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Panel Discussion Report: Gender and Computer Music: Tracing Change

The 2005 Feminist Theory and Music Conference (FTM-8) was held in New York City (CUNY) June 23–26. This year’s conference featured several sessions on electroacoustic and avant-garde music including concerts of works by both pioneers and more recent composers in the genre such as Alice Shields, Pauline Oliveros, Daria Semegen, Laurie Spiegel, Mary Simoni, and Margaret Schedel.

Mara Helmuth conducted a panel with a focus on changes (if any) in the status of women composers in the field of computer music. The panel featured both women and men who are very active in the International Computer Music Association: Brad Garton, Columbia University; Elizabeth Hoffman, New York University; Margaret Schedel, University of Cincinnati; and Mary Simoni, University of Michigan. The following paragraphs are a citation from Helmuth’s original panel discussion proposal and outline the impetus for the event and several of the topics discussed:

Women in arts and technology fields have sometimes experienced at least two kinds of discrimination: 1) their capacity to be “great” composers/artists is questioned, and 2) their scientific and technological skills appear to conflict with the traditional women’s role of wife and mother. Changes within the field of computer music, and specifically the International Computer Music Association (ICMA) over the last two and a half decades will be traced by panel consisting of a former President, three Array editors past and present, and an active female member.

The ICMA is a global affiliation of individuals and institutions involved in the technical, creative, and performance aspects of computer music. Array, the Journal of the ICMA, is a reflection of the issues that interest the members of this community. In the past decade and a half there have been dramatic changes in the leadership of the organization. The first woman president, Mary Simoni, was elected in 2000, and the current board of directors has more female representation than any time in the association’s history. The participation of women composers has increased strongly, although in research areas their numbers lag far behind.

The panel will discuss reasons for change, using the Array newsletter exchanges on Gender and Computer Music as referential documents. These exchanges began after a discussion in a General Meeting in 1992 initiated by Mary Simoni. Mara Helmuth then expressed her concern about the lack of participation of women in the organization to Brad Garton, the editor of Array. He asked her to write for Array; she authored a statement, and solicited responses from women in the field. Reactions were received from a variety of ICMA members including Katharine Norman and Frances White. The responses were diverse, but most authors were dissatisfied with the representation of women in the field of music and technology, and some described experiencing bias.

Five years later Mara Helmuth assumed the position of editor. She revisited the topic of gender and computer music with Bonnie Miksch, who was then her student, writing the intial statement. Responses from Pauline Oliveros, Elizabeth Hoffman, and Laurie Spiegel showed that women were gaining ground, but equality was still absent.

Using these reaction statements, the panelists will trace the changes that have occurred in the field of computer music since 1993. Rather than looking at statistical studies, this process is a forum for individuals’ views. Despite advances, women are still underrepresented in the field; the intersection of two male-dominated fields of technology and music results in a subgroup which inherits stereotypes from both parents.
(Helmuth, 2005)

A compilation of several of the participants’ opening statements follows:

Mara Helmuth: “The gist of my opening remarks as moderator were to discuss briefly the situation of the intersection of 2 male-dominated fields, composition and computer science. (“What do you get when you cross geeks with ‘great artists’?”) A little about how things were in ICMA when I first went to an ICMC in 87 – maybe 3–4 women were there. And the vast changes that have taken place with a recent female president and good proportion of women on the board these days. There are many more women programmed on concerts, though the number of women researchers lags behind. Then I introduced our distinguished panel members (noting Brad was my teacher at Columbia, Mary ICMA former prez).”

Elizabeth Hoffman: “Mara Helmuth’s Array discussions of the state of Women in Computer Music continue to be invaluable. I’m very appreciative to have been asked to contribute to two historical assessments (1998 and 2005). While I agree with Greg Taylor’s solicited comments that new cultural practices, in particular practices involving intermedia, are being positively impacted by a young generation with fewer gender assumptions than those of the older generations, I don’t see the change as truly structural. Relatively few women are choosing to apply to academic music composition programs, and few women are focusing on programming of computer music software. Thus women as a group are still using techniques and tools and machines developed overwhelmingly by men. Women are still writing art music in male-controlled environments that continue to marginalize women’s access to funding and presentation opportunities.

The June 2005 FTM-8 panel was in agreement that we all (including men) lose out from such a situation, but the panel didn’t identify exactly how, i.e. in what ways, the field itself suffers from its ongoing male-dominated state of affairs. I will speculate here briefly that women tend to have values and thinking styles that may not be identical with those of men. (I am postulating tendencies here, not individual traits; and I’m making no assumptions about whether these are socio-cultural or partly innate.) Diversity is an inestimable plus, whether in biological species preservation or in richness of creative and logical solutions and viewpoints. Who we are, how we see ourselves, and what we want, aspects all reflected in our art and technology, are not things best represented by a mere segment of the population. While racial diversity, too, is lacking in the Computer Music community, gender – as it cuts across all races and ethnicities and represents a very large segment subject to discrimination – remains a uniquely meaningful category on which to cast a periodic retrospective glance.

The following are particular actions that seem to me important, in 2005, to endorse.

  1. Reflecting back on Mara’s statement in the Gender and Computer Music forum 1993 that resistance to change is natural, my recent reaction is this: Backlash is expected, but it is essential that we not be apologists for it. The dictates of politically correct behavior form our societal superego at the moment and shouldn’t be allowed to slip. I’ve experienced numerous expressions of chafing at political correctness guidelines over the past six years. Such irritation has seemed to me particularly dismaying to observe in academia. Individuals who in 2005 lack the perspicacity to recognize why political correctness is needed, simply affirm how imperative it is that externally imposed guidelines remain in place. Ongoing cultural support for behavior codes may take the form of redressing linguistic biases, or of redressing hiring practices formerly guided by irrelevant visual assessments. Use of screens for orchestral auditions is an example of a remedy for the latter type of occurrence. Politically correct practices may not change the feelings of biased individuals, but they will protect women from numerous forms of oppression, including psychological oppression.
  2. My second set of reflections is prompted by comments in earlier Array forums arguing against the ghettoizing of women’s music, and contending that increased representation (i.e. jobs) is far more important or appropriate than political awareness-raising activity or affirmative action (e.g. women’s concerts), as a means of measuring and/or effecting progress.

    My feeling at present is that all such activities, direct and indirect, are intricately and cumulatively inter-related. Further, I see no real reason why producing a women’s concert should be interpreted as a patronizing (or matronizing) act. High quality women’s concerts will continue to send much needed messages of validation, access, and inspiration for all women. If and when younger generations move beyond a fundamentally Male-Female power-relations-framed binary world, then perhaps the need for specifically women’s concerts will abate; but the need seems to me certainly defensible at the moment. As Brad Garton noted at the FTM-8 panel discussion, we can only hope for a status quo that is eventually gender transcendent. Women’s concerts need not be seen as a strategy toward counter-hegemony, a reversal of the status quo, but rather as a means to an end which is elimination of all gender inequity.
  3. A useful ongoing goal: In addition to more women programmers and applicants to graduate composition programs, it would be beneficial to have a greater number of women Tonmeisters, women technical team supervisors, women console supervisors at concerts, and women researchers/technical paper conference presenters. There isn’t space here to hypothesize about strategies for achieving such goals. Mary Simoni has written and has been involved in much important work on related issues.
  4. My last set of reflections concerns women teaching women. The profound and nuanced importance of women teachers, for women, seems apparent to me in 2005 in a way that it did not in the past. (One could assert that women teachers for men are also important, too, but for different reasons). The issue at stake here is not simply to promote the use of role models per se, which harbors its own debate. My point here is only that women teachers are able to comment from a subject position on a host of women’s issues: political, pragmatic, or gender-related; sociological or artistic; direct or indirect. A subject position simply translates into unique first-hand empirical evidence and experience.

While in 1998 I would have concurred with what seems the prevailing consensus even now, that equally effective role models for women come in any gender, I find myself believing that there are unique forms of support and ways of relating that only women teachers can offer women students. My appreciation for Diane Thome’s artistic, academic and personal guidance for me, as a graduate student in the 1990s at the University of Washington, has only increased over time. Again, if and when younger generations move beyond a fundamentally Male-Female power-relations-framed binary world, then perhaps the potential value of women teachers for women will be less significant. Keep in mind that this has been an issue commented upon in Array only because so few women graduate students in computer music composition have had female teachers in the field.”

Mary Simoni: “I talked about some action I have taken in raising the issue, initially with the ICMA leadership in the late 1980s (letter to the Editor published in Array stating I am not renewing my membership in the ICMA until they can develop strategies to increase female participation). The letter caused a flurry of letters the next Array. I believe this is the first time the issue was raised with the ICMA. I talked about 1995 ICMC paper I gave on gender issues.

My impressions of the panel are that there is a history of this discussion that needs to be documented. A chronology of events would be helpful in determining if progress is being made.”

[Editor’s note: no commentaries were received from Garton and Schedel.]

The panel discussion was followed by a concert of computer music works primarily by women and featuring many of the panel participants. A complete transcript of the program follows.

Tracing Change: an evening of computer music – Program Notes

Three Sonic Spaces: I – Laurie Spiegel
Finding Voice – Laurie Spiegel

Laurie Spiegel was one of the earliest composers to work with realtime interactive computer controlled audio, having worked with analog synthesis for years prior starting with digital systems in the early 1970s at Bell Labs. This early interactive work with computer controlled analogue systems, before realtime digital synthesis became possible, followed by her work on the computer-controlled analog McLeyvier, fasciliatated her development of a uniquely personal approach to realtime compositional control. This concert’s small piece will hopefully beckon you to listen to more of her work, many of her pieces being available for streaming from her website (then click on “Recordings” for a page with audio to hear).

Allamuchy (2002) – Elizabeth Hoffman

Using a few natural sounds, comb filters, and other techniques, Allamuchy explores moving through, and being surrounded by, various densities of substance. Broad motions and energies coexist with a counterpoint of purely musical elements. The latter suggests internal perspectives which are part of a non-temporal but narrative-like set of impressions. These ultimately dissipate, allowing a return to ordinary time.

Elizabeth Hoffman has received recognition for her electroacoustic works from the Bourges (Residence Prize), Prix Ars Electronica (Mention), Pierre Schaeffer (Selection) international competitions, and has been commissioned by the International Computer Music Association (ICMC 2000), DIFFUSION i MéDIA, and American Composers Forum (Sonic Circuits Festival 2002). She holds graduate degrees from SUNY Stony Brook and University of Washington. Recent interests include microtonal tuning issues, timbral and textural paradigms, and rhythm in electroacoustic music. She composes acoustic music as well. Recordings are available on the Albany, Centaur, Neuma, and empreintes DIGITALes labels. Hoffman currently teaches at New York University, Faculty of Arts and Science.

Fly Far – Mary Simoni

Fly Far is based on a poem written by my daughter, Sarah Dowd.

While Sarah was working on a group class project at a friend’s house, she witnessed the father of her friend striking his daughter across the face with such force that she collapsed on the ground. The daughter did not cry but instead pathetically begged for her father’s forgiveness. Sarah was confused and distressed by such an abusive and culpable act and wrote the poem Fly Far. This piece is the hopeful voice of the millions of abused children who suffer in silent submission.

She shed no tear.
She had no fear.
Is she strong?
stronger than the hand that hit her?

And when I could no longer stay
I went home to pray
that she would be strong,
stronger than the hand that hit her.

There’s no need to cry.
That girl’s gonna fly.
Fly far
far from the hand that hit her.

Miranda Hill is currently completing her Master of Music at the University of Michigan with Diana Gannett; and graduated from the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne, Australia. Since studying in Michigan, Miranda has honed her interest in electro-acoustic music and has premiered multiple composistions for Bass and Electronics. Fly Far was most recently performed at the SEAMUS national convention in Muncie IN.

Mary Simoni holds a master’s degree in music composition and a Ph.D. in music theory from Michigan State University. She completed post-doctoral studies at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, Stanford University; the Center for Computer Music, City University of New York; and the Electronic Music Studios of Mills College. Dr. Simoni serves as an Associate Professor of Music Technology, Associate Dean for Technology Initiatives, Director of the Center for Performing Arts & Technology, and as a Department Chair at the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor. Her music and multimedia works have been performed in Asia, Europe, and widely throughout the United States and have been recorded by Centaur Records, the Leonardo Music Journal published by the MIT Press, and the International Computer Music Association. The Kellogg Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs have funded her work. Dr. Simoni has appeared as a pianist that uses live electronics in the United States, Europe, and Asia. She currently serves as Associate Editor of the journal Organised Sound published by the Cambridge University Press. Her service to the International Computer Music Association includes at-large Director and board member (1994–2004), Publications Coordinator (1996–2000) and President (2000–2004). She has authored an e-Book A Gentle Introduction to Algorithmic Composition, published by the University of Michigan Office of Scholarly Publishing and is in the final stages of preparing an edited volume Analytical Methods of Electroacoustic Music, to be published by Routledge in 2005.

Improvisation with Qin, No. 1 – Mara Helmuth

This series of improvisations for qin, the ancient 7-stringed Chinese zither, includes recorded sounds of qin player Huang Mei, altered by my StochGran application and other software, qin performance with real-time processing in Max/MSP, and the traditional qin pieces, Song of Qin and Flowing Water. No. 1 was first performed in Feb., 2005 in New Orleans, and No. 2 includes video of photographs taken hiking in mountain parks of China in 2003. I find the range of timbres, poetic aspects and subtle expressiveness of qin techniques inspiring for composition.

The qin (pronounced “chin”) or guqin (old qin), is of ancient origins, with possibly the world’s oldest written solo music tradition. It probably took a form close to the current form in the Han dynasty. Since the Tang dynasty it was associated with the Chinese literati, and played for enjoyment and self-cultivation. Classical Chinese painting and poetry contain many references to the qin, and lyrics were often sung with qin melodies. After 1949 the number of qin performers decreased, but interest has resurfaced since then. Research into the folk origins of the instrument in the 50s and 60s led to collections of works in tablature being published, and qin handbooks have been reprinted. Silk strings were used and are still, rarely, generally outside of China. Most performers now use metal strings.

References: John Thompson’s webpage at <>, Van Gulik’s Lore of the Chinese Lute, and Bell Yung’s Celestial Airs of Antiquity.

Mara Helmuth composes for computer and acoustic instruments, often using her own software. She is Associate Professor in Composition and the director of (ccm)2, the College-Conservatory of Music Center for Computer Music at the University of Cincinnati. She holds a D.M.A. in music composition from Columbia University, a B.A. and M.M. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and taught at Texas A&M University and New York University. She has had numerous performances in the United States and internationally. She has served as International Computer Music Association member of the board of directors (1998–2001), Array newsletter editor or co-editor (1998–2003), and Vice President for Conferences (2004–2005). Her tape music includes Abandoned Lake in Maine (1997), based on loon sounds and Mellipse (1989,1995). Collaborations for percussion and computer with Allen Otte are heard on the Electronic Music Foundation compact disk Implements of Actuation (EMF 023) and in the first Internet2-streamed opera, Clotho: the Life of Camille Claudel. Recent work includes the interactive Staircase of Light installation for the Sino-Nordic Arts Space in Beijing. Her software includes StochGran, a granular synthesis composition application, and Soundmesh, for Internet 2 network improvisation. Her writings have appeared in the monographs Analytical Methods of Electroacoustic Music and Audible Traces, and in the Journal of New Music Research. She also plays the qin, a Chinese zither.

The Eye of the Sibyl – Margaret Schedel

Sibyl is a multi-media work based on the visions of Hildegard von Bingen.

Margaret Anne Schedel is a composer and cellist specializing in the creation and performance of ferociously interactive media. She is a founding member of the NeXT Ens, an ensemble with the unique mission to perform and support the creation of interactive electroacoustic works. Currently she is serving the International Computer Music Association as a Director-At-Large and Array Editor, as well as co-editing an issue of Organised Sound with the theme "Collaboration and Intermedia." A DMA in composition at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music is almost within her grasp. Her thesis, A King Listens, an interactive, multi-media opera premiered at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center in June 2004 and was profiled by Her recent residency at Beijing’s Sinordic Arts Space was supported by the Presser Foundation.

The Wolves of Bays Mountain – Judy Klein

Bays Mountain Park is a nature preserve in the mountains of Eastern Tennessee. During the 1990s, I made several trips to the park to record the wolves who were living there. In the piece, the wolves are heard much as I heard them myself, sometimes only footsteps away, and also transformed, such as occurs in the realm of imagination, memory and dream.

For the composition I used the Csound computer music language. All of the sounds come from the recordings, in unaltered or slightly modified form and as source material in settings and transitions. The piece opens with sounds derived from the recording of a winter chorus howl. Over time, the voices of the wolves become distinct. Two wolves bring the howling to an end with a sequence of short, antiphonal calls. In the middle sections, the recordings are virtually unedited. It’s nearly spring. The wolves are heard in their environment, first in the early morning and then in the still of the late night. The howling in the final section is again from winter, the mating season. It ends with the love song of Kashtin, the alpha female of the pack, and her majestic mate, Navarro, who died the following year and in whose memory the piece was written.

Judy Klein has been composing with computers since the early 1980s. Her music has received honors and performances worldwide and is recorded on ICMA, SEAMUS, Cuneiform and Open Space compact discs. She was an affiliate of the Brooklyn College Center for Computer Music (BC–CCM) for many years. She taught computer music composition at New York University and has lectured at colleges and conservatories throughout the United States. She currently resides in New York City and is a guest composer at the Columbia University Computer Music Center and consultant for electro-acoustic music at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

Connemara for piano and electronics (2005) – Mary Simoni

Connemara is an exploration of shifting temporal sonic structures that emulate the rugged western coast of Ireland. The region known as Connemara is known for its rocky coast pounded by the relentless tides of the Atlantic, acres of barren desolate moor, and thickets of bog. This region, virtually uninhabitable by humans, is home to the legendary Connemara ponies. Vistas of pristine natural beauty dotted by wild ponies evoke intense reverence for the grandeur of nature.

The Feminist Theory and Music 9 Conference has not yet been scheduled. A related panel discussion was held at the 2005 International Computer Music Conference in Barcelona, Spain on September 7. The panel members for that discussion were Schedel, Simoni, Garton, Helmuth, and Michael Ferriell Zbyszynski, University of California, Berkeley.

Sources for Further Study

Program for Feminist Theory and Music 8, June 23–26, 2005, City University of New York.

Helmuth, Mara, ed. “Gender and Computer Music,” Array: Newsletter of the International Computer Music Association, 13.2 Spring 1993.

Helmuth, Mara, ed. “Gender and Computer Music,” Array: Newsletter of the International Computer Music Association, 18.1, Spring 1998. Also available online.

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