Add Tara Rodgers’s “Pink Noises” to your shelves

Cover to Pink Noises (Duke University Press, 2010); image courtesy of thestranger.com

Tara Rodgers’s book Pink Noises: Women on Electronic Music and Sound collects interviews from a variety of female musicians who work with electronic instruments, either as deejays, composers, sound artists, or sometimes a composite of all three. Anticipation was high for this book, which began as a Web site Rodgers started while in graduate school at Mills College. I began reading over the interviews available online when preparing an encyclopedia entry on female DJs and found it an invaluable resource. When I finally picked up a copy and began pouring over the cover — which features Jessica Rylan playing a self-fashioned synthesizer — I was sold.

The project takes its name from both femininity’s associations with pink and a technical term which refers to variations of white noise that contain low frequencies, resulting in an equal distribution of energy per octave. I was especially inspired by Rodgers’s work, as she launched the Web site while in graduate school. She used the site as an opportunity to pursue personal and scholarly interests by interviewing musicians (many of whom were professors or colleagues). She also provided a resource for female instrumentalists who had technical or musical questions, thus also creating a safe space from women who didn’t want to be condescended to or demeaned by (male) “experts.”

Female musicians engaging with technology is the book’s main theme. One thing that is especially productive about the book is that, by focusing on software and electronic instrumentation, it acknowledges that instruments are fundamentally technological. This helps dispel the myth that music has to made with string, brass, or woodwind instruments. Also, despite the lack of guitars, many of these women are influenced by punk’s DIY ethos. They also challenge the music-making process. For some, this rebellion comes in opposition to their professional position as members of the academy, particularly at institutions like Mills College and the University of Illinois-Champaign. Pauline Oliveros made a name for herself for pioneering the concept of Deep Listening. Christina Kubitsch incorporates electromagnatic induction and light panels into her compositions, which are meant to be experienced rather than just heard. Annea Lockwood finds music in rivers, devoting much of her career to archiving the sounds of bodies of water from around the world. Others have little to do with the academy and use their work to challenge electronic music’s cerebral tendencies. Maria Chavez is a turntablist who often uses broken records.

Furthermore, I was particularly heartened by Rodgers’s interviews with women who create their own instruments and their reading about their relationships with them. Laetitia Sonami created the Lady Glove, an electronic instrument she had grafted onto her hand. Rylan’s developed the Personal Synth, and other systems, as a direct response against sweatshop labor and electronic waste. Many of these women are engaged with political activist groups dedicated to social justice, most notably DJ Rehka and Mutamassik.

A final point that the book contributes, and Alley Hector astutely pointed out in her review for AfterEllen, is queer women’s contributions to electronic music. This is evident with the inclusion of Le Tigre, Pauline Oliveros, Susan Morabito, and Bev Stanton (aka Arthur Loves Plastic), who has some interesting comments to make regarding lesbians’ actual musical preferences which she notes tend to be more cutting edge than bars and clubs suggest them to be. As many of these women champion subversive and unconventional approaches to composition — and work extensively with their hands — it follows a logic that many of them, not unlike guitarists Kaki King and Marissa Paternoster, identify as lesbian and bisexual, as well as encompass a broad spectrum of representations and expressions from within those categories.

One minor quibble I had with the book is that it (intentionally) gets a bit technical, gear-heavy, and theoretical, which is also one of the book’s main contributions to complicating the gendered notions of musicians’ technological interactions. While there’s a glossary to guide folks through the terminology, I would recommend reading the book an interview at a time and giving yourself a moment to process the information. Finding performance footage may help make concrete some of the artists’ more abstract assertions.

However, those willing to wade through a little bit of jargon will be rewarded by a good book that champions the musical output of a variety of female electronic instrumentalists who continue to challenge how we conceptualize popular music.

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3 comments

  1. Pingback: “What about a tuba?”: Julianna Barwick and a looper « Feminist Music Geek
  2. Pingback: Radio Silence « Feminist Music Geek

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