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The Death of the Singer

Authorship and Female Voices in Electronic Music

Electronic music 1[1. With `electronic music' I also refer to electroacoustic music, musique concrète and computer music.], and in general electronic music technology, is very much a male domain. One only has to go to a hi-fi shop or a computer music conference to experience this. Whether in popular music or in avant-garde computer music, women are mainly present as voice or as vocalist (Bosma 1995, Bradby 1993).

I will relate this pattern of "male composer - female vocalist" to issues concerning the relation between authorship and voice in electrovocal music. With feminist musicology as my starting point, I will discuss possible changes in the notion of musical authorship concerning voice and electronic sound technology, accompanied by musical examples.

Looking for women composers

Feminist musicology is often focused on female composers and their work and lives, with for example biographies, anthologies or editions of scores; and an important problem for feminist musicologists is the seemingly lack of female composers. One of the reactions to this problem was the quest for unknown, forgotten or neglected female composers. As a result, it became apparent that there are more female composers than one can find in the traditional histories of music. It also became clear that women were often very much discouraged to compose (for example, by not getting access to the appropriate education).

"Discovering" female composers is not only an empirical-historical activity (finding out how things "really" are/were), but also has a symbolic function: it produces representations and role-models of female composers and changes the stereotypical image of the Composer as Male.

Likewise, feminist studies into computer and electroacoustic music can be focussed on women composers. One can ask: why are there so few women composers, and what can we do about this? Or one can look for female composers of electronic music, and study their work, experiences, idea's and lives. For example, interesting research has been done by Andra McCartney (1995)  2[2. See also McCartney's website] about the specific experiences and practices of Canadian women composers. Research about American women composers of electroacoustic music by Elizabeth Hinkle-Turner is forthcoming  3[3. On Hinkle-Turner's website one finds the following description: "Crossing the Line: Women Composers and Music Technology in the United States book to be completed by December 1995 and tentatively scheduled for publication by Indiana University Press. Traces the extensive history of women composers in the United States and catalogs the recordings, articles, and works of over 200 women composers/technologists. Volume one of a proposed multi-volume series. Volume two will include women in Canada and the United Kingdom. I am also creating a CD-ROM accompaniment to the text featuring the women and clips of their music. "].

But how important is the composer, or the sex of the composer?

Gender and technology

In electronic music, there are many male composers. This is similar to the situation of technology in general: women seem nearly absent in relation to technology. Feminist research can aim to try to get more female composers. But other strategies are possible. I will take a short look at gender and technology studies, and relate its shift in attention away from the male inventor to a development in feminist musicology in which the male composer is dethroned.

The world of technology seems to be a man's world. Especially the inventors are male. One of the strategies of gender and technology studies is to look for female inventors in the past, and to research how the amount of female inventors can be enhanced in the future. But another step has also been taken: to look at technology and at technological practices in a different way. Instead of exclusively focusing on the, often male, inventor, attention is now paid to workers and users as producers of technological practices. Instead of technological products, the focus is now on technological practices; instead of a focus on the inventor, technology is now seen as embedded in an "actor-network". In doing so, more female participants and female influences can be perceived. For example, the use of household technology is studied as an essential part of technological practice.

Likewise, looking for female composers is not enough for feminist musicology. Showing that women can do the same as men is one-sided. By questioning the importance of the composer and by focussing on and revalueing feminine practices, a greater and more important place for women in music can be created. In music, there is more than one figure contributing to the sounding composition: not only the composer, but also the text writer and the vocalists, musicians, conductor, public, technicians, producer, publisher, instrument-builders, etc. By studying female voices and the work of female vocalists in electronic music, more female producers/creators and more female influences can be discerned in this music than by focussing on the composer alone. Without female vocalists, a lot of electronic music wouldn't exist.

The "Death" of the Author-Composer

In feminist musicology, a development took place in which I discern some similarities with the development in gender and technology studies described above. In gender and technology studies, the female user is brought into focus instead of the male inventor. In some feminist musicological studies, the focus is on the female listener instead of on the male composer.

In the musicological work of Joke Dame, not the composer but the listener is central. Dame developed the "listener's response theory", analogous to the "reader's response theory" from literary studies. She is especially interested in the perspective of the female listener and in unconventional, feminist interpretations of canonical compositions.

Dame's listeners response theory is, among others, inspired by a famous essay of the French writer Roland Barthes: "The Death of the Author" (Barthes 1977/1968). This essay was very important for literary studies and also for film studies (e.g., Silverman 1988). Barthes' "The Death of the Author" greatly influenced the thinking about the relation between text, writer and reader.

Barthes' "murder" of the author can be considered as a reaction to the authority which is often assigned to the author. Often the author is considered as the master and the origin of his text, and then a text is interpreted according to the intentions of the author and also often in relation to the life of the author. Then, the author is conceived as the master who possesses the truth of his text: an interpretation by a reader of a text is "good" or "wrong" in relation to the (supposed) intentions of the author. Stereotypically, this all-mighty Author is male.

Barthes' "Death of the Author" contributed to the development of approaches in which the text is conceived from the perspective of the reader. Barthes states: "[T]he birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author" (Barthes 1977/1968: 148). The "murder" of the Author can be conceived as a liberating act. By giving the listening subject an active role, Dame creates possibilities for women (and others) to interpret music in other ways than from a "universal", hegemonic, white, heterosexual, middle-class, male perspective. Feminist analysis and interpretation of canonical compositions is very important, because these compositions and their reception form our musical experience and define the practice, concept and phenomenon of music to a very large extent. Creating new listening and reception practices is a political act.

However, other feminist musicologists, like Marcia Citron (1993: 172), while pointing at the importance of the reader or listener, still see the author as a very important figure. They ask: Why "murder" the author the moment female authors/composers arise?

Especially in a field like electronic music which is predominantly male but in which women are more and more becoming active, it seems important to pay attention to female composers as well as to other female voices. Here, I will focus on female voices as authors in electronic music.

Authorship and female singing voices

Carolyn Abbate (1993) states that "[d]ebates about author politics need to be entirely rethought when we move from the written textual genres that inspired them to live performed arts, whose phenomenology's are another matter" (234). The relation between writer (or author), text and reader is different from the situation in music. In Western classical music, the composer writes a score, which will be interpreted into musical sound by a performer; this co-production is the music the listener hears.

Performers often usurp the authorial power. A performer, "'making' music" (or "'creating' a role") is a "second author", "who completes the work in her (or his) own interpretation" (234-5), and on whom the composer is dependent. But the interdependency of composer and performer is often not uncontested. The strange role of performers as a second author is threatening. Composers are often complaining about or angry at performers; Abbate gives the example of "Wagner's tirades against the singers who interpreted his music" (234).

Performers are essential for Western classical music. Not only do they transform sheet music into sound; they also influence musical style and technique. However, one can not find them in the Histories of Music (e.g., Grout). Only (mostly male) composers seem to make music history.

Audio and visual recording technology makes changes in the traditional relations between composer, performer and listener possible. Before it was possible to record sounds and images, performance (for example singing) existed only on the moment itself: the sound art of the famous castrati is forever lost, but not the scores of their contemporary composers. Sound recording technology made it possible for the creations of singers to outlive the performance as well as the performers and to be copied and multiplied. Now, vocal creations by for example Maria Callas or Kathleen Ferrier are famous historical art objects and authorative musical texts. Sound technology makes it possible to record a performance of a score or an improvisation; in this way, a performance or an improvisation can become a permanent creative object. This can have important consequences for the authorial status of composer and singer. A singer now can become an author of a permanent creative object with a recording of a performance or an improvisation.

An example of this is Nadir & Zenit   4[4. BV Haast CD 9303 (BV Haast, Prinseneiland 99, 1013 LN Amsterdam, The Netherlands, tel (+)20 6239799, fax (+)20 6243534). As a radio piece, it has won the Prix Italia.] by Greetje Bijma, Louis Andriessen and Sybren Polet. Bijma and Andriessen made a musical composition of the text by Sybren Polet; in the sleeve notes both Bijma and Andriessen are mentioned as the musical authors. Louis Andriessen is well-known as a composer; he plays electronic keyboards in this piece. Greetje Bijma is an important, much praised singer of jazz and improvised music, using a lot of strange, extended vocal techniques. 5[5. Many CD's with her work are available via: BV Haast. ENJA Records Matthias Winckelmann GmbH, P.O. Box 190333, 80603 Munich, Germany. JARO Medien GmbH, Bismarckstr. 83, D-28203 Bremen, Germany, tel: 0-421-705771, fax: 0-421-74066] In Nadir & Zenit, she gives a wonderful, exciting vocal interpretation of Polet's text, with a great variety of timbres and vocal techniques, and with subtle tonal, rhythmic and timbral inflections. As one can hear in this piece, sound recording technology makes it possible to compose a lasting musical object with musical and vocal parameters which are difficult to notate, like particular timbres and singing techniques, and subtile tonal, rhythmic and timbral inflections. These vocal parameters are created by vocalists. With regard to Nadir & Zenit, vocalist Greetje Bijma is indeed acknowledged as co-author of the music.

However, although vocalists often made important creative contributions to tape-compositions, they are seldom acknowledged as co-composers or vocal authors, and sometimes not acknowledged at all. An example of this neglect of the female voice is Luciano Berio's composition Thema: Omaggio a Joyce (1958) 6[6. This piece is published on the CD Acousmatrix 7, Berio/Maderna, BV Haast CD 9109.]. This piece consists completely of the recorded voice of Cathy Berberian, reading a part of James Joyce's Ulysses  in a particular way. The recording of the voice is often severely manipulated; a continuum can be heard varying from "natural" voice to abstract sound. Berberian's voice is very characteristic for this piece. However, her name is not even mentioned in the credits of this piece, nor in an article Berio wrote about Thema  (Berio 1959), nor in many other texts about Thema  (like Dreßen 1982).

Electronic sound technology makes it possible for a vocalist to compose directly with vocal sound on tape. She can for example put different layers of her singing together into one texture, like Joan La Barbara did on her CD Sound Paintings7[7. Lovely music LCD 3001. Lovely Music, LTD., 105 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10013]Women like Joan La Barbara, Diamanda Galás, Laurie Anderson, Meredith Monk and Shelley Hirsch combine singing with composing while using sound technology.

However, although electronic sound technology (recording, amplification, editing, manipulation of sound) is nearly always used in the production of music, the dichotomy of composer and performer did not disappear. For example, this division lies at the heart of the laws for musical copyrights. While in the Netherlands the rights of composers and text-writers (both so-called "authors") with regard to the reproduction of their work are organised quite well by the BUMA/STEMRA, reproduction of the work of performers is only recently getting attention by the SENA.

Traditionally, a composer composes a score; a performer interprets the score into sound. In the twentieth century, many composers composed with soundcolors and timbre, often on tape, instead with pitches and durations notated in a score. What is the difference between a composer and a performer, when they both produce the same result: sound on tape?

The "Death" of the Singer

The power ànd the problematic of the Author resides in the permanency of his/her creative work, of which the written text is a prototype. Because of its permanence, a written text can be studied by different persons in different times and places. The author will "exist" "forever" through the permanency of his/her written texts. (With "permanency" I do not only mean "paper and ink", but also the abstract permanency of a written text: it can be copied and multiplied but it is still the same text). 8[8. It is often stated that there are no Authors, and no originals, in an oral culture; there, texts exist only in their performance (Cipriani 1995).] But, as Barthes and Derrida tell us, an author is always absent from his text. The text will have a "life" of its own, over which the author has no power. In this respect, the author is "dead": for the reader, there is only a text, and there is no guarantee that the intentions of the author will come through.

The author of a text or film is essentially absent from this text or film. Likewise, the composer is absent from the score and also absent from an electronic tape-composition.
Through recording, a singer at once becomes the author of a lasting, distributable product, and "dies" by her/his absence from it. The recording can be "stolen" and re-used in a way which was not intended by the author. Making a new electronic composition out of pre-existing recorded music has been called "plunderphonics" by John Oswald and Chris Cutler.

An example of Plunderphonics is the piece Maria Callas  (1988) 9[9. On CD Musicworks 60] by Christian Marclay. This piece consists of a recomposition of fragments of recorded singing from the famous singer Maria Callas. Her long high notes and non-verbal vocalises are edited, cut, rearranged and superposed; the sound of her voice is not manipulated. Except for "encore, encore" (1'46''-1'55''), no words can be heard. Callas' vocal art forms the basis and the material for this composition. Without her recorded singing, this composition would not exist. Marclay did not secretely "steal" her recorded singing, but places Maria Callas in the middle of the attention by making her name the title of this piece. Marclay's editing is clearly heard. Thus, both "Callas' part" and "Marclay's part" are distinguishable in Maria Callas.

Is this piece a hommage to Maria Callas, or does it make her singing ridiculous? The excessive prolongation (continuous repetition by cut-and-paste) of the high dominant b (0'57''-1'43''; 2'47''-2'57''), with Callas' large vibrato (often considered as one of her weak points), can have a ridiculing effect. Here, the stereotype of female operatic singing as high, loud and non-verbal, is reinforced. Callas' art of interpreting characters, often considered as her most important contribution to the history of opera-performance, is completely lost in Maria Callas. Her singing is fragmented. On the other hand, other parts highlight her beautiful, virtuosic vocal art. In Maria Callas  particular aspects of Callas' singing are brought to the fore: isolated, superposed and highlighted are her special soundcolors, special changes in soundcolor, her typical vibrato, transitions between notes and sudden, fast, light, titillating coloratura. All these aspects are features of operatic singing that are not notated in a score, but created by the vocalist. The structure of Maria Callas  is based on the isolation and rearrangement of these features. With Maria Callas, Marclay treats singer Maria Callas as a vocal author.

Een Lied van Schijn en Wezen (1992/93) 10[10. On CD Gilius van Bergeijk - Volume One, X-OR CD 07, P.O. Box 13435, 2501 EK Den Haag, The Netherlands. Phone: +31-20-6756350; fax: +31-20-6791352; email:;] by Gilius van Bergeyk is another electronic composition in which a recording of female singing is re-used. The main part of this composition is made by subjecting a recording of the fourth movement of Gustav Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, performed by Kathleen Ferrier and Bruno Walter (1949), to a procedure of shifting repetition. First, one hears the first four seconds; then, second 1-5 is heard, then second 2-6, etc. During the piece, the intervals become smaller: in the end, one does not hear repetition anymore, but distortion. At first, this procedure makes Ferrier's singing stuttering; later one recognizes the procedure. The effect is an impression of great violence excerted on Ferrier's singing: regardless of music and phrasing, her voice is cut again and again in the middle of a note, phrase or breath. In the end, her voice is wildly distorted.

In the sleeve notes, Richard Ayres writes that the theme of Een lied van Schijn en Wezen  is the passage between illusion and reality. (The Dutch title means: A song of Appearance and Being). He relates this to the text of Mahler's song: "The beautiful text depicts a parent's two attempts at coming to terms psychologically with the death of children. During the first two verses a mother (in this recording) tries to convince herself that her children have merely gone out walking in the mountains, and that they will soon return safely home. In the final verse she finally admits that they won't be returning and have instead 'gone ahead' - a recognition that they are in fact dead, and that at some point everybody must follow. [...] The master tape consists of thousands of tiny tape slivers, all cut and glued together by hand, and all playing a unique part in the metamorphosis between what it appears to be - Mahler - and what it is in reality - Gilius van Bergeijk."

It is not difficult to relate this theme to the Death of the Author. While for the reader or the listener, the author is absent and "death", for the author, writer or composer, it is the other way round: his "children" (his texts or compositions) will go away and "die". In Een Lied van Schijn en Wezen, the recording of Ferrier's en Walter's performance of Mahler's composition, appears to be "death" or away from its authors: re-used and changed by Gilius van Bergeijk.

I find it remarkable that in the sleeve notes, Een Lied van Schijn en Wezen  is related to the text of Mahler's composition, but nothing is said about the performance by Kathleen Ferrier and Bruno Walter. The orchestre is not even mentioned. This is remarkable because Een Lied van Schijn en Wezen  is completly made out of the recording of their performance. Especially Ferrier's voice is very characteristic for this piece. The recording is not a neutral reproduction of Mahler's score, but has a particular character. Van Bergeijk's compositional proces does not manipulate Mahler's score, but the tape of Ferrier's and Walter's performance. The compositional proces is however inspired by the text of Mahler's composition. The sleeve notes, the title and the compositional proces of Van Bergeijk's composition relate to the text of Mahler's composition, not to Ferrier's vocal creation. Ferrier is described as a figure of the composition ("a mother"), not as a vocal author. Van Bergeijk's compositional work does not have any relation with Ferrier's typical way of singing. This forms a sharp contrast with Marclay's composition Maria Callas, in which Callas' vocal authorship is central with regard to the title, the sound and the structure of the composition.


Issues of authorship do not only relate to "who did what", but also to who is represented as an author, and in which way. It can be very useful to read credits not as a neutral rendering of the various contributions of the musicians, but as a text that offers us for example a male composer or a female singer as the main figure, or presents a composition as a co-production. Who is in the credits represented, in which way, and how does that relate to the music?

Sound recording makes it possible to consider a vocalist as an author of a durable, reproducable, disseminable sound-text. But, like the author of a literary text or a score, the vocalist-author has no absolute power over her/his products: the recordings can be interpreted, re-interpreted, re-used and re-worked by others. Because, stereotypically, composers are mostly male and vocalists mostly female, this change of status of the vocalist into an author, producing instead of reproducing, can be considered as affecting musical gender roles. This is not to say, however, that these changes take place automatically as a determinate result of technological changes. Different tendencies can be perceived and theorized. That recording technology is not determining neither the emancipation nor the disappearance of the singer can be seen when comparing the work of singer-composers like Diamanda Galás and Joan La Barbara with Berio's rendering of Thema; or when comparing Maria Callas  with Een Lied van Schijn en Wezen. These are examples of some different positions female vocalists or female voices can have in relation to technology.


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