Women's Pioneering Role In Electronic Music

The release of "Women in Electronic Music - 1977," a CD on the CRI label, is engaging proof that women have known how to bend high technology to their expressive purposes for decades.

As Laurie Spiegel, one of the seven composers represented on this groundbreaking collection, recalls: "I guess, in retrospect, I was really lucky that my father really expected a boy ... for his first kid, because when I was 9 he gave me a soldering iron and a heap of parts instead of a doll."

Whether through family inspiration or formal musical training, these women realized the significance of electronic sounds in music in ways few of their male counterparts imagined 20 years ago. And their inventions continue to sound fresh.

The disc opens with a startling example of electronic music from 1938, Johanna M. Beyer's "Music of the Spheres." Electronically processed lion roars - a visionary blend of sound from nature and electronics - are woven into a tapestry of dramatically charged acoustic and electronic sounds. A delicately chiming triangle is counterpointed by electronic squeals, an otherworldly soundscape evocation of the composition's title.

Beyer, despite her obvious originality and skill, is an obscure footnote in American musical history. The most immediately appealing performances are by four women who are still active today in electronic music. Annea Lockwood, currently a professor at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., is represented by "World Rhythms," a piece using prerecorded tapes of the sounds of earthquakes, volcanoes, geysers, and rivers, fading in and out of one another to form a kind of "sonic braid" of the sounds of nature.

Pauline Oliveros, who combines a composing life with the running of a foundation supporting experimental musical performances, builds on the connection between natural sounds and electronics seen in women composers like Beyer and Lockwood, adding an additional wry touch. Her "Bye Bye Butterfly" uses electronic tone oscillators creating whooshes and clipped sounds resembling amplified insect wing flutter, humorously interfering with a recording of Puccini's famous opera "Madame Butterfly." It sounds as if the composer is laughing away Puccini's vision of tragic womanhood.

Laurie Spiegel's "Appalachian Grove," the most tunefully appealing work in this collection, draws upon her skills as a folk banjoist. Computer-generated tones are shaped into what sounds like a futuristic duet consisting of spryly plucked banjo and high lonesome vocal.

Spiegel's activities since this, her first recording, have included inventing musical software and composing music for a NASA space probe.

Laurie Anderson, now a pop star, was virtually unknown when she recorded "New York Social Life" and "Time to Go." Yet her present style was firmly established in 1977: deadpan spoken vocals commenting on humorously quirky moments in urban life, with ironies underscored by speechlike electronic effects.

"Time to Go" describes an art-museum guard whose job entails snapping people out of their "art trances" when it's closing time. The trance-inducing artistry of these women electronic composers will require more than a snap to dissolve.

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