2013: Noise and People Exploring the role of gender on the fringes of experimental composition

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music and films that helped define the year. More from this series

Introduction: The F Word, Dickparty and the Girls of Noise

Women have been working within experimental music for just as long as men, and yet sexism remains a prominent issue. The proliferation of sexist banter in both written criticism and in passing commentary strengthens the perception that male dominance remains unchallenged. Such instances are sporadically recorded on independent blog dickparty, which has seen a mild resurgence this year on the back of a number of interesting articles on the subject. Feminist webzine The F Word pointed me in the direction of the aforementioned Tumblr, while PR agency/webzine Meoko highlighted a study by Female:Pressure — an international network of female artists — who “gathered data that would allow them to evaluate the representation of women in electronic music through looking at the percentage of females on label releases, festival line ups and in Top 100 lists.” The result? “’[a] 10% proportion of female artists can be considered above average.’” It’ll be interesting to see how that will play out as the year-end countdowns mount up. But then again, saying that this has been a good or bad year for female musicians is ropey — female artists make exceptional music every year, as Meoko attests; it’s our awareness of it that is the problem.

In the 2008 documentary GUTTER: Girls of Noise, filmmaker Lauren Boyle takes her audience on a journey across the US to better understand the lives of female artists working on the fringes of experimental music. The film portrays a network of people practicing outsider art — from costume designers to transgender performers — artist who do not appear driven by money or profit. They discuss their reasons for wanting to partake in a supposed scene, which, like so many others, is perceived as male-dominated.

The documentary offers insight into alternative means of performance while outlining a number of interesting points: (1) that there isn’t necessarily a “scene” — which is itself a construct — for males to lord it over, as these musicians are simply operating within communities and small collectives made up of friends as opposed to a singular expansive group; and (2) that the material created by these artists and the way that they’re received differs from person to person; for instance, the scope of what they refer to as “noise” varies drastically across the board.

But most importantly, the film identifies a number of women involved in creating this music, which makes the notion of male dominance feel skewed. Not only does it feature the likes of Valerie Martino and Nancy Garcia, who talk passionately about their craft, but it also tackles questions concerning aptitude, aesthetics, and the social repercussions of working in such a field. There is even a chapter called “Parents,” where the artists divulge what their folks think about the music they play and the environments in which it’s created. The pinnacle moment, however, comes during a short dialogue with Heather Young from Social Junk, who says that while it’s cool to appreciate a woman operating in what’s referred to as a “heavily male-dominated scene,” it’s not cool just because the performer is a woman.

I went back to this documentary five years after it was made, because 2013 has seen a great deal of coverage about women working in experimental music (a hideously vague descriptor that “noise” almost certainly slots into). My aim here is to explore how things might have shifted since then by focusing on some of the most captivating material from this year and looking at the role that gender might have played in that. Young’s point — that gender may shape both the work in question and our admiration of it, but does not dictate its form — is a fascinating one, and as a reaction to critical responses that have since veered substantially from Young’s observation, I want to elaborate on this point in detail by looking at four musicians — Pharmakon, Ashley Paul, Okkyung Lee, and Unicorn Hard-On — who have released exceptional material over the last 12 months.

There are of course pitfalls in emphasizing that gender is not the main driving force in appreciation, only then to discuss the work of four artists who are all female. But the musicians I have chosen more or less reflect our taste at TMT, and after creating some of the most essential music of the year, they should be supported for what they do, as opposed to being categorized because of their gender.

Gender Politics and Noise: Pharmakon, Nina Kraviz, and social discomfort

Pharmakon (photo by Justin Snow)

The definition of “noise” is subject to change over time, because it’s a descriptor for subjective sensation. Outside of a music context, it might be understood as being typically disagreeable, something that causes a nuisance or varying degrees of aural distress. But public acceptance and interaction with noise alters depending on the environment in which it’s encountered. In a musical setting, it’s all about taking those attributes and expanding the boundaries of the listener’s expectation, i.e., distorting what they might otherwise find undesirable or uncomfortable. There are of course distinctions to be made within the resulting embodiment, which can vary substantially — harsh noise vs. noisetech, for instance — and though each type has a similar aim, it depends on the artist’s stylistic preferences and the context in which they wish to project or manipulate those feelings of discomfort.

That could explain why a “noise scene” is often referred to in public discourse. Noise is regularly presented as a subgenre of music that spans everything from electronic to classical and that’s sought out by a minority group of listeners. Because electronic-based noise — such as Puce Mary, Cremation Lily, and Kevin Drumm — is generally aggressive in content, it plays into a bizarre stereotype about what women are interested in, which then feeds into the technical aspects of how that sound is engineered. The fact that electronically produced noise usually requires some technical know-how and can involve aspects of engineering are what transform that dated perception about female performers into a latching-on point for listeners. It’s always fun to see stereotypes being smashed to bits, but to make assumptions about capability that are based on gender is a common faux pas, which sadly continues to this day. (Boyle’s documentary is a brilliant example of how those stereotypes are pulled apart.)

So why is it, then, that when an artist such as Pharmakon releases an album, the first thing that is commented on is the fact that Margaret Chardiet is a woman making noise? This has happened time and time again this year in various commentaries (I’m not naming names), which kept bringing me back to Young’s observation: what’s important first and foremost is the art that is being created. Of course, Chardiet is working in a supposedly male-dominated scene, but her music isn’t dictated by the fact that she is female. In discussing DJ Nina Kraviz and the Resident Adviser debacle from earlier this year, where Kraviz was interviewed in her hotel room while taking a bath, Meoko says that “if you hear her music without knowing what she is like physically, her sex and her looks are the last thing that spring to mind.” Although these artists couldn’t be further apart stylistically, the same logic could be applied here, bearing in mind that vocals could be manipulated, sampled, or coming from a contributor. Pharmakon’s music is exceptionally compelling, and it’s the primary reason she’s so highly regarded. The fact that she is a woman is critical to how she approaches her subject matter, but it does not dictate the trajectory of her sound or her potential as an artist.

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music and films that helped define the year. More from this series

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