find again because they were not recorded. Possible explanations for this situation are that they were not considered as significant enough to be kept in records at the time, or because FLINTA* people (Female, Lesbian, Intersex, Non-binary, Trans, Agender and all other gender minority groups) practicing electronic music or tinkering with digital technologies were not part of the official academic sphere or from renown research groups. Discussions revolving around the representation of the FLINTA* community in the music sphere are more intense than ever, especially in the more alternative scenes where new collectives are pushing for better gender representation.
All of these considerations pushed me to wonder how to navigate the field of electronic music as an artist from the FLINTA* community and what could be our tools for emancipation in this very male dominated field as producers. More precisely, I will examine how using or creating alternative tools for music production could be a way of emancipation for female artists and those from gender minorities.
I deeply think that re-contextualizing our practices can
be a tool to give us back our place from fields we have been removed from, or at least restore some empowerment. I thus conducted a historical research on the place of the FLINTA* community in the early history of computers and in early electronic music. This shows a flawed history downplaying
the role of female identifying musicians, technicians and programmers, from gender minorities and minorities in general. Archives are vital to the conservation of knowledge and living experiences, as they constitute what is going to be passed down. They are thus crucial for the memory of the FLINTA* community. As a consequence to the lack of FLINTA* narratives, the electronic field is very male-identified nowadays. We will take a better look at the evolution of this disparity in the last few years. The lack of narratives from the stance of FLINTA* also had an impact on digital technologies. But as they become natural to us, we stop thinking about where they come from and how they are made; in other words, what narratives they carry. Being a part of the FLINTA* community, we are more prone to have to construct our own systems for survival inside the heterocis and patriarchal power system we live in. For that matter, technologies (music production tools or else) have played a huge role and are still important devices to reflect on identity questions and to help the FLINTA* community to create new imaginaries. Some queer and FLINTA* artists reclaim technology-specific terms, celebrating glitches, crashes and failure within a system as a means for reconfiguration. The purpose is to reboot the system into a more inclusive one. Creating or using alternative tools makes us escape a main narrative, and helps to convey alternative ones. I will dive deeper into what core values the synthesizer I created carry, and into what other FLINTA* artists find interesting about creating and using such tools within their practice.
For this thesis, I conducted 5 interviews to cover a variety of experiences regarding the relationship between these artists’ sound practice and gender questions. I tried to cover as much diversity as possible in terms of producing tools and cultural backgrounds of the artists as you cannot disconnect the experience of gender from the rest of your life. All of the artists are from the FLINTA* community and use or construct alternative instruments which are at the core of their music practice. The artists are:
During your reading, I encourage you to stop if you do not know the artists I mention, and to listen to their music because there are feelings that words cannot convey. I provide song suggestions to listen to throughout the thesis, also resulting in a tracklist at the end of the book. For better legibility, I will refer to “digital technologies” as is, or as “technologies”. When I talk about technologies in general outside of the digital technology field, I refer to them with an uppercase T.
At the very beginning of computer history, there were women. The term “computer” itself meant
computes” when it was created in the early 17th century. The first recorded written reference of
dates back to 1613. It used to describe a person performing
calculations, before computers as we know them
became commercially available.
It was very often women who performed this job, as it was tedious work during which they would undertake long calculations. This job was considered as labour and secretarial work, and black women computers worked in segregated situations. At that time, the term “kilo-girl” was invented by a member of the Applied Mathematics Panel in the 1940s to measure computing time, resulting in “kilo-girl-hours”.
One “kilo-girl of energy” was roughly about a thousand hours of computing labour. Back then, almost all people employed as computers were women. One report even said "programming requires lots of patience, persistence and a capacity for detail and those are traits that many girls have”.
In the 1800s, the first person to ever write and publish an algorithm was a woman working as a
Ada Lovelace, a British mathematician and writer. The program was intended to be executed by the first modern computer, the Analytical Engine created by Charles Babbage. As a result, she is often regarded as the first computer programmer. It was at that time that the word “computer” started being used for a machine aiming at calculating logical operations with a set of instructions. Ada Lovelace’s articles were largely unknown until the 1950s, which is no surprise as women’s work was often not credited or acknowledged. Therefore, a lot of their research did not make its way into public records and archives and thus the massive influence of women that shaped the computing field that we know today was either downplayed or totally erased. However, women treated astronomical data, calculated ballistic trajectories, and were the first programmers.
The first programmable, electronic, general-purpose digital computer was called ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) and was completed in 1945. The programmers of the ENIAC computer in 1944 were six female mathematicians; Marlyn Meltzer, Betty Holberton, Kathleen Antonelli, Ruth Teitelbaum, Jean Bartik, and Frances Spence. They were human computers at the Moore School's computation lab and were known as the “ENIAC girls”. ENIAC was the first programmable, electronic, general-purpose digital computer. It was completed in 1945. The women who worked on ENIAC were warned that they would not be promoted into professional ratings which were only for men. Designing the hardware was “men's work” and programming the software was “women's work”. It was along with the first electronic computers that the distinction between hardware and software appeared.
The hardware is the physical part of the machine, and the software is the set of instructions installed and run by the hardware part of the machine. Thus one does not exist without the other. Writing software was a woman's task at the beginning, as it was perceived as unprestigious and because they had prior experiences as human computers. The men designed the blueprints and built the “hard” part of the machine. The first person to have coined the term “Software Engineering” was Margaret Hamilton. She developed the guidance and navigation system for the Apollo spacecraft as head of the Software Engineering Division of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory. Margaret Hamilton invented the term to describe her work, and “to bring the software legitimacy”. The term “soft”, used as opposed to the term “hard”, was at first intended as a joke.
Photo of the U.S. Army.
Left: Patsy Simmers, holding ENIAC board
Next: Mrs. Gail Taylor, holding EDVAC board
Next: Mrs. Milly Beck, holding ORDVAC board
Right: Mrs. Norma Stec, holding BRLESC-I board
Women computer operators program ENIAC, the first electronic digital computer, by plugging and unplugging cables and adjusting switches.
The “ENIAC girls” only got the recognition they deserved in the 1980s when Kathy Kleiman, a young Harvard Undergraduate, was doing her research. She stumbled upon an old photograph of the first electronic computer. On the picture, you could see some men and women demonstrating the machine, but only the men were identified. She then questioned a university historian who told her that the women were just hired to pose in front of the computer,that they were just “Refrigerator Ladies”. But when Kleiman started digging up information, she discovered that the women in the pictures were far more than just that.
When we see the overall lack of information on women in general in early computer science, the situation of BIPOC women in the field was even worse. This is further illustrated by the almost complete lack of data on the BIPOC members of the ENIAC programmers.
NASA’s computing history unveils BIPOC women pioneers that were forgotten like Katherine Johnson
the trajectory for America’s first space trip while facing racism and sexism throughout her
also Melba Roy Mouton, whose work provided the sort of access that allowed millions of people to
in action. She then became the first Hispanic female astronaut. Among the programmers who
Scout launch vehicle was Dorothy Voghan. The Scout vehicle was a rocket used to launch the first
satellites into orbit around the Earth.
In 1949, Dorothy Vaughan was appointed director of the West Area Computers and thus became one of the first women at NASA to hold a supervisory position.
If we research the history of computers regarding queer people, we are faced with a lot of
presenting cis gendered male. I could mention for example the series of articles written in 2013
Jacob Gaboury on Rhizome’s website: A Queer
Gaboury is Assistant Professor of
New Media History at the Berkley University in California.
The series consists of five articles, each of them presenting one queer figure of the history of computer. The queer figures in question were only cis gendered male. Moreover, some were already quite famous and established figures like Alan Turing. Yet, the articles are said to be “an attempt to make visible those parts of a history that are often neglected, erased, or forgotten“. A figure Gaboury could have mentioned for example is Mary Ann Horton, a computer scientist and transgender activist. She is one of the principal founders and designers
of Usenet, a precursor to the Internet that we still use today. Horton also invented uuencode, which was the precursor of email attachments.
If we have established that the role of female and people from gender minorities was downplayed or erased from the common memory of what is the history of digital technologies, it is also the case when we look at the history of electronic music.
Electronic music situates itself at the crossroad between music and technologies: two male-identified fields. Thus, what that history retains from the role of female and people from gender minorities in digital technologies can influence what narratives were kept about early electronic music history.
Not many musicians practicing electronic music know that the first known electronic piece of
Music Of The Spheres, composed by Johanna
Beyer in 1938.
If you go on the Wikipedia page of “Electronic Music”, you will see no mention of her, or of any women until the mid late 1950s. Every picture of a technician or artist on this page is a cis gendered male.
Articles presenting “Women in electronic music” are mostly published on “International Women’s Day”, and only enumerate major pioneers figures such as Wendy Carlos, Delia Derbyshire, Daphne Oram… Further, a lot of these articles were published after the release of the 2020 movie Sisters with Transistors by Lisa Rovner, a documentary film telling the stories of some pioneering women of electronic music. But other women worked along those well-known figures. Abi Bliss, a writer specialized in musical history and journalism, warns about the recent unveiling of these female pioneers. She points out that:
“the idea of the lone woman who shuns the conventions of her era and dedicates herself like a kind of patchbay-nun to uncovering the mysteries of sound is an appealing one that plays easily into the fetishization of outsider figures”.
This fetishization can lead to portraying them as “oddities and exceptions” to their time, and also to the shadowing of many other female electronic musicians from that time. Among those shadowed artists, there is Else Marie Pade. In 1954, she became the first Danish composer of electronic music and musique concrète and her 1958 work Syv Cirkler (Seven Circles) was the first purely electronic composition to be broadcast on Danish radio. Another important figure of the technology and music field is Carla Scaletti, a musician and programmer who worked on computer generated music. She designed the Kyma sound generation computer language, which is still used by sound designers to this day.
Some of the most influential women in electronic music did not even know about their peers. For example, Suzanne Cianni did not know the existence of Delia Derbyshire -whose work only became famous years after Derbyshire’s death in 2001- until Cianni was dubbed “the Delia Derbyshire of the Atari generation”. Delia Derbyshire was an English musician and composer who carried out pioneering work with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop during the 1960s like the now famous Doctor Who music theme. The BBC Radiophonic Workshop was one of the sound effects units of the BBC which was created in 1957 by Daphne Oram and Desmond Briscoe.
As usual it was a struggle to find any information of early electronic music outside of Europe and the US. I managed to gather some information regarding cis gendered male composercis gendered male composer but did not find anything regarding female composers before the late 60s.
Energize Me (x2)
Don't patronize me
Don't glamorize me
Don't paralyze me
You can't surprise me
The Space Lady
In Tinkering with Cultural Memory, Tara Rodgers writes about an RCA LP from the 1950s, showcasing the RCA synthesizer’s sound. The RCA Corporation was a major American electronics company, which was founded as the Radio Corporation of America in 1919. The RCA electrical engineers Harry Olson and Hebart Belar were appointed to develop an instrument capable of auto-generated pop hits by automating arrangements and using electronically generated sounds. The RCA synthesizer is considered to be the first programmable synth. After the release of this LP, Harry Olson received a lot of letters of interest for the synthesizers, many of which were written by women wanting to know more about the functioning and design of the machine. Despite this, “Olson recommended to RCA’s marketers that they place advertisements for the synthesizer (…) in hifi-audio and electronics engineering magazines, which was perhaps a move to direct the emerging market towards men”. She also found a typed document from 1955 detailing the equipment and personnel for installing the RCA synthesizer: “the one ‘female operator’ responsible for administrative duties was crossed out by hand, while men who worked in supervisory or technical roles were retained.”
All of those anecdotes informs us that on one hand, the history of female and people from gender minorities was muted and not considered as significant enough to be kept at the time and, on the other hand, that their role was erased on purpose in the case of the crosscut female operator from the team of the RCA synthesizer. This shows that archives are vital and shape what is going to be passed down in history, as now archives are being unveiled and show us another side of early electronics history.
“Inheritance can be understood as both bodily and historical; we inherit chat we receive as the
condition of our
arrival into the world, as an arrival that leaves and makes an impression. (...) If history is made
what is passed down, as the conditions in which we live, then history is made
out of what is given not only in the sense of that which is ‘always already’ there, before our own
but in the active sense of the gift: history is a gift given that, when given is received.”
- Sara Ahmed, “Queer Phenomenology”, 2006
Because of the erasure and downplaying of female-identifying persons and those from gender minorities, we now find ourselves with highly male-identified practices in the digital technology and electronic music fields. But as we saw earlier, the disparity in gender representation “represent[s] historically-grown societal power relations, rather than a demographic reality”.
Archives are vital to the construction of what history retains. They can either further or
systemic power imbalances. It is the collection and preservation of narratives within archives
allow us to access historical experiences and identities. Indeed, “a well-known challenge for
of marginalized subjects is that cultural materials tend not to survive or be preserved in institutional archives". This is a challenge that I encountered myself during my research. This problem makes imperative the need of archiving as a member of the FLINTA* community. This is also why I decided to develop a webarchive to accompany this research, where I collect the references I came across. This serves as a means to make this research as open as possible. The archive will be open to contributions for the visitors of the website. Nowadays, a lot of initiatives exist to preserve queer and FLINTA* history in electronic music or in the digital field, especially under the form of websites: the Cyber Feminism Index by Mindy Seu, the Queer Digital History Project, female:pressure or NERDGIRLS - herstory of electronic by the musician AGF to name just a few. All these archives were conceived by people affected and concerned by these subjects. It is often the task of FLINTA* people to uncover and protect their own histories.
The erasure or downplaying of the FLINTA* community in archives is not only due to plain discrimination, but can also be traced down to the figure of the “isolated genius”. This genius inventor or musician is going to be pinned down as the one person that started it all. Nevertheless, they were all shaped by something or someone, and some other researchers or artists could be opening the same gates at the same time. We all resonate with what we meet, like waves intercepting and perturbing each other. But it is as if we applied an EQ on history, thus rendering some frequencies inaudible.
The tiny voice is one that misses lower frequencies. It misses what is assigned to masculine authority. It’s one that makes us afraid. Are we afraid of missing lower frequencies ? We connect its excitement to hysterics and therefore write it out of history. A history of winnners, of top shots, of hits and strikes, of war and warlords, of technology developped for these wars.
The tinny voice seems to remind us
of our own disabilities,
“I am the wall - Will you be main frequencies”,
On the contrary, history is far from linear and more like a rhizome. A wider spectrum encompassing all frequencies or a polyphony. Polyphony is a type of music in which different autonomous melodies intertwine. They create moments of harmony and dissonance together. I think the term “polyphony” as Anna Tsing uses it in The Mushroom at the End of the World is a great way to understand what is at play in our current vision of what history is like:
“These forms [polyphonies] seem archaic and strange to many modern listeners because they were superseded by music in which a unified rhythm and melody holds the composition together. (...) we are used to hearing music with a single perspective.”
History does not just have “a single perspective”. This way of seeing time and history as linear can lead to the invisibilisation of those that did not make it on the path we choose to see as the more important one. In The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, Ursula K.Le Guin goes against the myth of the Hero whose point of view of the story is always red, erasing other points of view. However if “one avoids the linear, progressive, Time's(killing)-arrow mode of the Techno-Heroic” then there is a place for everyone to tell their own story, and “there is room enough to keep even Man where he belongs, in his place in the scheme of things”.
While archives are being rediscovered, discussions about gender representation and equality are globally gaining power in society in general. Therefore, we are discovering a lot more about the contribution of minorities in technology and music as some researchers open archives and investigate. Those discussions also brought more light on musicians and DJs from the FLINTA* community in the industry. According to the female:pressure FACTS survey 2022:
“FACTS 2022 reveals a rise in the proportion of female acts from 9.2% in 2012 to 26.9% in 2020–2021. The data on non-binary artists shows an increase from 0.4% to 1.3% from 2017 to 2021. (…) However, with female and non-binary acts comprising only a little over a quarter of all artists booked, there is still a significant imbalance in gender representation on electronic music festival stages today.”
Even though the gender representation in the music field is getting better,but one cannot say the same for the rest of the music sphere. This is well corroborated by those statistics for female:pressure FACTS survey, presenting gender representation in regard to the size of the festivals. Nevertheless, I still hear some worrying anecdotes from my fellow FLINTA* producers or DJs. A friend of mine told me recently that after performing a DJ set in C12, a famous club in Brussels focusing on electronic music, a guy came to her explaining her how to perform a DJ set composed of dance music. You could argue that C12 is not exactly an alternative venue, that the public is mixed and thus such things can happen more easily. I would argue that it is still a shame not to be able to perform wherever you want without receiving such comments. To the question “Do you sometimes think about your place as female gendered artists within the music scene?” crysoma replies:
Solène: I think that each time we played it was a super present thing. For example in how we are welcomed or in the way others perceive what we do. Or for example during feedback around our performances. People put you in your girl's place by saying for example: “It's good for girls to do sounds like that. Maëva: Or “Seeing girls making loud noise music is not usual!”.
female:pressure FACTS survey 2022,
Gender proportions of festival acts
[Above: 2012 to 2021. Below: 2020 to 2021]
female:pressure FACTS survey 2022,
Female, male, non-binary and mixed acts by festival size in three [above] and five [below] categories
[2020 to 2021]
Their answer shows that stigmas are still present, even more so if you are a female-identifying artist playing harsh music. Part of why they began making music together was a response to the lack of gender representation in the events of their school:
Solène: There are several events per year in our school such as workshop weeks. They often end with a music event or a party. Martha, one of the teachers, was pissed that the people showing up for performances were always guys and that no one questioned it. There is a boy in my class who’s a DJ playing in a lot of venues and it was every time he and his friends who performed. Martha couldn't stand it so she asked us if we knew other people making music and she even asked us "Why wouldn’t you make music then?” So we did.
Some of the interviewees also felt that some people were quite discouraging towards them. Or that they feel like there is still an overall confidence that cis gendered male foster more easily early on in their practice. To the question “Do you think your gender had any kind of influence on your music or the way that your perceived as a performer?”, Luisa Mei and Maëva from crysoma answer:
Luisa Mei: Probably it does. When I first started learning a lot of people discouraged me: “SuperCollider is so hard. It’s going to be difficult, you’re going to want to drop out of the class” whatever. But that made me actually more willing to succeed (laughs). And I proved them wrong. I can use SuperCollider, it's not that hard. I think getting there people were kind of doubting me. Not in a mean way, kind of joking but still. But now as a performer I don’t feel there’s too many barriers for me to do what I want.
Maëva: When I look around me, most of the guys we know who make noise or set up collectives, they play together directly like “we already have a practice, we're here”. While we really did not feel legitimate to promote ourselves or anything. We don't introduce ourselves by saying “I make music”. Now we do so a lot more because we understand that we are actually really doing something. For guys who have been making music for a shorter time than us, it's almost obvious for them that they have a practice and they're going to promote themselves directly to people for concerts or something.
The Second Sound – Conversations on Gender and Music (2020), a book displaying a survey made by Julia Eckhardt and Leen De Graeve, brings together anonymous testimonies of artists from different backgrounds and musical fields. The book associates and interweaves their responses around gender issues in the musical field:
“Three out of four of the survey’s participants acknowledge that gender has an influence on the field of music and sound art. More precisely, 65% of the female respondents, 27% of the male and 62% of the trans, intersex, and non binary respondents answered positively to at least ten out of the thirteen questions with asked explicitly on the influence of gender on several aspects of the question.”
This survey shows well that gender questions are on your mind almost only if you identify as female or if you are from a gender minority.
On a brighter note, more and more queer and feminist collective focusing on technology and/or music advocating for the visibility of FLINTA* people are forming. In Belgium I can refer to a couple: Poxcat, a collective based in Brussels dedicated to support womxn DJs by promoting their work, Psst Mlle, an intersectional platform promoting underrepresented artists from minorities, Radio Vacarme, which promotes feminist and queer artists, or Burenhinder, a young art and rave group mainly based in Antwerp of FLINTA* artists and DJs pushing for the representation of womxn in the hardcore scene. At the crossover between music and technology, the Vienna-based group Sounds Queer? works on the intersection of electronic music, sound art and queer activism. They offer a synth library, workshops and performances. ORAMICS in Poland works on empowering women, non-binary and queer people on the electronic music scene, as well as supporting artists from Eastern Europe. DJ Rachael started Femme Electronic in Uganda, a platform for female DJs and electronic music producers in East Africa. Femme Electronic aims at addressing the severe gender imbalance in the music industry in East Africa. [MONRHEA] themselves are very hopeful for the future:
[MONRHEA]: That’s definitely happening. For example, in Santuri, there’s the class that is specially made to push women and non-binary people. And also ANTI-MASS in Uganda who is also involved in the courses. (…) So the discussions are definitely going on, and organizations are supporting it and happy for the future. Because I feel like if you block someone from expressing who they naturally feel they won’t be happy in a basic way. The future is good, I think. At least in Kenya there are organisations for queer people, there are organisers who are pushing this.
Moreover, some artists do not feel like there is a disparity of gender inside of their music sphere nowadays:
Luisa Mei: I would say from what I’ve seen it’s pretty equal. There’s a lot of non-binary people, the whole community has a really good attitude of being totally accepting of every one. I do remember in school though I was the only girl in my class. But once I got out and started performing and seeing other people, and from what I’ve seen we’re pretty well represented. I mean I’ve performed in New York City which is probably one of the more open places and has the greatest diversity so I think I’m lucky to be able to experience that.
Representation of minorities and the groups fighting for the representation of minorities find themselves in more alternative circles. In more mainstream or academic circles, there is still a lot of work to be done. During my research, I discovered the Computer Music Journal published by the MIT press. You can read in its description: “For four decades, it has been the leading publication about computer music, concentrating fully on digital sound technology and all musical applications of computers. This makes it an essential resource for musicians, composers, scientists, engineers, computer enthusiasts, and anyone exploring the wonders of computer-generated sound”. The problem is that 90% of the writers and researchers featured in this journal are male. Some of the issues (see for example the volume 45, issue 2 of Summer 2021) are even exclusively male.
The lack of narratives from the stance of FLINTA* not only impacted history, but also digital technologies themselves. The algorithms in our devices are created by humans, and thus they are affected by our thinking structures. They are designed in specific cultural and economic contexts. But as they become natural to us, we stop thinking about where they come from and how they are made: what narratives they carry.
As FLINTA* and/or queer people, we are more prone to have to construct our own systems for survival inside the heterocis and patriarchal system we live in. Technologies can offer us a way to construct these systems. However, this means that we might have to rethink the tools we use and how they work. We like to think about digital technologies as a way to create imaginary narratives as we miss those from the past, to invent technologies far from rigid systems, that embrace failures and crashes as a fuel for reinvention and disturbance.
The first thing that drew me towards digital technologies was the relationship between their interface and their user. An interface is the boundary layer through which exchanges and interactions between two elements take place. Nowadays, the interfaces of our digital tools tend to disappear. When it comes to hardware interfaces, they become unified. They come in all shades between grey and black. They become silent. Visually and audibly. The time of the heavy chunky computer keyboard that made the sound of machinery when we stroked a key is long gone, as well as the plasticky sound of a MPC2000’s buttons. They become less physical. Smartphone’s screens are getting bigger, making us slightly touch the surface as opposed to pressing hard several times on a dial button to choose each letter that will compose our messages. Everything is designed to be more immediate and efficient. The gestures we operate become natural, integrating themselves into our behaviors, making the user's learning curve ever shorter: “The more intuitive a device becomes, the more it risks falling out of media altogether, becoming as naturalized as air or as common as dirt”. On one hand we do not need to take time anymore to understand how the tools we use actually work. On the other hand, we might lose sight of how they work under the surface.
This can come as less of a truth if we talk about synthesizers and electronic music tools in general, which still often come with a manual and still very present interfaces, minus the clicky button sound from the old days. But do not get me wrong. I’m not against a little help and automation, otherwise everything would be pure frustration, and I do not advocate for the return of computers as heavy as a rock. What I’m saying is that we don’t think about these tools anymore because they become natural to us, like they’re just there. We don’t question ourselves about where they come from, why are they working the way they do. We become passive users.
Nevertheless, the tools we use are not innocent. The algorithms in our devices are created
and thus they are affected by our thinking. They are designed in specific cultural and
economic contexts and implemented in physical devices. Therefore, algorithms reproduce the
bias of the
conditions under which they are created. We thus need to deconstruct their history and
biases. When we
talk about technologies, we often think about “high tech” technologies.
In her essay A Rant About “Technology”, Ursula K.Le Guin
“’Technology’ and ‘hi tech’ are not synonymous, and a technology that isn't ’hi’,isn't necessarily ’low’ in any meaningful sense.”
The terms “high” and “low” not only judge the performance, but they also place “high technologies” above “low technologies” regarding a judgment of value. However, musical tools such as the noise boxes created by The terms “high” and “low” not only judge the performance, but they also place “high technologies” above “low technologies” regarding a judgment of value. However, musical tools such as the noise boxes created by crysoma for their performances and productions hold the same value as a tool as the latest drum machine, or super versatile sampler by Elektron. I know that the latter is very useful and a noise box does not hold the same utility as a “Swiss knife” synthesizer. But what I want to underline here is the fact that sometimes technologically “simpler” tools are looked down upon or not considered enough. “DIY tools”sometimes carry a bad connotation. To re-evaluate them, Ursula K.Le Guin suggests “to ask yourself of any man-made object, Do I know how to make one?”. The purpose is “to illustrate that most technologies are, in fact, pretty “hi”. Xaxalxe takes inspiration from more simple technologies and instruments that are thus restrictive in terms of what you can produce with it:
“With the tracker of the gameboy you can only play 3 notes at a time. I have 2 of them so I can play 6 notes at the same time. I find a lot of inspiration in musical tools that have a lot of restrictions. That's why this story of the instrument that has only 5 strings speaks to me a lot. It's a bit like: how are you going to convey something emotionally strong with very little material. At one point I was really into lullabies because they can be super heavy emotionally, but the melody has to be super simple at the same time to be easily remembered and passed down.”
I think there lies all the poetry about simpler technologies. Making the most out of very little. When we think about technologies, the common image we have is something that works. “Working” means here that it has a goal and has to accomplish it flawlessly. It is “conceived as triumph”.
LSDJ Tracker screenshots
This notion of “triumph” makes a lot of sense if we look at the terminology of electronic music and technologies in general: you “launch” a software or “arm” your track. Then you can “trigger” a sample by pushing a button on your “controller” and set its “attack”. Maybe your program is going to “crash” and you’ will need to “kill” it. This lexical field makes the tools we use for electronic music sound like a weapon we are off to combat with. Gearing up to accomplish the best sound ever heard. But I personnally feel closer to my tools thinking of them as “cultural carrier bags rather than weapons of domination”. In The Carrier Bag of Fiction, Ursula K.Le Guin uses the theory that the first Technology ever invented by humans was a recipient as opposed to a weapon, shifting the way we look at humanity's foundations from a narrative of domination to one of gathering. Besides a more theoretical approach of what our digital technologies mean, we must not forget who actually build those tools. Women have been very important to the music industry as a labor force. For example, Fender’s factory used to only hire women, and almost all of them were Hispanic. It is important to keep in mind the context of production of our tools: who made them, where they come from.
Constructing our own technological systems allows us to become independent and enables us to emancipate ourselves from those major technological narratives. The first interest of Xaxalxe when it comes to programming was to “conceive things that can change your everyday life” and “to really have possession of [her] own tools, to know everything about them”, meaning where they come from and how they work. As we saw earlier, behind most of the tools we use, the chain of production implies the hard labor of some in sweatshop production, especially when it comes to our very handy computers that are now used by everyone making electronic music.
Nevertheless, it is very hard not to say impossible to free yourself from such tools. The best we can do here is to keep in mind the commodity chain that produced the computer you have on your lap.
Excerpt from Flower Electronics Little Boy Blue synthesizer manual, designed by Jessica Rylan, 2006
“Here, the mic goes to the preamp. The output of osc.1 goes to mix.1. But osc.1 is also being controlled by the mic. The preamp out also goes to the input of the envelope follower. The e.f. is controlling osc.2. Osc.2 goes to the direct in. Total p.e. [power electronics] style!”
When Jessica Rylan talks in Pink Noise about one of the reasons she built her own synths, she insists on the fact that “[she] built this thing because [she] did not want to exploit other people. (…) I’m not going to use an instrument that was made by slave labor.” Jessica Rylan used to run her own synthesizer brand: Flower Electronics.
But even if you build your own synth, it remains almost impossible to liberate yourself completely from those chains of production. I ran into the problem myself when creating the controller part of my synthesizer. First of all, you do not know in what condition the components you purchase have been produced. Secondly, I tried to search for ways to produce the PCB in Europe but the cost of one PCB was too expensive for me, whereas ordering 5 PCBS in China was less than the price of only one PCB in Europe.
Fiona Barnett, Zach Blas, Micha Cárdenas, Jacob Gaboury, Jessica Marie Johnson, and Margaret Rhee imagined the Queer Os. Installing the fictional Queer Os would reconfigure our technologies by wiping down all biases at the core of our machines once you situated the cultural position of the device. Nowadays, queer artists are applying gender questions to technologies as a means to reconfigure the way we handle technologies and the way we view gender and our bodies. They create new imaginaries as a means to reboot the system into a more inclusive one:
“The OS will be liable for reconfiguring content generated by hierarchical ontological pasts; those rooted in slavery, settler-colonialism, prison and military industrial complexes will be targeted for special attention. The OS will be responsible for transposing such content, reordering vertical relations into horizontal, circular, reversible, retractable, prescient, and/or prophetic forms, writing code for programming that makes explicit and holds space for new forms. (…) Execution of this operating system is only possible if one takes into account the context in which a machine is situated.”
Instagram post of Nadja Buttendorf
29th of January 2019
“Only games that are NOT sexist and racist and do not show colonial settlement behaviour may be played!”
transCoder, a queer programming anti-language.
Queer Technologies critiques the heteronormative, capitalist, militarized underpinnings of technological architectures, design, and functionality.
One of my favorite anecdotes in the history of technologies and electronics is the “problem” encountered by Americans and Soviets during the planning of the Apollo-Soyuz mission, launched in 1975. The purpose of the mission was to connect two spaceships, one from each country. Existing docking systems, as Soviet and American engineers had conceived them, involved one spaceship: the “male”, and the other: the “female”. Neither of both sides wanted to be the female spaceship, as it would be “penetrated” by the other. In the end, the only solution was to design a universal docking mechanism: The Androgynous Peripheral Attach System. This system “could assume the active or passive role as required”. It took two more years to conceive the new docking system. Needless to say that there is a lot to deconstruct here, as for example the alienating view of the sexual act as a non-reciprocal and unequal act, only involving one male and one female counterpart. Thus, it erases a lot of living experiences and identities, by presuming hetero-cis-normativity. Departing from this, we can start to rethink the technologies we use, and even rethink the concept of gender and our bodies as human beings. Noam Youngrak Son, a non-binary designer, wrote The Gendered Cable Manifesto, published in 2020:
“By applying this metaphor of gender applied to the cables back to human, I speculate a fictional society where people’s gender is functioning like that of cables. In this sci-fi, society consists of gender-neutral post-human bodies with more than two-gendered (though it exists in a broader, non-binary spectrum) genitals each. Their sexual intercourse happens on a big-group scale involving countless connections of genitals. Due to multidirectional connections that they make, the intercourse is not limited on the ground surface but forms an architectural construction made of human bodies. (…) Anyone who doesn’t fit neatly in that category might be comparable to the gender-non-conforming ways of connection, such as twisting the wires together. Those queer ways of cable connection are not usually recommended since it is not secure enough and may arouse confusion.”
Musical technological tools as well as the digital space and other technological devices can be a means to re-invent and imagine your identity in a way that you could not achieve otherwise. Nowadays, we see some influential queer figures of the electronic scene using technology as a new way of expressing their gender. Amongst those I can name Arca (she/it), a Venezuelan and non-binary musician whose work is defined by themes of renewal, expansion and transformation. Arca is always reinventing its body through exoskeletons and 3D modeling, inscribing its work in the same vein as Laboria Cuboniks who wrote the Xenofeminism manifesto published by in 2015, advocating for the use of technologies “to re-engineer the world” and for “gender hacking”: “Xenofeminism indexes the desire to construct an alien future (…) If nature is unjust, change nature!”. SOPHIE (she/her) heavily used references to technology with very synthetic and plasticky sounds in her music production. She did not advocate for anything “fake”, but on the contrary, she advocated for a world where people from gender minorities could exist freely, a world free from gender oppression. SOPHIE’s distorted and superhuman voice in Immaterial sings an anthem celebrating gender-fluid joy. Her sudden passing in early 2021 was felt like a great loss by a lot of people of the electronic music scene (fans, DJ, producers…), but most of all for those from the LGBTQIA+ community.
In Eilein’s experience, technology can be very emancipatory. It can enable you to play with your gender identity through techniques like pitch shifting, resulting in more confidence:
Immaterial boys, immaterial girls
We're just, im-ma-ma-material
(I could be anything I want)
Immaterial, immaterial boys
(any place, anyone that I want)
Eilien: (…) [F]or now I haven’t been using that much live manipulation of my singing but more samples of my singing. But I think in regard to this gender related stuff, in my older pieces and sounds there has been this urge to somehow hide my voice with pitch shifting and some effects. Or maybe not to hide it but to multiply it, so it would be less like “oh there is this one gendered voice”. I’ve found it really nice and emancipating. But I feel that during the recent months I’ve gained security in my voice. I started to make sounds that have barely no effects at all, where the voice has been unprocessed. But definitely I think pitch shifting, multiplying is funny and emancipatory to be able to play with your gendered voice, make it less gendered or confusing.
If queer artists now reclaim technologies as a means to create new imaginaries, technological tools have always been important for the FLINTA* community and minorities in general. Legacy Russell recounts her experiences with the online space in Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto:
“LuvPunk12 as a chatroom handle was a nascent performance, an exploration of a future self. I was a young body: Black, female-identifying, femme, queer. There was no pressing pause, no reprieve; the world around me never let me forget these identifiers. Yet online I could be whatever I wanted.”
Now, the online space can help bring minorities together by creating communities, but cyberspace was even more essential back in the late 20th century as the circulation of information regarding queer experiences was very limited. It permitted people to reinvent their gender or racial identity. Moreover, there was more than one online space before, being now the Internet. BBS were very important to the queer community. BBS stands for Bulletin Board System, also called Computer Bulletin Board Service, CBBS. Bulletin Board Systems can be considered as a precursor to the modern form of social networks and the Internet. They were mostly used between the 1980s and the mid 1990s. BBS allowed users to dial a number through their modem and access an online text-only space where users could post messages. “In the 90s, almost every major trans magazine had explainer articles on how to use the BBS” says Avery Dame-Griff, founder of the Queer Digital History Project documenting pre-2010 LGBTQ digital spaces online. These BBS sometimes presented themselves with a fake front-page for which you needed a key if you wanted to enter the BBS:
“Users trying to access Feminet would dial in and be directed to a completely different site. There they would be asked for a password, which was listed in the back of ‘TV-TS Tapestry’, one of the major transgender zines of the time. If they did not have it, they’d be bounced.”
This shows how digital tools can be an important tool of emancipation for minorities in general, allowing them to create a sense of community and to form alternative spaces. As a matter of fact, the vast majority of the people I know who take an interest in reflecting on technology on a theoretical level or who are very into open source are usually female-gendered, from gender minorities and/or queer. As a queer person and/or member of the FLINTA*+ community, we often have to build our own survival system inside of the hetero-cis and patriarchal system we live in. For a large amount of people still, if you happen to not be what they expected of you (meaning hetero-cis or a very well behaved cis gendered female), you are considered as odd, dysfunctional or even as a “failure”.
The Backroom BBS
Area: New York, NY
Years of activity: 1986-1997
Puss N Boots BBS
Area: Richardson, TX Grand Prarie, TX
Years of activity:1991-1995
Area: Sunnyvale, CA; later Oakland, CA
Years of activity: 1984 - ?
Area: Waltham, MA
Years of activity: 1992-1997
Area: Frankfurt, Germany
Years of activity: 1993 - ?
We soon realize that “we will never be given the keys to a utopia architected by hegemony” and thus have to conceive our own systems to live in, where this “failure” is viewed as a potential. Considering Muñoz:
“Queerness is not here yet. Queerness is an identity. Put another way, we are not yet queer. We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality. We have never been queer, yet queerness exists for us as an identity that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future. The future is queerness's domain.”
When Muñoz wrote that “queerness is an identity” he qualifies it by its potentiality that can be “used to imagine a future”. Something that you can never pin down, that is ever evolving and thus that is a fuel “to imagine a future”. In their interview, [MONRHEA] states that "personally [they] go by he/she/they and I use “they” because I feel like there is so much duality. Why should we pick one instead of picking freedom?”
This concept of something open and forever fluid is as present in my practice about music and technology as in my practice and research about inclusive typography with the collective BYE BYE BINARY. Camille Caroline Circlude Dath, a member of the group, wrote a manifesto for us that we give to each institution we visit to make an intervention (the original text is written in French, I did my best to translate it as precisely as possible):
“To invite Bye Bye Binary within an institution is to bet on research and experimentations. It is to work with partial shapes, forever evolving and in construction, opening up collective imaginations. (…) Bye Bye Binary is not a coat of queer varnish on the shit that surrounds us. Bye Bye Binary is not at your service. Bye Bye Binary is not only functional. Bye Bye Binary is L O V E & R A G E.” C°C
In Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto, Legacy Russell refers to the notion of Glitch as a source of power for minority groups. The glitch in the technological field is a sudden, usually temporary malfunction or fault of an equipment. Legacy Russell thus sees the glitch as an of “nonperformance” and “refusal”. She uses this term from the mechanic world to see how we can use it in our AFK world. The image of the glitch also renders the error in the system visible. A glitch is usually nothing you can see or hear:
“We are seen and unseen, visible and invisible. At once error and correction to the 'machinic enslavement’ of the straight mind (...) We cannot wait around to be remembered, to be humanized, to be seen.”
I think there is so much potential not only in deconstructing the technologies themselves but also in rethinking our identities and bodies through technologies. I like to reflect on the relationship we have with our electronic instruments in terms of exchange between us and the machine. How could we design a machine that we do not have total control upon, and thus that is not only a one-way “request and response” interaction but an “interaction with an interface [that] might transform both the user and the system”.
The interface -or panel- was one the main points of focus while I was conceiving my synthesizer. I tried to encourage the attitude of “letting go” with the design of the panel. I did not want the layout to be too readable, with everything aligned in straight lines like the usual layout you find on most synthesizers. Therefore, I tried to find another system which is far from random but looks like it when you first approach the machine. Nothing is written on the panel in terms of words like: “oscillator 1”, “attack”, “decay”, “crossfader”… But you can see an engraved pattern making it clear that there are two parts, each being one oscillator with their own envelope, granular synthesis etc. The mini-jack in-between the two “systems” is the crossfader with which you can decide to hear both oscillators at the same time, to make one louder than the other, or to completely mute one. I was interested in creating an interface that was less readable so that I could abandon some habits and mechanisms that you may have while producing.
You can connect the synth with a wide variety of sensors. The more obvious thing would be to use a potentiometer, but what might interest me the most is to plug sensors that can read parameters of the environment you are playing in. Data from the environment will influence some parameters of the sound on which we do not have control anymore.
The construction of this synth also carries an ecological value. Because of its really basic electronic wiring you can easily replace parts instead of just tossing away the machine. I like to think of it as a potential evolution of the machine and to not think of it as a finished product. I tried to think about the future of this synthesizer in its conception itself. Because it is an open-source project, you can adapt it to your needs and liking. Therefore, the machine can be adapted to another environment. All the files for the construction of it are available. You can thus open the files and tweak them to change the sounds that the synthesizer makes, the layout of the panel etc. A message is written on the PCB to engrave the values it carry to its very core::
“Being queer means inventing your own systems, bending circuits.
Queerness is having to hack and reconfigure.
Queer technology stands against efficiency and performativity.
Queer systems are fluid, resisting rigid structures.”
Luisa Mei explains that creating her own structure when it comes to interfaces in SuperCollider makes her producing tools feel closer to her and her practice:
Luisa Mei: I think it’s probably not the type of sound that feels closer to me but maybe the structure of the interface that I use. In Ableton there are so many presets and things that you can use and you can map it very easily to your controller, it’s just very convenient. But the thing I enjoy about SuperCollider is that I can build my own sort of interface, and how I want it to be.
Other artists mentioned that using alternative tools such as music coding where you have to build everything from scratch gives them more freedom of creation, because nothing presents itself directly into a pre-made interface that may guide you in your creation process:
[MONRHEA]: It’s a tool, an opportunity not to be on a grid system that has one purpose: it has to be this way. You’re using a tool that is made from freedom, you just go however you feel.
The lack of interface when doing pure code implies that you do not necessarily know in advance what you are going to land on musically wise. In some cases, it might also help to go beyond typical thought-process for producing:
Xaxalxe: There was a kind of challenge which was to do musical stuff with as few lines of code as possible. For example you can put all the numbers from 1 to 10 in loops, and you can try to modify that afterwards depending how it sounds. Since you're not saying to yourself “oh I'm going to do a sinusoidal wave, I'm going to do a filter, etc.” It's hard to imagine what the code you write is going to sound like.
Because my system is DIY, it is sometimes prone to noisy errors, like sudden change of the sound then getting back to normal or sudden outbursts of percussive sounds in the middle of a drone session. The goal is to embrace the bugs and defaults. Embracing the silence it sometimes makes when it crashes as a
Design of the synthesizer panel
Eilien: In SuperCollider you don’t see the waveforms. Well you can but it’s maybe not what you think about when you first start with SuperCollider so I could focus on listening.
The interfaces we play with are not just important to us as producers, but also as live performers. Using alternative tools can help to rethink the whole act of performance. We are very much used to the one-way dynamic between the performer on stage and in front of the public in a sort of powering position, and the public staring in one direction towards the performer. In terms of the setup nowadays in electronic music, we are very used to seeing a live performer only coming on stage with their laptop and a controller. Moreover, the controller is sometimes hidden behind the laptop. This makes the whole act of performance less visual as it is as if the mechanism behind the music was hidden from us. It is not that there is anything wrong with it, if it is how you feel comfortable performing. I have seen many live music with this precise set up that I really enjoyed.
Nonetheless, I find it interesting to think about these kinds of positions in space and also the very act of performing. Sometimes using different types of gear can lead to re-configure relationships between the performer, their tools and the audience:
[MONRHEA]: When I came to SonicPi, it taught me to tap into a more performative aspect. There is a very interesting feature in Sonic Pi where you can set “transparency” and set background visuals so you can use that to tell a story or just be creative in various ways. (…) You can customize it depending on the performance. Depending on how you’re feeling or what message you want to share. Compared to Ableton, if we’re talking about the user interface, it’s much more structured and in tones of grey. With Sonic Pi, you can even use the interface to tell a story with your music with the transparency feature I talked about earlier.
What [MONRHEA] mentions here is frequently seen in Algoraves. Algoraves (from an algorithm and rave) are events where people listen to music generated from algorithms. The performances feature live coding, meaning that we can see the performer writing the code producing the music in real time. We can thus connect a change of the code that we see with a change in the music that we hear, despite understanding what the code really means. TOPLAP, a collective born in 2004 wrote The TOPLAP manifesto in which we can read:
“We demand: Give us access to the performer's mind, to the whole human instrument. Obscurantism is dangerous. Show us your screens. (…) Code should be seen as well as heard, underlying algorithms viewed as well as their visual outcome.”
It can be thought of as one way to share what is happening inside the computer of the performer. Moreover, [MONRHEA] mentions that with Sonic Pi, “you can even use the interface to tell a story with your music”. Because Sonic Pi allows you to produce sound and visuals at the same time, you have the capacity to add a narrative layer to the music, also controlled by the performer and not visuals produced by someone else.
Luisa Mei: I think for everyone to make tools is another level to really figure things out about yourself because since you’re building it yourself you can decide how you want to interact with it, and you have to figure out how you want to feel when you’re performing.
Thus, although it does not necessarily have something to do with using alternative tools, I thought worth mentioning that some of the interviewee expressed a will of taking care of their audience:
crysoma: When we play live, we always worry about how loud it's going to be. We never crank up the volume to its maximum, overpowering the listener. We try to be in a form of listening care. We saw lots of noise concerts in Besançon, and we saw a lot of male artists who did not care about blowing up everyone's ears.
More and more queer and feminist groups working towards giving more visibility to FLINTA* artists are also actively thinking about making the dancefloor a safer space, not only in terms of anti-harassment policies but also by of taking care of sensory issues and the integrity of the listener’s body. Workshops are being created to work on these issues, like Psst Mlle’s Deconstructing the Dancefloor I - Rethink workshop in Brussels, where the public attending the live performances could contribute to the creation of what they would consider the ideal space to attend these lives.
“Have you established any relationship(s) between noise music and feminism/queerness? If so,
what would they
Maëva from crysoma: To me there is this alternative culture situating itself in the DIY movement, of emancipating yourself from a melody, from the rules, from a structure. Finding ways to deviate from expected things. It's also more of an un-normative practice. I also find it important within my practice to find tools that give you infinite ways of producing. There is also this idea of being weird I think (laughs).
This notion of “weirdness” comes up often when I discuss music production with my FLINTA* peers. We will see that this notion of “weird“ comes under different forms like: “different”, “discarded objects”, “sounds that don’t resemble others” etc. Many of them express that using or creating alternative tools allows them to “deviate from expected things”. Like Maëva stated above, it allows them to create sounds that seem more close to them.
Back when I started the construction of this synth in November 2020, I was learning at the same time how to produce electronic music. It is not that there is truly a “how”. It was more about learning the lexical field of electronic music (ADSR envelope, triggers, sequencers…) and how sound works in the physical sense, learning about the different kinds of synthesis and so on. I was juggling with learning PureData, basic electronics with Arduino, and how to produce a sound overall. I thus had no idea of what would come out of my experiment as I was patching something with something else, then hearing what it produced. I really enjoyed this kind of ignorant way of creating. This practice could be considered far from “rigorous”, and thus far from “a form of training and learning that confirms what is already known according to approved methods of knowing”. I feel like sometimes not knowing what you are doing can be less restrictive in some ways and create beautiful and new things you would have never found otherwise. Nevertheless, now that I have gained some knowledge, I try to combine both approaches of mastering a practice without losing the will of using material you are not supposed to use the way they were conceived to, or turning the knobs in every direction possible without knowing what you are going to land on.
I also like what granular synthesis represents in itself. You can chop a pre-existing sound or a live instrument and rearrange it, making it sound totally different. You can also choose to lay this newly recomposed sound on top of the original piece or not. It really resonates with me if you let this aspect of granular synthesis resonate with the notion of “remix” in Legacy Russell’s work:
“Queer people, people of color, and female-identifying people have an enduring and historical relationship to the notion of ‘remix’. To remix is to rearrange, to add to, an original recording. The spirit of remixing is about finding ways to innovate with what’s been given, creating something new from something already there.” Glitch Feminism, Legacy Russell, 2020”
That might also be why I enjoy performing DJ sets that much. Creating a story with pre-existing materials that might resonate totally differently depending on which track you lay on it, or just the track before and after. A 140bpm track with ethereal beats can be the energetic moment in an ambient set, or be a moment of relief and trance like introspection in a high energy set. Once again it’s all about the context. Authentically Plastic, a member of the Kampala-based queer collective ANTI-MASS says: “I like to treat genres in the same way I look at gender (…) Corrupting and connecting disparate things is political.”. They interweave and draw connections through industrial techno, noise and qgom. Creating a “Sonic Weapon” is essential and a crucial political act in an environment where the repression and stigmatization of LGBTQIA+ people is still very much going on in state where having a relation with a person of the same sex is still a crime.
Getting back to the synthesizer, when it comes to the sounds it produces, they land between noise, drones and percussive rhythms. I always really enjoyed noise and drones, as a listening experience but also because of the meaning these practices carry if we read them through a queer and feminist lens.
Noise is considered as something undesirable that we try to mute, as overall we try to mute female-gendered people and those from gender minorities. For most, a virtuous woman is considered quiet with elegant manners. Someone talked to me about the first concert she saw of Peaches. She was performing the opening act for a Björk concert at the time, years ago. While she absolutely loved the performance of Peaches, a lot of people in public were quite disconcerted and shocked in front of this fabulously energetic and loud woman, who really did not care about swearing. We can also see in history and myths the bad women are often noisy like the sirens of the sea, or witches and their machiavellian laugh. But “[t]he purported noisiness of femininity is intensified by certain co-constitutions of race, class and gender”.
The practice of noise music can be a way of deconstructing a unique perspective, the noise being an arrangement of micro-events within a whole, in which it is necessary to immerse yourself completely: “noise as a site of disturbance and productive potential” (Tara Rodgers). In physics, it is considered as unorganized sound: “The distinction between music and noise is a mathematical form. Music is an ordered sound. Noise is a disordered sound.”. I enjoy the bodily nature of noise, it is more palpable. It is all about affects, as you cannot picture the sound in your head because we live in the realm of pitch and we enter the world of textures and impacts. Whereas if I hear something like a melody, I can picture which note is above which one. The experience of feminine and queer bodies also situates itself in affects. In Live Through This: Sonic Affect, Queerness,and the Trembling Body (2015), the researcher
Airek Beauchamp states that noise and making noise “helps break down the essential binary between encoded language and un-encoded sound.”. In his research, he worked on ACT UP!, “the noisiest and most politically effective of the AIDS advocacy groups from 1987 through 1995”. He analyzed the ways in which ACT UP! used both noise and silence in their protests, as a means to work on the idea of a queer communication, of a queer sound:
“Rather than syntactical sound, noise communicates in trembles, resonating in both the psyche and in the actual body. Noise worked to unify disparate parts of identity–and disparate identities–a coalescing rather than normalizing process, a trembling vital to queer identity.”
Authentically Plastic states that “when it’s radical, music can allow a marginalized body to exist, to express itself, in a kind of symbiotic relationship.” Sound can carry a lot of meaning for each and every one of us. Our different encounters, our culture and overall our experiences shape the kind of music we might create or listen to: “[m]usic, therefore, is not only intimately interwoven with our personal identity, it is also an excellent medium for accessing life narratives.”. That is exactly what Sarah Hennies tells us about her own instruments in her essay Queer Percussion:
“I didn’t know why I wanted the bells. I just kept buying them because they were cheap, and I liked the sound, and I’ve always liked the idea of making art with trash. But why was I drawn to making music with discarded objects? By the time I began collecting bells, I was already aware of the tendency for my music to reveal something about me before I consciously realized it myself. (…) Now I can only think of the bells in all their worthlessness and complexity as a very thinly veiled sappy metaphor for discarded queer life, and for the past few years that has felt like the right thing to do.”
Consciously or not, our tools for music production can say a lot about us and even the music we produce or listen to as well. In her essay, Sarah recounts the moment she realized she was transgender was “during a concert by a British band called The Spook School at the NYC Popfest” when she heard their singer say “What’s next? Oh yeah, another song about being transgender!” While fifteen years earlier, she was obsessed with their song For Today I Am a Boy where the singer says:
“One day I’ll grow up
and be a beautiful woman
One day I’ll grow up
and be a beautiful girl
But for today I am a child
For today I am a boy”
One day I'll grow up,
I'll be a beautiful woman.
One day I'll grow up,
I'll be a beautiful girl.
One day I'll grow up,
I'll be a beautiful woman.
One day I'll grow up,
I'll be a beautiful girl.
But for today I am a child,
for today I am a boy.
For today I am a child,
for today I am a boy.
For today I am a child,
for today I am a boy.
One day I'll grow up,
I'll feel the power in me.
One day I'll grow up,
of this I'm sure.
One day I'll grow up,
And know a womb within me.
One day I'll grow up,
feel it full and pure.
Antony And The Johnsons, “Today I Am A Boy”
If music can say a lot about us, and even make us realize things about ourselves, then it becomes important for some FLINTA* artists to create sounds that feel close to them:
Eilien: Maybe I haven’t been thinking about it this directly. But I think maybe I have had the feeling that it’s hard to use some pre-existing sound libraries or presets sounds or anything because the majority of sounds that you find are always referring to some genres, movies, a specific time… And many of these associations, somehow, I don’t want them (laughs). (…) If you would really interpret these tendencies, I think it could be thought of that way that like these sounds refer to culture and a cultural history which I don’t think resembles me that well because many of those sounds are so related to a pretty male dominated culture.
I myself take a great deal of effort into creating my own sound via sound design, starting from scratch, so that the sounds I use feel close to me and do not resemble other sounds. I love to use plugins or hardware with weird approaches to synthesis, sampling, effects etc. Do not get me wrong, it is not to be snobbish or because I do not want to use “the synth or sampler that everyone uses”. I own an Octatrack which is far from being an alternative tool, and one of the most famous samplers in electronic music (still I would argue that because of its immense complexity, possibilities are unlimited and you can really shape it close to your practice). But it is just easier to produce peculiar sounds with peculiar tools as Eilien declares:
Eilien: About these sounds that don’t resemble others, it is easier to make them with tools which are not so commonly used. To look at sound or music from a really weird angle.
Using “tools that are not so commonly used” can also make it easier to not be compared with other artists:
Xaxalxe: It's clear that I never felt compared with other people who are making music because I'm just doing my thing. There are maybe 2/3 artists who are doing similar stuff but it's like a project that existed for 3 years in 2014 or something. It allows me to make music without comparing myself, which is pretty cool and liberating. (…) I think I like this thing about getting out of comparisons, otherwise you're going to be like “the girl who plays the guitar” you see. Whereas if you have a practice which is less readable it can allow you to get out of that.
Xaxalxe also recalls that producing is rarely just about using one tool, but that all the different gears that you use for producing music is also creating your own system:
Xaxalxe: When you assemble different machines, it's a bit like creating your own systems as well. For example, nobody uses the same system as me. For example I watch videos of effects pedals and it's always people testing them with a guitar, and I always wonder “But what would it be like with a Gameboy?”.
To the question: “Do you think that alternative ways of creating music can be emancipatory for women and gender minorities artists?” [MONRHEA] replies:
[MONRHEA]: I will definitely encourage female artist and queer people in general to use SonicPi or other music coding software cause Ableton and FLStudio are already quite male dominated. If we embrace such a tool that is still growing in his community. You can customize it depending on the music performance. Depending on how you’re feeling or what message you want to share. (…) It’s a world of different possibilities. So we have a chance and an opportunity to take that space in that world. There is a space for us I think.
Several of the interviewees mentioned the economic aspect of making your own tools, or using alternative ones:
Maëva from crysoma:: I do not have any bases in Ableton so it's always Solène who takes care of that. Even to record and everything. Finding a way to be autonomous without software or without an instrument that you don't know how to use is super important and it feels super nice. It's a way to free yourself from all the rules and make sound without necessarily having any prior knowledge. You always have to pay for software and instruments are super expensive. So even economically, making your own tools is interesting.
The vast majority of music-producing software is really expensive. You can try to crack it, but you may not have every plugin that comes with it, or you expose yourself to a potential crash of the software during the production or worse, while doing a live performance. Creating your own tools can spare you this hassle, even if not using any renowned software can be hard as Xaxalxe mentions:
Xaxalxe: When I started making music with computers, it was with open source software. That's also why I had a lot of driver’s issues and stuff. I was using Ardour, an open source DAW. It was either that or LLMS but Ardour is more developed. It's super advanced but like all open-source software, you have some random bugs and when you make music and you lose what you've been doing for an hour it's a bit annoying. I had done concerts in 2016 when I started to organize parties. Back then my set up was very precarious. I hadn't found an open source autotune that I liked, so I used a plugin meant for Windows that I emulated with Wine. I reconnected it with a specific Linux distribution where they develop their own software. In this distribution there was a software that allows you to patch other software together, to re-record the patches, but it was really a hassle. Recently I installed Windows on a 10-year-old computer because I just wanted it to work, so now I have Ableton and that's it.
Eilien: (…) All of those coding, DIY methods for producing sounds are very technical so because of that it might be hard for emancipation. Though I feel it has the potential. But in other ways it’s super accessible because for example SuperCollider doesn’t cost anything.
A problem raised by Eilien is that “DIY methods for producing sounds are very technical”, thus demanding a lot of time and sometimes a steep learning curve. I want to mention that it is a privileged situation to be able to learn new things on top of having to produce music, or working another job. If I was personally able to learn all of this in two years in addition to all my other obligations is because I did not have to work during my studies and I do not want to leave this crucial component behind. It can thus make DIY methods for producing hard as a tool for emancipation.
Throughout this research I investigated how female identifying artists and those from gender minorities can empower and emancipate themselves by alternative or DIY tools for electronic music production.
As shown, women played an important role within the history of computing, from the very
Further, they were also paramount for early electronic music. The way electronic music and
technology field are so male-identified is a social construct, and not not a reality.
A lot of the technology exists because the work of FLINTA* mathematicians, researchers or musicians, who were not considered significant enough to be archived at the time.
Some of their works were also overshadowed by how we construct History: a single timeline guided by genius figures.
I prefer to look at it as a complex and beautiful mess where different stories and experiences intertwine. However, if we “[avoid] the linear, progressive, Time's(killing)-arrow mode of the Techno-Heroic”, everybody can find their place. This shows how important archives are, keeping track of what constructs history. FLINTA* people thus have to uncover and protect their own histories. More and more initiatives are being launched to protect the living experiences of these communities. However, some work still has to be done to better the representation of FLINTA* artists, and make some feel as “valid” as their cis-gender male counterpart as we saw in crysoma and Luisa Mei’s testimonies.
The lack of narratives from FLINTA* perspectives not only impacts
history, but also digital technologies
themselves. We forget or do not question where they come from or who built them. Women have
important to the music industry as a labor force, and still today they work in factories
components. Moreover, the narrative carried by technologies is one of flawless performance.
more DIY tools might be looked down upon. I however argue that
building our own tools as FLINTA* artists
can help us escape these major technological narratives by having a better control on the
chain of our tools, and knowing exactly how they work. In fact, digital technology has been
proven to be
a great tool for the emancipation of the FLINTA* community for a long time, as I have shown
this book. They allow us to construct online communities to come together. Further, be it
avatars like Legacy Russell’s LuvPunk12 or Eilien’s
pitch shifting softwares, deconstructing technology allows us
to refigure our identities and bodies. A lot of queer artists are working on redefining the technologies we are working with and speculating on new imaginaries, embracing failures and crashes within the system as a reboot strategy.
If we embrace possible accidents, we can try or create alternative tools. Many interviewees
in doing so, their music production tools felt more apt for their practice
and they experienced a closer connection with them. These DIY tools allow them to go in directions they never would have achieved with traditional softwares like Ableton. Moreover, these alternative tools can help us create our own sound worlds, sounds that don’t resemble others or “weird” sounds. Those “weirder” sounds carry other narratives, narratives that we choose to be proper to FLINTA* artists. Think of Sara Hannies’ obsession over her cheap bells, that are nevertheless full of meaning for her. Another example is my interest in noise music as a tool for deconstructing in queer beings. As music can go beyond what words can express, it a great way to convey parts of ourselves. Also, by using different tools, you can have a less readable practice that can feel both more comfortable and more emancipating, like Xaxalxe stated. These tools can also be more accessible, as several interviewee talked about the affordability of alternative softwares or DIY projects. It is important to note however, that because of their very technical nature, the learning curve of these alternative technologies can be heavy and it requires effort to learn them.
But even if these tools are not always easy to learn, AFK
workshops and online get-togethers have shown
to be good ways for spreading knowledge about alternative tools. Interviewees like [MONRHEA]
by participating in workshops, they met a lot of FLINTA*
interested in Sonic Pi as well. They stated
that we should: “just sprea[d] the love and this way of approaching experimentations (…)
which is free
flowing. (…)”. Nevertheless, we have to think about creating more space dedicated
specifically for the
As I mentioned through my anecdote about the workshop for Tidal Cycles, if it is on a “first come first served” basis, the majority of the participants will be cis-male-gendered. This results in FLINTA* artists thinking twice about registering, fearing that the atmosphere could be too masculine.
Even though I have shown that using DIY or alternative tools can be a source of empowerment and emancipation for FLINTA* artists, there is still more work we can do to empower and enable them in this process.
Comment avez-vous commencé à vous intéresser à la musique ?
|A l’école il y a plusieurs évènements par années comme des semaines de workshops et à la fin souvent ça se termine par un évènement, une soirée etc. Et Martha, une des professeur.es organisait une de ses semaines folles et elle avait un ras-le-bol que les personnes qui mettait la musique ou qui se présentaient pour des performances se soit toujours des mecs et que ça convenait à tout le monde. Il y a un garçon dans ma classe qui mix un peu partout et du coup on était tout le temps ramenés à lui et ses potes. Et Martha le supportait pas trop, du coup elle nous a demandé si on connaissait pas d’autres personnes qui faisait de la musique, et elle nous a même demandé “Mais vous connaissez pas des gens qui vont de la musique? Vous voulez pas en faire?”. Du coup on s’est dit qu’on allez essayer. Mais aussi il y avait une émission sur Radio Campus qui était un appel à projet ou on pouvait présenter une création musicale ou sonore, grâce à laquelle on a aussi commencé à s’intéresser à la musique.
Et comment vous est venu votre pratique de la noise ?
|On vous trouver un moyen de faire de la musique live, et à ce moment j’avais un clavier midi avec Ableton mais je trouve pas ça hyper amusant, surtout à deux. Et pendant les portes ouvertes, le mec de la salle informatique de l’école ramène tout le temps pleins de machines, il bidouille des trucs et il les laisse aussi souvent à disposition. Donc on lui a demandé si on pouvait avoir ses machines là. On en parle avec lui, et il nous dit qu’il y a une pratique qui pourrait nous plaire qui est le “no input”. Donc prendre des tables de mixages et faire des feedback loops. Et nous on vient rajouter des pédales etc. Mais après tu peux faire ce que tu veux.
Vous avez par la suite continué cette pratique, donc je me demande ce qui vous a intéressé dans la noise ?
|On a pu moduler des trucs, rajouter des pédales au no input et vraiment se faire plaisir et c’était vraiment trop bien de faire du son sans avoir des bases en musique, juste se faire plaisir. Mais après grâce à l’école on avait accès à du matériel, si on avait été en dehors de l’école je pense que ça aurait été plus dur vu que ça coute cher. On pourrait pas juste tester simplement comme ça.
|Aussi Christophe suivait ce qu’on faisait, un peu comme si on réalisait un de ses rêves mais c’était un suivi plein de bienveillance. Il regardait un peu ce qu’on faisait comme si on était des scientifiques qui faisait des expérimentations (rires). Si je revient à ce qui m’intéresse dans la noise, c’est vraiment une musique live dans un moment t qui est assez difficile d’enregistrer. Je trouve qu’il y a quelque chose de très méditatif dedans. Comme si t’écoutais de manière très attentive. C’est un attention qui est dure à avoir avec la noise, mais une fois que tu rentres dedans c’est assez magique comme sensation.
|C’est pratique on la voit aussi comme un trio avec les machines. Vu que les machines produisent du son elles mêmes et qu’on les accompagne.
Est ce que vous avez des personnes dans votre entourage qui font aussi de la musique ?
|Au début non, maintenant plus. C’est souvent de l’électronique. Et aussi dans mon entourage c’est assez varié au niveau de la représentation du genre, après si je sors de ma sphère proche c’est vrai que j’ai l’impression que les personnes sont souvent de genre masculin.
|En tout cas à l’école c’était principalement des mecs qui faisait du son. Même que ça en fait.
|EMais aussi quand j’étais à Genève en Erasmus à la HEAD, il y a un bon noyau de personnes qui n’était pas des mecs cis qui faisaient du son. En tout cas dans le cours de son qui je prenais il y avait beaucoup plus de meufs que de mecs. Après c’est peut être parce qu’en école d’art il y a plus de filles et de personnes de minorités de genre confondus que de garçons.
Vous créez vos propres noise boxes. Comment vous est venu l’envie de créer vos porpes instruments ?
|Maeva cherche toujours mille et une chose sur internet du coup elle est tombée sur un truc par rapport à la noise (rires).
|En fait je fait pareil pour ma pratique en art, d’essayer de trouver des techniques ou des tutos sur YouTube et du coup je suis tombée sur des noises boxes et j’ai commencé à bien chercher. On a commandé des micros contacts etc. On a commencé avec une boîte en métal mais la résonance était pas super, on en a fait en bois qui marchait beaucoup mieux. On a utilisé des ressorts parce que c’est le plus simple, mais après j’ai vu qu’on pouvait utiliser des hand spinners pour faire du drone, des pinces pour les cheveux etc. Tu peux utiliser n’importe quoi. Tu peux vraiment construire un module personnalisable.
Vous créez vos propres noise boxes. Comment vous est venu l’envie de créer vos porpes instruments ?
|Ouais carrément (rires).
|Je pense que la plupart des mecs qu’on connait qui font du son ils ont des machines, des synthés modulaires, des trucs plus techniques.
|Mais aussi ça me fait penser à quand on avait joué à la Tannerie à Dijon pour l’évènement “Tanne ton Queer” et c’était sensé être un moment super inclusif et on a vraiment été laissées de côté genre il y a une personne masculine qui nous avait mis une chaine HiFi pour faire de la noise avec mini-jack. Du coup je suis allée voir quelqu’un pour dire qu’il fallait des vrais enceintes, qui nous prend vraiment de haut comme si on savait pas brancher des cables. C’est un peu comme vu q’on faisait de la noise on faisait de la bidouille alors qu’en fait si un savoir à avoir, on a déjà cramé du matériel.
|Et aussi à l’école on a eu droit à un technicien de son qui nous expliquait commet marchait nos machines.
|Limite il nous dessinait à quoi ressemble un cable jack alors que ça va quoi (rires). Enervant quoi.
Vous pourriez me citer des artistes qui ont une pratique similaire à la votre ?
|Quand on était à Dijon il y avait Summer Satana, c’était trop encourageant. À la fin de notre perf elle est venue nous voir en disant que c’était trop court. Et c’était trop cool d’avoir un retour et de voir une meuf qui balançait des gros sons et de la grosse noise.
Est ce que ça vous arrive souvent de penser à votre place en tant que personne de genre féminin au sein de la scène musicale ?
|Je pense qu’à chaque fois qu’on a joué c’était des choses super présentes par exemple dans comment on est acueillies ou comment les autres perçoivent ce qu’on fait, on sur des formulations par exemples autour de performances ou les gens de remette à ta place de meuf en disant par exemple : « Ah c’est bien pour des meufs de faire ça ».
|Ou « Voir des meufs qui font du gros son c’est pas habituel ». Mais il y a aussi ce truc de confiance en soit, on au début on poussait pas trop, on se disait qu’on faisait des petites expérimentations. Mais en fait quand je regarde autour de moi, la plupart de mecs qu’on connait qui font de la noise ou quoi ils montent des collectifs, ils jouent ensemble directement style « on a déjà une pratique on est là ». Alors que nous on se sentait vraiment pas légitime à se promouvoir ou quoi. On se présente pas en disant « je fais de la musique ». Maintenant plus, parce que j’ai capté qu’on fait vraiment un truc quoi. Pour des mecs qui font de la musique depuis moins longtemps que nous c’est quasi évident qu’ils ont une pratique et qu’ils vont aller se vendre à des gens pour des concerts ou quoi.
Est ce que vous établissez une/des relation.s entre musique noise et féminisme/queerness ? Si oui, lesquelles seraient-elles ?
|Pour moi il y a ce truc de culture alternative de do it yourself, de s’émanciper de la mélodie, des règles, d’une structure. Trouver des moyens de dévier de choses attendus. C’est aussi plus une pratique non-conforme. Et je trouve aussi important de trouver des outils qui donnent de moyens de productions infinis. Il y a aussi cette idée d’être bizarre je pense (rires).
|Mais aussi, quand on joue en live, on se préoccupe toujours d’à quel point ça va être fort. On utilise jamais la puissance maximale du son pour être au dessus de celui qui écoute. On essaie d’être dans une forme de care de l’écoute. On a vu pleins de concert de noise à Besançon, et on a vu pleins de personnes masculines qui en avaient rien à secouer de péter les oreilles de tout le monde.
|Oui, aussi il y a une fois où on a joué dans une cellule d’un ancien centre commercial, du coup on était enfermée avec nos enceintes. Tout le mur étaient vitrés donc le son sortait mais mais était très étouffé, et c’est la seule fois où on a poussé au max parce qu’on était les premières concernées par la puissance sonore.
Est-ce que créer vos noise boxes vous donne un sentiment d’émancipation ?
|J’ai aucune base en Ableton donc c’est toujours Solène qui s’occupe de ça, même pour enregistrer et tout. Et trouver un moyen d’être autonome sans logiciel ou sans instrument dont tu sais pas te servir c’est hyper important et c’est trop bien. C’est un moyen de s’émanciper de toutes les règles et de faire du son sans forcément avoir des connaissances. Faut payer les logiciels, les instruments coûtent super cher, donc même économiquement c’est intéressant.
Est-ce que vous trouvez ça dur de trouver des artistes de genre féminin ou de minorité de genre qui ont une pratique proche de la votre ?
|Dans les lieux dédiés à la production expérimentale elle est hyper masculine.
|C’est vraiment que les seules fois où on est allés à ? C’était que des mecs hein on est bien d’accord ? Après on est à Besançon (rires).
How did you start producing music?
So, the first time I interacted with ? was back in 2013 when I went with one of my friend to his studio where is was going to record music. After the session I got the chance to interact with the producer and played around with the software and then I downloaded a production software. And it was since that day that I just played around with that. I had FL studio on my laptop, and that when I started my production.
How did your interest for coding music started? Did you already practice code outside of music?
In 2017 is when I started taking music has a journey and carrier through a workshop with Santuri. I got the opportunity to get involved with a community here of music producers. Especially women. It was called Femme Electronic. And through that period I started to take music seriously. I was using Ableton, then 2 years after I discovered Sonic Pi. I was very interested of studying in expression of music through code. Because in school, I did Management Information system which has coding in it. So later one when a friend introduced Sonic Pi to me I was like “Wow! I can actually do code for music”.
Do you use only Sonic Pi or are you also using other coding softwares to produce music?
I’ve seen performances, I have friends who use it but I just really fell in love with Sonic Pi (laughs). But I love to play around with other softwares as well.
How are you using Sonic Pi? Do you synthethize sounds, or do you mostly play around sampling sounds that you already recorded?
Sonic Pi is mainly based on the sequencing of loops. So I could sample field recordings, modifying sounds that are already in Sonic Pi. I tried to do a remix of an actual track in Sonic Pi. I think I’ve taken various ways to explore with it.
What are your inspirations when it comes to create music with this software?
First of all, I really like the interface of the software. I’m more inclined to use it rather than hardware. Also, the friends and community I discovered through Sonic Pi are just really supportive and I love seeing their work that makes me keep going.
Your platform BYTE is based on promoting coding music with Sonic Pi. What pushed you to create this platform?
We started with a friend who ? In Washington DC. She was interested in learning music coding. Currently she’s a programmer. For my side, ever since I started using this software I wanted to share. I feel like it’s a different way of interacting with music, and it really gave me another way of expressing myself. So I love sharing that with other people I know. I’ve met artists that told me that using Ableton or FL studio is a struggle, and when they try out with Sonic Pi it feels more freeing as well. But back to why I started this platform (laughs). I think just spreading the love and this way of approaching experimentations that I really like which is free flowing and just going with the vibe. I never thought I would make ambient music or explore that realm but playing around with Sonic Pi that path was created. I think it was another way to express myself. If I use FL studio for example, I know the vibe, the process I’ll go with. If it’s Ableton it’s another way of expression, if it’s Sonic Pi it’s also another way of expression. So I don’t know if one is giving me more freedom, but I know that Sonic Pi offers me a way of exploring the unknown and go with it. I feel like it’s given me a way of expressing myself that I didn’t have before. So it was really exiting.
Do you feel creating your own systems through Sonic Pi is also a way of emancipation as a female artist?
There is another friend of mine called Mary. She’s a professional programmer. She used to be a musician but after finding Sonic Pi she wanted to learn. She also understand Ruby and Python which is also from what Sonic Pi is built. We can think of ideas and then formulate the code for here. So working with her who has a deep understanding of coding, we can work together and create structures or new sounds.
Is there a scene of music coding in the country you’re from and more globally in Africa? Because I don’t really know the scene here.
There is an academy called Santuri Music Academy where I had the opportunity to teach and introduce Sonic Pi and they were super interested. And there were about 20, 30 persons in that class. But before, the person I know that was using music coding was the one who introduced me to it. I know a handful of people being in and out of music coding. Also, I had the opportunity of showcasing Sonic Pi in a club, so even the number of listeners is slowing growing. I feel like there is a solid community that was built.
I feel like in my cir —- 14:11
That’s definitely happening. For example in Sensory, there’s the class that is specially made to push women and non-binary people. And also AntiMass in Uganda who is also involved in the courses. Personally I go by he/she/they and I use “they” because I feel like there is so much duality and why should we pick one instead of picking the freedom and expressing it as a person. So the discussions are definitely going on, and organisations are supporting it and happy for the future. Because I feel like if you block someone from expressing who they naturally feel they won’t be happy in a basic way. The future is good I think. At least in Kenya there are organisations for queer people, there are organisers who are pushing this.
As a part of female:pressure, I was wondering when did you start personally to work on these questions?
I think I joined in 2019 or 2020 through a platform called (Currents with them?) and an event called (Common?) Through which I got to meet Susanne and we just interacted and I can say here wasn’t a specific time I started cause I’ve always been a certain way. It’s just that recently I’ve been involved in conversations that involve queerness space. With female:pressure I feel like I’ve gotten to meet people and have just another community of support for these minorities. I’m slowly starting building a collective called [rhealistic] so for me it’s just like talking and collaborating and working with people to continue these propositions.
What's the state of the DIY scene where you're from?
I think the DIY culture for instruments here has I’ve seen mostly is more in a traditional style. With electronic music I’ve seen people using different softwares to create their own instruments like MaxMSP. There was a workshop I attended where there was a tutor talking about how to make instruments, and in Kenya there is so much learning happening and into various avenues. We talked about inclusion as well. There is a spark right now, and slowly it’s growing. The culture of DIY instruments is there and still growing. And again in Uganda there is an artist called Afrorack who has his own modular synth.
I’ll talk through the Sonic Pi lens where the software is free and it’s a desktop simple app. And back to how I found a new way of expression, I feel like it helped me tap into a world that I hadn’t experienced and if you’re coming from a place where I really felt that, especially with FLStudio, if I would begin a track I wouldn’t finish it and then I came to Ableton where the experimentation came up, but when I came to SonicPi, it taught me to tap into a more performative aspect. There is a very interesting feature in Sonic Pi where you can set « transparency » and set background visuals so you can use that to tell a story or just be creative in various way. It’s a tool, an opportunity not to be on a grid system that as one purpose: it has to be this way. You’re using a tool that is made from freedom, you just go this however you feel. Transmit that to your life. If you’re living in a free, kind of flowing life, that will help you get into a certain phase that is more freeing. You’re not blocked or caged. So I will definitely encourage female artist and queer people in general to use this cause Ableton and FLStudio are already quite male dominated. If we embrace such a tool that is still growing in his community. We can also customize it depending on the performance. Depend on how you’re feeling or what message you want to share. Comparing to Ableton, if we’re talking about the user interface, it’s mush more structured and in tones of grey. With Sonic Pi, you can even use the interface to tell a story with your music with the transparency feature I talked about earlier. It’s a world of different possibilities. So we have a chance and an opportunity to take that space in that world. There is a space for us I think (laughs).
What is your background in music?
Originally I’m classically trained for piano and then I also started studying the flute. Then I went to school at Manes ? In NY. But after one or two years I was getting kind of bored studying classical repertoire and sometimes it felt unsatisfying. I was still studying piano but I was getting bored with the flute (laughs). So I decided to study the piano and I started a composition minor so I was doing a lot of piano improvisation and compositions for people and then I ended up taking a SuperCollider class. I already stated messing around with Garage band and Ableton and things like that cause I felt like I wanted to create my own music. I was not satisfied with just playing repertoire stuff I felt like I needed to create my own. So i took the SuperCollider class and it was the first time I ever coded. And it was very fascinating. It was like a mixture of creativity and also logical thinking, problem solving, using maths… I was in my final year so I asked my teacher to f-teach me more privately and follow my personal project in SuperCollider so he became kind of my composition tutor. After I graduated I just wanted to do SuperCollider things and learn almost everything through YouTube tutorials and just reading things online. And I’m still very obsessed with it (laughs).
Did you tried other softwares to code music?
For coding music yes, just SuperCollider. I’m also interested in visuals, because I like drawing and I like doing visual art as well so I tried to learn processing and I know you can connect SuperCollider and processing together. It was very nice. I also tried to use SuperCollider for visuals, even though it’s super frustrating to use. It’s not really meant to do visuals. But I like that it’s a bit of a challenge and there’s not any settings that are pre-made, so you kind of have to figure out how to set up the display yourself. I tried learning basic Java and Python but I was not interested so I gave up (laughs).
I’m wondering how your classical background and music coding interact together within your practice?
I don’t consiently think about my classical background but it really helped me to understand scales, chords, relationship between notes. How to flow between different parts of pieces. Also I use a lot of samples of myself playing. I like to just improvise on piano or keyboard. So it’s definitely connecting.
Do you consider coding as more freeing as a practice?
I think it’s probably not the type of sound that feels more closer to me but maybe the structure of the interface that I use. In Ableton there is so many preset and things that you can use and you can map it very easily to your controller, it’s just very convenient. But the thing I enjoy about with SuperCollider is that I can build my own sort of interface, and how I want it to be. And I have some midi controller so that I can really of what action I want to map to these knobs and create music in a way that’s logical to me, that feels intuitive. It’s kind of building your own instrument I think which I really enjoy.
Do you have people in your sphere that also practice music coding?
Yes, actually I got to know a lot of them recently. When I first started in college, there weren’t a lot of people I knew who were practicing coding. They were mainly using Logic or Ableton. But once I started meeting people form Live Code NYC which is a big coding community in New York then I met a lot of people. We have a lot of show were one people is coding the music and the other person is coding the visuals. I met a bunch of people form San Francisco who also do that. I’ve got to met them recently which is recently, because I used to feel a little bit isolated.
You would that the coding scene is pretty developed in the USA then?
Definitely in New York, there’s a lot of people doing it, using a lot of different programs and mixtures of program and hardware. It’s an explosion of creativity in New York (laughs).
And in terms of gender representation, do you feel like it’s quite even ?
I would say from what I’ve seen it’s pretty equal. There’s a lot of non-binary people, the whole community has a really good attitude of being totally accepting of every one. I do remember in school though I was the only girl in my class. But once I got out and started performing and seeing other people, and from what I’ve seen we’re pretty well represented. I mean I’ve performed in New York City which is probably one of the more open places and has the greatest diversity so I think I’m lucky to be able to experience that.
Do you think creating your own systems and tools could be a tool of emancipation of female artists and those from gender minorities in electronic music?
Yeah I mean definitely. I think for everyone to make tools is another level to really figure things out about yourself because since you’re building it yourself you can decide how you want to interact with it, and you have to figure out how you want to feel when you’re performing. That’s the main thing that I enjoy about using SuperCOllider. I realize I spend more time actually building the tools than using them to make music. It’s just more fun to do that (laughs). And yeah, people should think about it more.
Do you think your gender had any kind of influence on your music or the way that your perceived as a performer?
Probably it does. When I first started learning a lot of people discouraged me: « SuperCollider is so hard. It’s going to be difficult, you’re going to want to drop out of the class » whatever. But that made me actually more willing to succeed (laughs). And I proved them wrong. I can use SuperCollider it’s not that hard. I think gettin there people were kind of doubting me. Not in a mean way, kind of joking but still. But now as a performer I don’t feel there’s too many barriers for me to do what I want.
How did you Strat practicing music?
My family isn't into anything artistic, they are more technical people. When I was at summer camp and I saw people playing guitar I was like "Show me how this works, I want to learn!". And after listening to music online I came across chiptune music. I was into video games when I was a teenager so it spoke to me directly. The first instrument I bought was a cartridge to make music on Gameboy. I started music that way, because it interested me. And when people played the piano or the guitar I asked them to explain it to me. I also did 2 years of singing lessons.
I didn't know there were cartridges to make sound on the Gameboy, can you tell me more about it?
It's a tracker. It's a type of software for making music that comes from the 80s. It existed before what we now know as Ableton or other softwares that are more contemporary. Its interface has always looked a bit like Excel. You enter notes in a kind of grid and it plays the note in the grid’s order. There is a team that has been developing a tracker for Gameboy for years. I think it was already a few years old when I bought it and it was 10 years ago.
Are you using softwares like Ableton?
I tried a bit but I had a lot of software's problems like with drivers or things that just don't work, needing to update the software etc. and it was really annoying. Especially because I'm studying computer science, I spend my time having to deal with stuff like this and when I was making music I didn't want to managed it too. So 2 years ago I decided no more computer when it comes to producing. Only if I want to record a song, then I will use Ableton. Because then you need the different tracks to mix the track and everything. But when I play live or compose it is without a computer.
Do you also cerate your own instruments?
No, but I'm very interested about it. Sometimes I tell myself that if I'm tired of what I'm doing I could try to make modular synths or something (laughs).
You do a lot of set ups in the forest for your concerts, could you tell me about it?
I had started during confinement, because there were no opportunities anymore to do concerts or make live music. The only way was to bring people together in nature. I have always had a connection with the forest. It’s a place where I have always felt good.
In your group of friends making music, do they also use alternative instruments?
At the last live show there was Zil who used an atonal synth called the Lyra 8 and a volca keys. It's also machines but it's not the same kind of stuff that I use.
Do you have people around you building their own instruments?
Actually when you assemble different machines, it's like creating your own system as well. For example nobody uses the same set up as me. For example I watch videos of effects pedals and it's always people testing them with guitars. I always wonder "But what would it be like with a Gameboy? (laughs). It's clear that I never feel in comparison with other people producing music because I'm just doing my own thing. There are maybe 2or 3 artists doing a bit of a similar thing, but it's like a project that existed for 3 years in 2014. This allows me to make music without comparing myself which is pretty cool and liberating. And I also find sounds that touch me. But I think there is a way to do this with whatever instruments. I think getting out of comparisons can be good, otherwise you'll be like "the girl who plays the guitar". Whereas if you have a practice that is a little less readable it can allow you to get out of those stereotypical representations.
You told me that you were studying computer science. Are you interested in open source?
Yes, when I started making music with computers, it was with open source softwares. That's also why I had a lot of driver’s issues and stuff. I was using Ardour, an open source DAW. It was either that or LLMS but Ardour is more developed. It's super advanced but like all open-source software, you have some random bugs and when you make music and you lose what you've been doing for an hour it's a bit annoying. I had done concerts in 2016 when I started to organize parties. Back then my set up was very precarious. I hadn't found an open source autotune that I liked, so I used a plugin meant for Windows that I emulated with Wine. I reconnected it with a specific Linux distribution where they develop their own software. In this distribution there was a software that allows you to patch other software together, to re-record the patches, but it was really a hassle. Recently I installed Windows on a 10-year-old computer because I just wanted it to work, so now I have Ableton and that's it.
What interested you in IT was being able to create your own systems and tools?
I think what interested me is that there’s something magical. You can do things that can change your daily life. When I was younger I was very into the visual customization of the graphical interface of computers and very quickly I managed to install Linux because there are many more ways to customize your desktop and everything. When I was 12 years old I was a lot on forums, including one called crystalxp which is dead now. It was people who exchanged softwares to change the appearance of Windows XP. You could like install a dock like on macs, have transparent windows etc. Then people said there were more options on Linux so I installed Linux. You had a software called Compiz Fusion that allowed you to make your windows look like 3D objects, and when you close them they could burn (laughs). And to go further I told myself that I was going to start programming the websites and applications from scratch.
Did you already coded music?
Something I had coded at one point was based on a sound illusion where you can perceptually make you hear a sound more at the left or at the right. Not just by panning it, but by putting a slight lag between the start of the sound in the left ear and the right ear. But it's enough milliseconds for you not to realize that it's twice the sound not arriving at the same time. It's because physically it will arrive faster in your right ear than in your left ear. So I had made software that allowed you to take a sound, tell it the place of the sound object in relation to you and it would generates something stereo with the shift in the sound. Also I had found something on a blog years ago where the idea was that you could write a program that generates numbers and you can send them directly to your sound card as raw data. Then you would hear what the program generates. There was a kind of challenge which was to do musical stuff with as few lines of code as possible. And suddenly you find things like making a loop with the numbers from 1 to 10, and you can try to modify that with other things. Since you're not saying to yourself "oh I'm going to do a sinusoidal, I'm going to do a filter etc. » it's hard to imagine what it's going to sound like.
What is your background in music, how did you start your music practice?
As a child I was very interested in piano and keyboard. Like those presets keyboards from my grandmother. Later on I also got a piano from my grandmother when she moved. I was was 8 years old at the time. And then my parents were like « Oh maybe now that Ellen has a piano she could start to get some classes », and then I starting to take piano lessons during a long time. I think from my 8 to my 18 years. I was playing classical pieces at church concerts etc. (laughs) Then I learned to play some other instruments as well. So i have this classical but also maybe pop and jazz background with acoustic instruments, and then when I was 22 I got to study lighting design in the theater academy of Helsinki. There was a parallel class with people studying sound design and we were in the same class at some point. Every time I saw synthesizers and other instruments I was like « Oh my god I really want to learn how to use all of these instruments ». From there I realized that I would really want to learn how to produce electronic music myself. And maybe because I wasn’t in that class, I had a little fury inside like « Ok, I’m going to learn everything that they can and I want to be part of that class » (laughs). I started learning SuperColllider during those years. When I got out of high school I didn’t have the courage to start studying something related to music because I thought it might ruin my passion.
What is your production process with SuperCollider?
I have different methods. Maybe one that I learned very straightforwardly from Eli Fieldsteels who has tutorials on YouTube. That’s how I started to learn SuperCollider actually. There was one method he was teaching which is first making the instrument like the oscillators and filters. Maybe it’s more this subtractive style. Or I have the instrument and I can make different kinds of sequences or like sound patterns out of the synthesizers. So one is for creating the instruments and then the other one is how you make patterns, loops and manipulations out of these instruments. But I have also been searching for other ways to make sounds with it. I would like to say that I invented new categories of sound synthethis, that would be really nice to say, but I don’t know if it was already made somewhere else or not. (laughs)
Why did you start using SuperCollider in the first place?
In the first place I first started because I was quite jealous of my study friends who started to use it as well. It was kind of a trend in my school. People went in Germany and they were like « Oh my god in Germany, in Berlin, we found out about SuperCollider ». And then I started watching tutorials. There was something about the workflow that made me concentrate. It was really relaxing, and it helped me concentrate on the sound. It made me more focused because I was trying to figure out how to produce the sounds and maybe also because the options are so limited when you’re starting. The things you can do is really narrow in the beginning so you don’t have this panic I can have with Ableton or other daws or even with piano because I already played a lot with it. I feel like I can do anything the world. Also in SuperCollider you don’t see the waveforms. Well you can but it’s maybe not what you think about when you first start with SuperCollider so I could focus on listening.
Do you know other musicians that use coding to create music in your circle?
Yes and no. Initially I used to know a lot of them yes, but many of them dropped out pretty soon. After one year learning by myself I went back to one of my friend to ask like « Do you know how I can solve it? ». But then they were like « Oh my god, what have you done? I have no clue what’s happening in your code. I have not been using it for one year ». So then I learned that nobody were using it anymore besides me. (laughs)
In the people you know that still practice music coding, who are they in terms of gender representation?
If I think about my sound design classmates when I started, it was definitely a male environment. Now it has been 6 years since I started my studies and 3 years since I began the Eilien project, and during the last year it has diversified a little bit but maybe it’s still predominantly male. But of course now I have more queer friends and my own circle. It’s not the same circuit in which I used to be at school. In my SuperCollider class it was mostly men but there were some women or non binary, trans people but definitely in minority.
Do you think about your gender in relation to your place in the music scene?
I’m not sure. I think when I first started I was thinking about it more because the environment I was in was much more male dominant. But maybe recently because I have a more queer circle of friends and also in my music I don’t think about it as much. If I’m with them I’m not the only one who is perceived as a woman in the space. Most of the cases where the gender has been on the surface was when some organizations want to support women artists and for example one wrote to me: « Hey, can I ask you, are you a man or a women? Because we are supporting women artists. » And I think I didn’t answered anything (laughs). Or some festivals have booked me and said « Hey we would like to support more women artists so we would like to book you. » They want to be kind towards you but then it’s not that simple. Maybe it’s one contradiction sometimes that if you are in a space where most people are assumed to be male, I’m red as the only women in the space, but then it’s a little bit conflicting because I don’t feel like a woman. There is a kind of double confusion. Being like « oh I’m the only girl here » and then being like « but wait a minute I don’t feel like one ». It’s then even more uncomfortable to be red as the only woman in the space because you don’t actually feel like a women. But nowadays I haven’t been thinking about it that much.
Do you think that alternative ways of creating music can be an emancipatory thing for women and gender minorities artists?
I guess it as many sides to it and that’s why it’s such an interesting question. Because I feel like on one hand it could be. Maybe I haven’t been thinking about it this directly but I think maybe I have had the feeling that it’s hard to use some pre existing sound libraries or presets sounds or anything because the majority of sounds that you find areaways referring to some genras, movies, times… And many of these associations, somehow, I don’t want them (laughs). That’s maybe why I’ve had this strong urge to make sounds that don’t resemble any other sounds which are out there. And of course they resemble some sounds but maybe some sounds that are far away from mainstream sounds or really recognizable sound like « oh this is from this synth, this sample, this specific drum… ». If you would really interpret these tendencies, I think it could be thought it that way that like these sounds refer to culture and a cultural history which I don’t think resembles me that well because many of those sounds are so related with a pretty male dominated culture. But it’s not something I really thought about on this terms. But now I’m thinking about it, it could be one reason. Because it’s so difficult for me to use sounds that resembles specific instruments or samples. About these sounds that don’t resemble others, it easier to make them with tools which are not so commonly used. To look at sound or music from a really weird angle. Of course when you start learning some coding and alternative sound creating tools, of course they are not so accessible as many established workstations. It’s hard to produce sounds with it, it requires time and trust in yourself to learn those alternatives tools. All of those coding, DIY methods for producing sounds are very technical so because of that it might be hard for emancipation. Though I feel it has the potential. But in other way it’s super accessible because for example SuperCollider doesn’t cost anything. I think recently I’ve really been trying to make a program that ultimately you can just improvise on it and you don’t have to plan anything. So I wanted it to be free for the user to just be able to play and listen and then easily modify the sound to however they like. Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about rhythm and patterns because it’s something I’m actually not good at. So I’ve been building programs that makes it easy to change from one rhythm to another, have them play it top of each other.
I was also wondering how the voice and the coding interacts in your work? Because the voice is one of the lost organic things.
Maybe I didn’t mentioned the voice before because for now I haven’t been using that much live manipulation of my singing but more samples of my singing. But I think in regards to those gender related stuff, in my older pieces and sounds there has been this urge to somehow hide my voice with pitch shifting and some effects. Or maybe not to hide it but to multiply it, so it would be less like « oh there is this one gendered voice » and I’ve found it really nice and emancipating. But I also feel that during the recent months I’ve also gained security in my voice. I also started to make sounds that have barely no effects at all, where the voice has been unprocessed. But definitely I think pitch shifting, multiplying I thinks it’s funny and emancipatory to be able to play with your gendered voice, make it less gendered or confusing. I think it’s a really nice tool. But I’ve been mostly doing the pitch shifting in other gears such as small mixers that have pitch shifting effects.
In regards to where you’re performing, I was wondering if your gender had any impact on how you’re perceived in the space?
I think it’s a good question. People usually perceive me as a women because I think I don’t necessarily have such a strong traits in my appearance that people would immediately read me as not a women or something. So that’s the main thing on how I’m perceived. Of course if somebody knows me, or of they visited my Instagram page they’re like « Oh I see their pronouns » and then if we met they wouldn’t read me as a women or maybe they would read as a weird women I don’t know (laughs). With the technical crew, that is also somehow parallel to my work because I’ve been working as a light designer and sound designer. I’ve mainly been in contact with 50+ year old men, of course other technicians exists but they are the majority. I think because I know that I’m good with technical stuff and I know it’s really easy to belittle the technical stuff of somebody you see as a women I think I might be acting a little bit tough with the technical crew (laughs). Well maybe not tough but straightforward. So maybe I’m less affected by those interactions than other musicians.
I was wondering about your inspirations when creating music?
I think most of my inspiration so not come from bonding but more from a pop side. Like singers or song writers. Well Kate Bush is always going to be my musical hero, angel kind of figure. I’m really inspired by the Knife, Fever A, I really like that they are both pop and really approachable but at the same time really going their own way at experimental. Ans of course these vocals where they play with the pitch. Arca, Holly Herndon… And many of my friends of course. I’m really inspired by them as well.
I would like to thank every person that encouraged me at some point to begin and to persue producing music and DJing. Either with kind words or just with a smile.
Thank you to Jonathan Cant for always believing in me and being a steady rock on whom I can always count for feedback and inspiring discussions.
Thank you to all the members of the Bye Bye Binary collective for your warmth and existence. Being a part of this adventure is partly what inspired this research.
Thank you to crysoma, [MONRHEA], Luisa Mei, Xaxalxe and Eilien for agreeing to take part in my thesis.
A special thank you to Émile Feyeux and his extensive knowledge in the Cold War for the Apollo-Soyouz Androgyne docking system anecdote.
Lastly, thank you to Sylvie Bouteiller who followed me through the realisation of this research.
The layout of this book was made in HTML to print
thanks to Paged.js.
Cover: Schematic for Kiers Chaos Computer rev 0,
designed by Jessica Rylan, (c) 2009
Typefaces: Adelphe Floreal by Eugénie Bidaud,
Not Courrier Sans by Ludivine Loiseau
Printed at ABC Europe in Brussels, August 2022.