Make for Change: Challenging gender issues in electronic music. Keynote at the Australasian Computer Music Conference, UTS, November 19, 2022 - Cat Hope
Now I was worried about sharing the topic of this keynote on the internet. Who wants to come to a computer music conference and listen to a white middle class middle aged woman from boom town Western Australia whine about how women are not well represented and its all the fault of the men - to an undoubtedly male dominated audience.
What I will discuss is the current state of play in regards to gender in electronic music from my own perspective, some initiatives that support women in electronic music, and ways we can all be more inclusive in the field - and not just in regards to gender. There are some pretty damming statistics that for a country that prides itself on being inclusive and egalitarian shows we aren’t doing very well.
My definition of electronic music is a pretty broad one - I am including computer music (electro acoustic, interactive and all those academic things), laptop artists, music programmers, program designers and more classical contemporary music that features electronic in my remit here. My own career reflects this kind of diversity, and I think its worth mentioning how here, so you can get a bit of context around my own experience, of which this talk is largely based. After faffing around with a bit of bass guitar in the high school band, I turned to classical music through the flute, doing an undergraduate degree at the University of Western Australia, where I found my love for contemporary music through classes with Roger Smalley. I dabbled pretty unsuccessfully in composition at that time, and started getting interested in punk at hard-core music. I couldn’t wait to get out of Australia and ended up playing bass in bands in Germany and Italy in the early 1990’s, doing a bit of flute playing here and there. After living overseas for ten years, and having my first child, I returned to Australia, and got interested in playing improvised noise music on electric bass, which led to creating electronic music for dance and theatre shows, and into composition. I toured a lot. In 2004, a few weeks after my second child was born, I began an academic career at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, where I still work today. Several years into this, I began to notate my compositions for the first time, still using electronics in most of them - did a PhD, started a new music group, Decibel, that focuses on music where acoustic and electronic instruments combine - and continued a range of performance activities from noise music, new music, bands and even the odd laptop performance. Last year, I published a book on Digital Art, and this features a chapter on the evolution of the digital in music.
The fact that I am here talking to you means something might be changing. Now, I bet a few of you are thinking - she is only here because she is a woman. Well, you may be right. And, some years ago, I would have felt very uncomfortable about that. But I have changed my mind. I have seen how difficult it can be for other women generally in Australia, not just in electronic music - so I will now take any opportunity to show other women that there are women out there doing the things they might want to do, it is possible to do it, there are people who want to be inclusive, value a range of opinions, and that there is a chance for things to change.
Personally, I never saw a problem, until when Julia Gillard was the Australian Prime Minister. I was shocked at the way she was treated, a treatment that men in the same role had not been subjected to. This was a wake up call to me. I looked around me, in my field, at my own practice as a composer, a commissioner of new music, ensemble director and performer - and saw things with a new perspective. I must admit that before that time, I had felt like things had been pretty good as far as I was concerned. I had had plenty of opportunities, I had rarely felt that I had missed out on anything because I was a woman, though I was often the only woman at the noise shows and tours. I kind of liked that, I have to admit. I would have been horrified if I had found out I had been given a gig or any opportunity for that matter, because I was a woman. Then I realised - my own experience is not necessarily that of everyone’s, as was becoming apparent around me. I like to draw parallels to multicultural Australia - not everyone’s experience of being a new Australian is the same. Same feel separated, others, welcomed. And many things I had explained away in various ways could be seen differently.
I liked the idea of leading by example, in many things. I thought that this would provide an effect way of encouraging others without badgering them. Yet, after being head of composition at WAAPA for several years, the number of women in the course was painfully low, less than 10%, so that wasn’t working there. I looked at the music programs I curate, not many women on there. I looked at my collaborators - ditto. I looked for the graduates from my own undergraduate music course and the women had pretty much vanished from professional practice. And I realised I wasn’t doing what I assumed I and others would be doing - being inclusive.
I realised I had just taken the easy route. I was choosing those around me, those that were visible, easy to access. There are more works by men out there in the composition and performance world - in electronic and all music. They are discussed in books. But there are also women out there, and for one reason or the other, they are not as easy to find. Those who are inclusive have already understood this. It takes some special effort, mindful attempts, to seek out women to commission, collaborator with, program or include in your panel.
But - why be inclusive? Are there any benefits for anyone other than the women that get chosen? I can tell you, as a woman, I am sick of going to shows or conferences that only feature men. I want to see what women are doing as well. Given that I’ve noticed audiences for new and electronic music feature a large percentage of women I don’t think I’m alone. Everyone benefits from a range of different opinions, backgrounds, approaches and styles.
One of the problems is, whilst there is a bit of zeitgeist around this issue right now, it’s mostly an intuitive reaction. There are very few good statistics about what is really happening, and I think there are moves afoot to rectify it with new research. You will see some of the figures I am showing you are over ten years old. It is complicated by the fact that most musicians, men and women, have what are sometimes called ‘portfolio careers’ - meaning they may make electronic music, but also play in a band, work in audio engineering, teach, sing in a community choir, DJ, program for others and play an instrument. Research by academics such as Professor Dawn Bennett at Curtin University, and her collaborators have looked into the portfolio career to understand it better. Professor Bennett, Associate Professor Sally McArthur and myself have launched a new survey looking at women in contemporary music practice as a precursor to future research plans, to try and overcome this limitation, and really see if this is all a perception or backed by the numbers in Australia at least. [https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/BR2T6JX]
But there is research being done. Activist group Female Pressure have created some powerful surveys around electronic music specifically. A 2013 report, which surveyed electronic music artists, festivals and labels from Europe, North America, Australia, Asia and Latin America, contains some pretty damning statistics. It found that electronic music labels feature women 5%; festivals (including all women festivals) include 10% women, and radio charts even less than these figures (Female Pressure, 2013). They also observed that if you take to SoundCloud or blogs, you will find much higher percentages of female participation. So that claim that occasionally pops its head out, that women don’t ‘take’ to electronic music, is clearly false. But I have often wondered - Why would they? I mean, you won’t get on a bill, on a label or played on radio. Female Pressure have initiated a range of projects that attempt to promote women and electronics, and overcome this visibility issue, by calling for photographs of women with electronics, and populating a Tumblr blog entitled ‘Visibility’ Others have commenced similar projects, with visibility and discussion being the aim - Australia’s Gail Priest’s Facebook group ‘Audible Women’, USA curator Steve Peters ‘Many Many Women’ [https://manymanywomen.wordpress.com/] and the long running ‘Her Noise’ project set up in the UK by Lina Džuverović and Anne Hilde Neset in 2001 [http://hernoise.org/]. These projects all attempt to address the visibility issue.
Now, these ‘revised’ views of mine haven’t been without problems. I know some of my projects in the area have been looked upon with some suspicion. My own attempt to address this ‘political’ issue through curation was the ‘After Julia’ project, a series of commissioned works by women performed by my own group Decibel In this project, all the works were required to respond to Julia Gillard’s prime ministership in some way [http://www.decibelnewmusic.com/after-julia.html]. It nearly didn’t get off the ground after some ‘concerns’ about the ‘curatorial concept’. Weird that an all man concert seems to be an OK curatorial concept, but an all women one is some how ‘separatist’, ‘overtly political’ and ‘old fashioned’. I have seen other artists suffer for taking political causes to the heart of their practice - Nina Simone and civil rights as well as Martin Wesley-Smith’s work around Timorese are two examples. On a recent panel I was part of, which involved awarding a single artist, when the decision came down to a man and a women, and I said I wanted to support the woman over the man because I felt it was likely she had experienced less opportunity (and opportunity was one of the criteria for selection). I was then subjected to a barrage of complaints about ‘reverse sexism’ - and not only by the men on the panel. Is reverse sexism worse than the normal kind? Kaija Saariaho commented in 2013 speech at McGill University that ‘Nobody wants to be evaluated for things other than their actual skills. But I would like us all to realize (or, to be reminded) that the situations in which we make the evaluations are never objective and that our judgments, however rational they seem to us, can always be coloured by our biases.’ [Saariaho in Lebrecht, 2013] So, how we do address these biases? From hereon in, I personally have decided to give the job (or whatever) to a woman, unless a man is better. Ironically, when I googled this wonderful line - because its not mine - all I got was links on how to give better blow jobs. So don’t tell me there isn’t a problem.
I think the danger here, in our time, now - is that many of us think the hard work has been done. Thank God for those bra-burning feminists in the 1970’s, what Mary Spongberg dubbed the “feminist larrikinism” - where where we would we be without them! [Sparrow, 2015] But actually - where are we?? Anne Summers followed up her seminal book ‘Damned Whores and God’s Police’ from 1975 with a book entitled ‘The End of Equality’ in 2003 - noting that things haven’t got that much better. Both books highlight the issues around the perception of women and their behaviour in Australia specifically. A number of artists have recently spoken up about how things appear to be getting worse. Kaija Saariaho, in the same talk I mentioned earlier, states, “30 years after my own battles, young women still have to experience much the same everyday discrimination I went through. In reading more studies about our recent history in this matter, I have understood that the situation is not slowly getting better, but that the improvements seem to have stopped a while ago.” Bjork shocked fans in a 2015 interview with Jessica Hopper on online magazine Pitchfork where she claimed that she had been fighting to be recognised as the producer on her albums for her entire career “I didn’t want to talk about that kind of thing for 10 years,” she said, “but then I thought, ‘You’re a coward if you don’t stand up. Not for you, but for women. Say something.” These comments are important because they highlight the burgeoning nature of the problem. When someone with such a large public profile speaks up, everyone can listen. I particularly took heart from Bjork’s comment that she plans “to support young girls who are in their 20s now and tell them: You’re not just imagining things.” This harks back to my earlier point, when I looked at my own experience in a new light. Bjork also refers to the woman’s voice in the process of making electronic music “Everything that a guy says once, you have to say five times.” But maybe even five times isn’t enough.
Solo artist Grimes, aka Claire Boucher, has also notably struck out against the way she has been treated as a solo electronic touring artist in her article ‘I don’t want to have to compromise my morals in order to make a living’. Commenting that, “I don’t want to be infantilized because I refuse to be sexualized” and “I’m tired of the weird insistence that I need a band or I need to work with outside producer”, she goes on to discuss the problems of an artist like herself having strong opinions on political matters such as human rights, the environment and gender. “I’m sad that my desire to be treated as an equal and as a human being is interpreted as hatred of men, rather than a request to be included and respected.”
I think many of these issues arise because we - men and women - are complacent - a very dangerous state to be. But the commentary I have just mentioned keep pointing in the direction that we have no reason to be unconcerned. I have myself felt grateful for inclusions in national forums and I find myself thinking - hang on - this should be normal, not lucky or special. I think we we need a change of tactic. It is just not women who need to be inclusive, as I am constantly challenging myself to be, men need to take up the challenge as well. It becomes problematic if only women are including themselves - it ends up not being that different than men only including themselves. Guys, we need to you to carry the torch now. Not for women, but for inclusivity. In her 2015 book ‘The Wife Drought’, Annabelle Crabb points to the need for enabling opportunities for men, to allow women to succeed in their careers. This of course is easier in your standard 9 to 5 office job - where flexible work hours, leave for childcare and new babies etcetera can be implemented. But the idea that enabling men in this way also enables women is an important one.
In our enthusiasm to address the issue, we have to be careful we don’t create a kind of ‘iconic’ aura around women making electronic music, especially those from the past. It seems like the same ones get trotted out - Laurie Spiegel, Pauline Oliveros, Laurie Anderson. These are without doubt important artists, but there are so many, many more, working away today, and back then, making ongoing contributions. If we put these women on a pedestal, we miss the opportunity to make it the norm, rather than the exception. Abi Bliss, in her article ‘Invisible Women’ highlights the danger of putting women in electronic music on a pedestal, relegating them to museum pieces as the exception to the rule. She names these women ‘the patchbay-nuns’ claiming that we are “reinforcing the idea that such women are exceptional risks normalising in the minds of both promoters and audiences those present day line-ups featuring a sole female artist.”
Another issue is around projects when men use female personas. Jan Jelinek’s ‘Ursula Bogner’ hoax, where he takes on the persona of a long lost female wonder of electronic music, is an example, and have a tendency to trivialize a history that is already pretty much buried. UK writer Frances Morgan suggests this has the effect of “edging real women’s art even closer to the margins, trivialise it for those of us who think rediscovering it is less a subject for satire and more an urgent political project.” I was featured on Susan Lawley label’s release, ‘Extreme Music From Women’ in 1999, providing me with a significant career break. I remember an Australian male artist proudly declaring to me some years later that managed to ‘sneak on’ with a ‘fake girl band’. When I told the curator of the project, William Bennett, some years later, he wasn’t aware or amused.
But this ‘calling the gender card’ - as we have heard bandied around by our political leaders - is not without problems. Discussing how women are largely invisible in electronic music is often seen as complaining, and its has happened on more than one occasion that I have heard people told to ‘just get on with it and you will get the recognition you deserve’. It is difficult to read the situation when you are left out of a program line up, album or list of artists. This is, after all - art - maybe they just don’t like my music? It’s not right for the project? They have never heard of me? This makes the situation different than in other fields, where the judgment of ‘merit’ can be more straightforward. Personally, I am reluctant to start a debate on the basis of gender when it comes to curation - from the perspective as a practicing artist myself. So that puts us in a bit of bind - it looks like sour grapes if you bring it up, gutless if you don’t. This bind was highlighted by the assistant to Tony Abbot, Peta Credlin, who on leaving her position, stated that, “If I was a guy I wouldn’t be bossy, I’d be strong. If I was a guy I wouldn’t be a micromanager, I’d be across my brief, or across the detail.” Something of a double standard, as pointed out by Anne Summers in her Age article ‘No Place for the Gender Card in public or private life’, given that the government she served was perhaps one of the most damaging to women’s rights in this country to date. The ‘gender card’ is a political weapon often used as a way to explain away unreasonable demands.
What about quotas and merit based selection processes? Merit is tricky - how do you accomplish merit in the first place? How do we discover it, or judge it? Blind review panels assist this process, but are almost impossible with the hyped up publicity surrounding almost all music activities. I think I can say that most women don’t like the idea of quotas - no one wants to be given an opportunity to stack the numbers, they want to be given it because they are right for it. But if it is difficult to find these ‘meritous’ electronic artists, its difficult to know if they are right for the line up or not. Finding a balance between inclusivity and curatorial rigor is an ongoing challenge for us all. The ‘All Male Panel’ Tumblr blog is a simple documentation of all male panels, seminars, events, and various other things featuring all male experts, that effectively highlights how often the balance does not exist, but also how difficult the issue can be for well meaning organisers.
Something that is often forgotten is that gaining equality usually means someone has to give something up. As the writer Clementine Ford puts it, “Equality comes from people either sacrificing their privilege or having it forcibly taken away from them. It does not come from waiting from the oppressed to rise up and meet it. Men with power cannot hold onto it and argue in favour of gender equality at the same time.” (Ford, 2015). I think that this point is something that is key to making change. It is sometimes difficult to realise where power is held, especially if it is with yourself. And it is hard to always remember, and go that little bit further to do something that you will hope makes a difference.
Some key publications have made a determined effort to be inclusive in their painting of history and contemporary practice - books by Tara Rodgers, Linda Kouvaris, Gail Priest, Joanna Demmers are great examples of this. In my own book, ‘Digital Art - An introduction to new media’, an overview of digital art and its practitioners throughout history, I attempted to address these issues by balancing the numbers of men and women I included - sadly the editors didn’t think this was appropriate given the historical overview the series was attempting to provide. Whilst I believe it is a more balanced overview, it could have been something more, and I kind of regret that I didn’t insist.
My argument is then, is that women are there, they are making and programing electronic music - but they are less visible. The crux of the matter may be, why is this visibility such a problem? The forums available for the works women create - labels, festivals, conferences and publications - do not always seem to be able or willing to appeal to, attract or include women artists. So - how do we address what we have clearly defined as a problem? Its tricky, as recent attempts have shown. But I think there are several clear pathways we can all engage with, and I know some of us already do.
Create opportunity, so that you may in turn create role models. As Anne Summers states, “We need these role models, women who are proud of their power and who by doing their jobs well will make it the new norm for the next generation. We need gender equality to become normal, and cherished.” (Summers, 2015).
Go the extra mile to seek out individuals and materials - in your staff, ensembles, teaching curriculum, concert programs, literature reviews, and conferences. Make them visible. No more photos of guys twiddling knobs in your promo materials! It is easy for women to generalise their own experience across to others. It is important to consider that not everyone has had the same experience or range of opportunities.
Arrange mentorship whenever possible - providing the opportunity for people in similar situations to get together means they can often confirm what they may suspect is a problem, and share ways to overcome them. The doubt many women suffer as they try to assess if they have been at the receiving end of gender bias is often confirmed or brushed away if the possibility to discuss it openly presents itself.
Creating the appropriate forums to enable more visibility will in turn create more opportunity for engagement; it will become the norm instead of the ‘interesting’ exception. As academics, we have a responsibility to lead this change. More discussion will create awareness and bring down the complacency that seems to have settled in. I am optimistic, because I see action, but I am also nervous, because I see resistance. Young women, such as the university students where I work, often don’t see these issues as problems, or taking them up makes them feel like they are playing the ‘gender card’ - and here again is the catch-22. In a world that seems to increasingly sexualize young women from tweens on, I am not sure how empowered women actually are. But we can all do something. Watch these spaces.
Anne Summers. September 25, 2015. “No place for the Gender Card in Public or Private Life” The Age.
Clementine Ford. May 28, 2015. “Equality means a loss to those in privilege” Daily Life.
Michelle Arrow. September 21, 2015. “Damned Whores and Gods Police is still relevant to Australia 40 years on - mores the pity”. The Conversation.
Abi Bliss “Invisible Women”. The Wire, April 21, 2013.
Frances Morgan. 27 June 2012. “Ladies and Gentlemen - we are floating in space” The Wire,
Female Pressure Facts. Feburary 2013.
Grimes. (n.d.). “I don’t want to have to compromise my morals in order to make a living.”
Forrest Wickman. January 21, 2015. “It’s not just Bjork: women are tired of not getting credit for their own music”.
Jessica Hopper. January 21, 2015. “The invisible woman - a conversation with Bjork.”
Dave Segal. October 2015. “Local Curator launches huge online index of innovative female composers and musicians”
Norman Lebrecht. November 6, 2013. “The composer Kaija Saariaho on sexism in music.”
Linda Kouvaras (2013) “Loading the Silence: Australian Sound Art in the Post-Digital Age.” London: Ashgate.
Gail Priest (2009) “Experimental Music: Audio explorations in Australia” Sydney: UNSW Press.
Cat Hope et al (2009) “ Extreme Music From Music.” Glasgow: Susan Lawley.
Joanne Demmers (2010)”Listening Through the noise: The aesthetics of experimental electronic music” London: Oxford University Press.
Tara Rodgers (2010) “Pink Noises” Durham : Duke University Press
Anne Summers (1975) “Gods Whores and Dammed Police”. Sydney: Penguin
Anne Summers (2003) “The End of Equality: Work, Babies and Women’s Choices in 21st Century Australia”. Sydney: Random House
Cat Hope, John Ryan (2014). “Digital Arts - An Introduction to New Media”. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.
Congrats, You have an All Male Panel. (n.d.)
Cat Hope is an accomplished Perth based musician, composer, songwriter, sound and performance artist whose practice is an interdisciplinary one that crosses over into film, video, performance and installation.