Heroines of Sound Festival Honors Women in Electronic Music

Guest Reporting by Sandra Bogdanovic.

Bettina Wackernagel, Heroines of Sound (Photo: Markus Roessle)

Bettina Wackernagel, Founder, Heroines of Sound (Photo: Markus Roessle)

Women in electronic music were celebrated at the Heroines of Sound festival in Berlin, Germany in December 2016.  Founded by Bettina Wackernagel and the Berlin Society of New Music in 2014, Heroines of Sound is designed to showcase the quality and variety of female artists in a circuit where men are usually 82% or more of the performers.  The festival is also designed to show the connections between past and present female pioneers in electronic music, sound art, and avant-garde pop. The 2016 festival featured 20 top women artists from 10 countries.

Opening night was an homage to Cathy Berberian (1925-1983), who is considered one of the most important vocal pioneers of the 20th century.  Originally trained as an opera singer, Berberian was able to use her impeccable technique and three and a half octave range to create an incredible variety of sounds.  For example, in her Stripsody, which was performed at the festival by Ute Wasserman, Berberian used her voice as an instrument to render comic book sounds. Instead of singing notes – she sang noises and words with actions, including pretending to be a radio and roaring like Tarzan.

Berberian composed works of her own and inspired many of her contemporaries to create works for her.  Anna Clementi performed two works at the festival that were originally written for Berberian,  Aria by John Cage and Sequenza III by Luciano Berio, who was Berberian’s husband from 1950-64.

The noted Dutch musicologist, Hannah Bosma, who has written extensively on Berberian and gender issues in electronic music, led a panel discussion called Voice, Performance and Work in Electronic Music.  She pointed out that the creation of electronic music is a collaborative process involving performers, technicians, and instrument builders, as well as the composers. But many musicologists have focused only on the composers, who are usually male.  Bosma argues that when musicologists look at the full creative team, it is clear that women, especially female vocalists like Berberian, have had a huge impact on the field.  In fact, as Bosma has written, “Without female vocalists, a lot of electronic music wouldn’t exist.”

The second evening started with four very different electronic works by Monique Rollin (1927-2002), Christine Groult (born 1950) and Beatriz Ferreyra (born 1937).  All three had worked at the famous Groupe de Recherches Musicales, an early electro-acoustic music studio founded in Paris in 1951 that attracted the leading avant-garde composers of the era.  It was a center for the creation of acousmatic works, a form of music that is written to be performed using loudspeakers instead of live performers. Groult and Ferreyra performed their works at the festival using an “acousmonium”- an orchestra of loudspeakers. The video below shows Christine Groult and Beatriz Ferreyra performing an excerpt of their acousmatic work, Nahash, at the Festival PRÉSENCES électronique in 2014.

The female composers of the Groupe de Recherches Musicales were also the focus of a panel discussion. Christine Groult and Beatriz Ferreyra shared their personal experiences as women composers in a highly misogynist environment, where they were often treated as assistants. They were assigned to help organize concerts, clean up, label boxes and bring beer.  Ferreyra said that many women left the GRM quickly because it was so hard to get time in the studio to work on their compositions in the 1960s.  Asked how many other women composers she remembered at the GRM during the time she was there, Ferreyra answered “None, it was only me.”  She is glad that women can compose on computers at home now, so that they are not as dependent on men.

One of the main goals of the festival was to show that there are women of diverse backgrounds creating electronic music in a wide range of musical styles.  There were too many performances to describe in detail in this piece, but the full program with links to the artists’ websites is on the Heroines of Sound website.  Here were a few other highlights:

  • Dorit Chrysler amazed the audience with her virtuoso performance on the theremin, an early electronic musical instrument controlled without physical contact.   Chrysler’s music has been described by performer Ann Magnuson as “the love child of Marianne Faithfull and Nikola Tesla, with Jane Birkin as the nanny and Bjork as the wayward Girl Scout leader.”  Chrysler’s solo work ranges from electronic pop to film soundscapes.  The clip below shows Chrysler performing at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit in 2015.

  • Sofia Härdig, often referred to as “Swedish electronica queen,” did a solo performance that reminded many of Patti Smith with her energetic and uncompromising post-punk rock noir. Härdig calls her music “electronica with roots in rock and noise.”  She remembers driving her parents crazy as a child by making melodies and harmonies to the sound of vacuum cleaners and car engines, and her work often includes industrial sounds.
  • Perera Elsewhere (also known as Sasha Perera),  a British musician now based in Berlin performed her experimental electronic music that combines semi-acoustic, abstract and pop influences.  Here is a link to a YouTube video of her 2013 song, Bizarre.
  • The Ensemble KNM Berlin performed the world premiere of Insomnis by Loïse Bulot.  Bulot is both a visual artist and a composer.  She incorporates visual elements in her work by creating watercolor paintings during the performance and projecting them on a screen as the ensemble plays the music. This technique of “graphic score” was seen for the first time in Germany.
  • Elisabeth Schimana‘s 6 channel performance In die Sonne (“In the Sun“), an acousmatic piece that sonically describes the vibrations of the sun, had its German premiere. The piece was inspired by the idea of the sun as a huge soundbox for acoustic vibrations.
  • Vocalist Anna Clementi and composer Laurie Schwartz performed the world premiere of Schwartz’s “Outtakes from the Baroness Tapes. No. 4.”

Congratulations to the three heroines who curated this excellent festival –   Bettina Wackernagel,  Sabine Sanio, and Mo Loschelder,  It is truly inspiring to learn about these exciting women trailblazers in electronic music and to see the connections between the past and the present.


More information about the Heroines of Sound Festival

Studies about women’s representation in electronic music

Helpful Organizations

female:pressure –  female:pressure is an international network of female artists in the fields of electronic music and digital arts founded by Electric Indigo that includes musicians, composers and DJs, as well as visual artists, cultural workers and researchers. They maintain an online database of female talent that can be searched by criteria like location, profession, style or name. There are almost 1900 members from 69 countries in the database as of November 2016. To join female:pressure, send an email to: info (at) femalepressure (dot) net.

Independent Music industry Women –  Independent Music Industry Women is a network created by Germany’s union of small and medium-sized independent music companies  in 2015.  It is working to ensure that women have more leadership roles in the music industry. Their first project in 2015 was a mentoring program that paired 10 young women with female mentors in the music industry.

Women in Sound Women on Sound –  A British group founded in 2015 with the long term goal of becoming a network of networks linking individuals, groups and organisations to each other, and sharing knowledge that shapes the current sound and technology sphere.

Special Thanks to Sandra Bogdanovic – Thanks to Sandra Bogdanovic for providing research and reporting on the Heroines of Sound festival for this blog post.  Bogdanovic is a musicologist and music industry multitasker based in Berlin.