Hear Me Now: the implication and significance of the female composer’s voice as sound source in her electroacoustic music
New York composer and performer Christine Baczewska considers herself anything but a formally trained singer and her career as a musician has evolved out of her life experiences more than from any particular focus on such professional ambitions. Baczewska, the eldest of five children, grew up singing in 3-part harmony with two of her sisters but opted to study to be a teacher feeling that this was a responsible thing to do. In college during the sixties she began writing songs in the folk music context of that era and eventually became part of a vocal group in Chicago called Care of the Cow. Baczewska tried to then gain more formal musical training but has had little success in this. She states, “I am to this day, saddened and embarrassed that, even though I speak it fluently, I can’t read or write what I consider to be my first language.” Regardless of this, Baczewska is a successful regular in the New York new music scene with two solo CDs to her credit and several appearances on Elise Kermani’s critically acclaimed DICE recording series.
Baczewska’s works fall very much into the category of composer as narrator, commentator and voice-over and can be compared in many ways to Laurie Anderson’s earliest work. Unlike Shields, she is not an opera singer and does not draw from that tradition in her music. In fact she makes an interesting commentary on how her music subverts that tradition altogether by concentrating on the undramatic and the ordinary rather than the extraordinary. She does this by “embracing the idea that the contents of my mailbox… or my grocery list… or a meeting at the office… have as much to say about a woman’s experience as the divas’ screams. The world writ small is where people really live – in the precarious emotional territory of the day-to-day.” Baczewska considers her music all about being a narrator. She adds, “Humans are galvanized by narrative and we’re conditioned to glean it wherever we can, even if there are no words attached – thus much of the emotional power of music itself.”
Baczewska’s earliest music contains much more electronic manipulation and many more electroacoustic elements than her more recent pieces. This is partially due, she states, because of her increased confidence in her vocal abilities. She initially felt that she needed the manipulation and processing to make her voice “bigger.” She was very aware of the fact that she was alone and this lead to her idea of the Tribe of One title for her first full-length CD; she was one voice trying to have the weight of many. In this way the use of technology for practical reasons evolved into its use for symbolic and artistic reasons. The composer shares that her latest work concentrates on using the single line as the conveyance of her message with extrapolations as necessary to develop a wider musical context for that line. She adds that she is more interested now in the voice as primal gesture and describes much of her current work as the equivalent of wailing and banging on something with a stick. She also emphasizes the fact that even her early work that utilized more multi-tracked recording was essentially still the naked voice in accumulation.
Sound Example 6 (MP3) – Day of the Dead (1988; excerpt). Based on the contents of her grocery list (processed vocals, ukulele, percussion). Singer: Christine Baczewska.
Sound Example 7 (MP3) – O Rose/on finding Harryette Mullen (1997; excerpt). Based on a mailbox experience. Singer: Christine Baczewska.
Baczewska’s approach provides an obvious contrast to Shield’s but in many ways both women are using their electroacoustic work to achieve the same ends. Shield’s music presents the operatic genre in new and exciting ways and uses its best elements (drama, strength, vocal beauty) to subvert many of its traditional gender- and culturally- biased assumptions. By creating a greater body of literature in which a woman’s role is one of strength and triumph, she contributes a new portion of the repertoire with a new focus and intent. Baczewska on the other hand triumphs by celebrating the ordinary and familiar and elevates women’s (and men’s for that matter) quiet ventures to a greater status. Both creative plans take the possible uncomfortable gender-biased sting out of the opera genre by refusing to adhere to its conventions regarding sexual roles and dramatic outcomes.
With the work of San Francisco-based composer Pamela Z, the role of female vocalist as environmental manipulator and creative catalyst is extensively explored. Z, a classically trained singer, became interested in composition during her senior year in college when as she puts it, “I figured out… that the composers were the ones doing the interesting stuff.” She considers herself most strongly influenced by her classical training, minimalism, and her knowledge of early music as well as punk and rock.
The composer emphasizes that she never set out to use her voice in her compositions for any particularly symbolic or artistic reason; she simply found that singing was the most natural performance medium for her and the form of expression at which she was the most adept. In an interview for Theater Magazine she describes her interest in technology as starting at an early age. Her father bought his children tape recorders and she spent much time recording herself playing all the parts in “radio shows” and layering and manipulating the sound. Later she began playing the guitar and singing folksongs in clubs during her Colorado school years. In the early 80s the works of artists/composers like David Byrne, Brian Eno, and Philip Glass proved to her that she could combine the various aspects of her musical experience (bel canto singing, rock – influenced composition, and electronics) for her own works.
Pamela Z’s music is primarily created by live and studio-mixed layering and delaying of her vocal lines and the addition other samples and instruments as appropriate. Exemplifying my final category of performer as sonic manipulator and catalyst, she triggers the majority of her vocal effects and samples via MIDI mainly using a controller called the BodySynth, described in Electronic Musician as a device with four wireless sensors able to detect electrical impulses from her muscle movements. The BodySynth’s processor translates these impulse signals into music via MIDI messages fed to the Max object-oriented programming environment.
The composer’s music illustrates a strong interest in language and sound for their own sake rather than as a conveyance of narrative or dramatic content. When creating the 1995 large-scale work Parts of Speech she decided to explore language from a broad range of ideas. The piece approached language from several angles including sound, grammar, and meaning. For example, the section Parts is a layered exploration of grammar rules, however another section Geekspeak is more concerned with the particular lingo of a certain group of people. Z states that she first became interested in language for its sound and was interested in the great variety of sounds she could create from her own voice by utilizing technology. She also stresses – like Baczewska – that technology allows her to become an ensemble rather than simply a solo singer. Gaijin, premièred in 1999, is similarly pre-occupied with foreign language, in the case of this work, Japanese.
The more recent Voci, completed in the spring of 2003, is a multimedia work which features an exhaustive exploration of the voice. Subjects found in Voci range from the anatomy of the voice and of vocal production to the phenomenon of schizophrenics hearing voices. The resulting composition is not only about the voice itself but also about what interests Pamela Z about her voice. It is this aspect of self-examination in much of her music which makes her work so interesting and also adds a level of interpretive complexity to her performances and composition.
In the MIT Press publication Women in New Media edited by Judy Malloy, the composer makes the observation that using the tools that one is expected to use often brings the greatest recognition. Women, she states are expected to excel in the use of the voice, and are rewarded the most when they perform vocally. She cites as examples Meredith Monk, Laurie Anderson, and Diamanda Galas and in a later conversation with me also observed that this also seems to be the way that men wish to celebrate women the most in new music. For example, composers like Luciano Berio and Milton Babbitt owe a considerable amount of their celebrated creative output to fine vocal and tape music magnificently performed by talented and versatile women like Cathy Berberian and Bethany Beardslee. Though these women and others have been given a great deal of credit for their efforts, the principle beneficiary has been the composer who has relegated them to the rather passive role of the muse.
It can be argued that the women who garner the most respect in the area of electroacoustic music are those who take a more proactive role in developing and inventing tools and theories of composition. I presented to Pamela in counter-argument the names of Laurie Spiegel, Carla Scaletti, Pauline Oliveros, and Mara Helmuth as toolmakers who certainly in my experience are held in the most respect in the academic world of composition with technology. She agreed but argued accurately that with women like Spiegel, Scaletti, and Helmuth especially, a rarified world of “true geekdom” is entered where gender is absolutely irrelevant because what is most valued is raw brain power and technical aptitude. The female vocalist-composer, however, still receives the most positive reaction from her audience and her colleagues because she is reinforcing a concept with which everyone is quite comfortable in western culture – that of a woman using her voice and body to entertain, to persuade, and to conquer. Pamela continued this illustration for me by pointing out that the way that men traditionally persuade and conquer is by using external tools such as a sword, a gun, or armor as opposed to women who use internal tools (seductive body movement and a soft, purring voice) to achieve similar goals.
The composer notes that these ideas have become an issue in performance with the BodySynth, which is an external tool used to control sound but is also strapped on and thus becomes a part of her body. This allows her to have her body unfettered in any way by an instrument offering her full freedom of movement and physical expression which is so important to a dramatic singer’s art. For example, one section of Parts of Speech deals with men and women and seductive language. The composer was able to incorporate seductive body language in that portion of her performance to better convey the meaning of that section and it certainly had the desired effect. A review of a Parts of Speech performance appearing in Electronic Musician magazine was written by someone obviously quite smitten with the seductive effect. The review author, Bean, describes her work with the Synth using language like, “a shimmy to the left could unleash a barrage of… and a shoulder roll to the right could be…” emphasizing the sensual experience.
On the surface Pamela Z’s music is very much about interesting layers of manipulated sound that delight and entertain us while showing her extensive vocal and technological abilities. However, when seen as the composer taking her voice and attacking and parsing it so utterly and completely with the digital razor blade, her work becomes more of an editorial commentary on female singers and their performance roles. This is also, incidentally, what Pauline Oliveros did with the piece Bye Bye Butterfly, in which she deconstructs with technology one of the most pathetic female victims in the operatic literature (though it was done quite “accidentally” because she literally just picked up whatever record was handy in the studio that day!).
Sound Example 8 (MP3) – Parts (1995; excerpt) from Parts of Speech. Singer: Pamela Z.
Sound Example 9 (MP3) – Geekspeak (1995; excerpt) from Parts of Speech. Processing of male voices (not the composer’s voice).
All of the women here have used their own voices in their electroacoustic music in order to tell their stories, convey their meanings, and present their ideas. A side benefit of such work is the re-definition of what is possible in the female vocal role in terms of drama, narrative, and effect. All employ technology to make their own voices stronger by allowing for multiple characters, multiple layers, and increased volume and intensity in their music. By creating more, stronger, alternative, and empowering voices in music (Baczewska’s Tribe of One), they add considerably to the ongoing quest for a greater opportunity of expression for women in the creative arena.
Much of the material gathered here was done in phone interviews and email conversation sessions with the women studied. However, the few print and online resources available for consultation are listed below.
Bean. ‘Tech,’ Electronic Musician 13.9 September 1997 : 90–91.
Bosma, Hannah. ‘Gender and Electronic Music’, ‘Gender and Electro-acoustics’, ‘Male and Female Voices in Computer Music’, ‘Who creates electro-vocal music? (authors, composers, vocalists, and gender)’, ‘Écriture Féminine in electrovocal music’,.
Clément, Catherine. Opera, or the Undoing of Women. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988.
Dame, Joke. ‘Rocky times: Feminist musicology in the 1990s’, Muziek en Wetenschap 2.1 (1992): 25–31.
— ‘Theme and Variations: Feminist Musicology’, in Rosemarie Buikema and Anneke Smelik, eds., Women’s Studies and Culture: A Feminist Introduction. London: Zed Books, 1995.
Silverman, Kaja. The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.
All musical and pictorial examples used in this article with permission of the composers.
Any Fool Can Plainly See, on Dice: Volume One, Ishtarlab CD001, 1993.
Tribe of One, Pariah Record Project, 1993.
Yoga on Dice Volume Two, Ishtarlab CD0002, 1996.
The X Factor, Pariah Record Project, 2001.
American Made on New Electronic Compositions from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana: Student Compositions Realized at the Experimental Music Studios, LP, University of Illinois Experimental Music Studios, 1989.
Full Circle selections on Cyberquilt, CD-rom, International Computer Music Association, 1999.
Full Circle, CD-rom, Electronic Music Foundation, 1999.
Insurrections I on New Graduate Works from the Experimental Music Studios, University of Illinois Experimental Music Studios, 1990.
Saliva, on Frogpeak Collaborations Project, Frog Peak Music FP19, 1998.
Alice Ferree Shields
Apocalypse, Composers’ Recordings Inc. CRI CD 647, 1993.
Coyote, LP, Composers’ Recordings Inc. CRI SD 495, 1981.
Dance Piece No. 3 and Study for Voice and Tape on Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center 1961–1973, New World 80521, 1998.
El’s Aria, LP, Opus One LP 90, 1983.
Farewell to a Hill on Columbia/Princeton Electronic Music Center: Original Four-Channel Versions of Electronic Compositions, LP, Finnadar/Atlantic Quad LP 9010, 1975.
Line of Apogee (assisting Vladimir Ussachevsky), New World CD 80309, 1990.
Organ Screaming and The Dawn Wind on The Composer As Performer, CRI CD 670, 1994.
Rhapsody, LP, Opus One LP 94, 1984.
Transformation of Ani on American Masters: Pioneers of Electronic Music, CRI CD 611, 1991.
Voices, cassette, TELLUS Cassette 22, 1989.
A Delay is Better, Starkland ST-213, 2004.
Caught on CRI Emergency Music, Composers’ Recordings Inc. CRI CD 770, 1998.
Echolocation, Pauline Oliveros Foundation Cassette PZ-C-1, 1988.
Geekspeak, on Sonic Circuits IV, Innova 113, 1996.
Live/Work on Immersion, DVD, Starkland S-2010, 2003.
Number Three on Visions, Isospinlabs 2, 2003.
In Tymes of Olde and Obsession, Addiction, and the Aristotelian Curve (with Barbara Imhoff, harpist) on From A to Z, Starkland CD ST 203, 1993.
Parts and Questions on Dice Two, Ishtarlab CD0002, 1996.
Pearls, the Gem of the Sea, on Komotion International Vol. II, Komotion Records, 1996.
State on State of the Union, Atavistic ALP692CD, 2000.
Where do I find these recordings for sale?
CEC – Canadian Electroacoustic Community
DIFFUSION i MéDIA
Electronic Music Foundation
Forced Exposure (Somerset, MA)
Pauline Oliveros Foundation
SEAMUS – Society for Electroacoustic Music in the United States
ELIZABETH HINKLE-TURNER (b. 1964) received her D.M.A. (1991) in music composition from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has served as acting director of the electronic and computer music studios at Florida International University in Miami and the Experimental Music Studios at the University of Iowa and has been a faculty member at the University of Illinois and the Oberlin Conservatory. She has been the secretary and treasurer of the Society for Electroacoustic Music in the United States (SEAMUS), and is the owner of WAVE_LIST, a listserv devoted to issues of gender and music technology. She also serves on the board of the International Alliance for Women in Music (1995–2000, 2004 – present) and is currently the IAWM Vice-President and Digital Communications Coordinator. She is on the board of the Canadian Electroacoustic Community. She is the Student Computing Services Manager at the University of North Texas. Hinkle-Turner is the author of the book series Women Composers and Music Technology: Crossing the Line (volume one: United States forthcoming from Ashgate Press, London in January 2006) and the CD-rom Full Circle.