Electronic Ladyland: why it’s vital we celebrate the female pioneers of synth

A new exhibition sheds light on the overlooked history behind electronic music. El Hunt speaks to pioneer Suzanne Ciani and scene newcomers such as Ela Minus. (Picture credit: Getty)

Within electronic music, a quiet but important revolution is taking hold. Decades on from the birth of the synthesiser and dance music, a whole movement of forgotten artists – all of them women, many of them working in research, advertising and commercial sound design – are finally being given the recognition they deserve.

In the late 1950s, electronic sound was an entirely new concept – and many people even feared it. Employees at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (the broadcaster’s experimental sound effects unit) were initially only allowed to work there for a maximum of three months in case they became unwell. Composer Delia Derbyshire, who arrived after Decca Records informed her they didn’t employ women in their studios, was the first to break this rule.

It wasn’t until years after Derbyshire’s death, in 2001, that her contemporaries began to discover her. Suzanne Ciani, a forerunner in electronic music, tells NME: “I’ve been in electronic music since the ‘60s and yet I didn’t know about Delia Derbyshire until [much later].” When Ciani’s 1975 concerts were released on record in 2016, record label Finders Keepers dubbed her the “‘Delia Derbyshire of the Atari generation’”, which led to the discovery.

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Now 74 and speaking from her coastal home in Bolinas, California, Ciani came under the early influence of the synthesiser inventor Don Buchla while studying traditional composition at Berkeley, University of California. Her love affair with the Buchla 200 modular synth – a hefty silver dashboard strewn with voltage dials and multicoloured wires – was immediate and all-consuming.

“There’s this viral Netflix film now called My Octopus Teacher,” Ciani laughs, referencing the strangely touching 2020 documentary about a man who develops an intense friendship with a wild common octopus. “I understand it. He’s in love with the octopus! It captured him. Yes, I was in love with this machine.”

Later, Ciani introduced a perplexed David Letterman to the cutting edge synth live on television, devised Coca-Cola’s effervescent pop and pour sound effect, scored intergalactic jingles for games console Atari and released a series of stunningly sensual electronic records, including her ethereal 1982 debut ‘Seven Waves’. Upon learning about Delia Derbyshire – who produced Doctor Who’s whooshing theme tune, among many other achievements – Ciani was intrigued to find out more.

In addition to this, Ciani performed her piece Improvisation on Four Sequences at BBC Proms two years ago, sharing a bill with the first ever airing of previously-lost work by the late composer and musician Daphne Oram, who co-founded the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. “I was interviewed before the concert, and they asked me: ‘Tell us: what do you think of Daphne Oram? I had nothing to say! I didn’t know anything about her! When they performed her piece ‘Still Points’. It was a premiere of a piece she had written in [1949]. I cried.”

She adds, poignantly: “I felt so cheated that I didn’t have these women in my personal history.”

Ciani says that when she was first working with synthesisers, her pursuit of sonic innovation felt like “a hopeless, lonely thing” and an endeavour that few understood. The producer adds “until now,” referencing the more recent celebration of women working in the field of electronic music. “Now, it’s really wonderful”.

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It is only in the past few years that the history of electronic music has begun to be revised, unearthing the previously overlooked contributions of countless women who were working with few resources and in relative isolation.

This autumn Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and Legendary Tapes aired at London Film Festival. The part-dramatisation, part-documentary about the eccentric artist’s life and undersung innovations was soundtracked by British performance artist and musician Cosey Fanni Tutti. The film delves beyond Derbyshire’s best known achievements and also examines her psychedelic sound-art. An increasing number of festivals and events – such as the Pioneers of Sound Prom event Ciani played in 2018 – have also appeared, honouring these early pioneers’ experimentation.

The Design Museum’s current exhibition Electronic is also endeavouring to change the narrative, shining a spotlight on Clara Rockmore, who played and helped to refine the Theremin – one of the earliest electronic instruments – in the 1920s. Marie Antoinette Aussenac de Broglie – who made a very early form of electronic music in 1934 on a slightly terrifying-looking device called the Croix Sonore – also gets a look-in, and there’s an entire segment on Daphne Oram.

Credit: University of New Hampshire/Gado/Getty Images

Maria McLintock is a curator at the Design Museum. From the start, she and her team knew that they wanted to present a diverse history of dance music with the show: “There have been brilliant discussions in electronic music about diversification, not just with regard to gender, but also about decolonising the music scene.”

She explains that “the scene’s genesis is very much in cities like Detroit and Chicago” and was led by black, Latinx and queer communities. “For a long time that narrative was concealed, but different groups and individuals have worked hard to expose a lack of diversity in the mainstream of electronic music, and [to highlight] an underground scene – and very pioneering element of the industry – that does involve more diverse individuals.”

McLintock adds: “People are tired of white male master narratives that are often so inherent. I think a lot of work has been happening over the past few years to revise those canons [of electronic music] – and to completely break down what a canon even is. Pioneers like Daphne Oram and Suzanne Ciani really did break through and access the industry for the first time as a woman. It really paves the way for future generations.”

In tracking down archive material for the exhibition, McLintock worked closely with Goldsmiths, University of London – who now look after all the important recordings, collected letters and other items from the Daphne Oram collection. Thanks to their preserving of the material, McLintock’s job was relatively easy – but she feels sure that there are countless other unacknowledged figures out there whose work isn’t so well-documented.

“There’s a lot more to be done, but that change is happening, and we’re here for it.” The current renaissance around overlooked women in electronic music is heavily Euro-centric as things stand, and primarily dominated by white women: South American innovators like Hilda Dianda, Nelly Moretto, and black women – such as Sharon White, who helped to shape the disco scene in ‘70s New York – are not mentioned nearly as frequently.

Speaking from the Colombian capital of Bogotá, the new gen electronic musician Ela Minus admits that she felt bittersweet when she first discovered the work of artists such as Suzanne Ciani and Wendy Carlos – an American musician and composer who helped to develop the Moog synthesiser, and popularised the instrument with her album ‘Switched-On Bach’ in 1962.

“I felt cheated from every point of view,” Ela Minus says. “If I had been exposed to these female musicians and their early synth work… there’s so much beauty, and they approach electronic music in such a different way. I felt like if I had been exposed to it earlier, I could have done more – but I’m very happy they’re getting the spotlight they deserve.”

Similarly, contemporary techno-pop hero (and recent NME cover star) Kelly Lee Owens celebrates another “synth queen”, as she puts it: New Order‘s synth player Gillian Gilbert. “Women are often underrated, or their part is dismissed,” Owens told us. You can’t be what you can’t see, so to have a woman be a part of something like this and own her part was really inspiring.”

Ela Minus – who released her debut album ‘Acts of Rebellion’ in October – makes music exclusively using hardware: in other words, every sound is created on a physical, analogue synth rather than computer software. “I want to use my laptop for checking emails,” she laughs. The musician previously worked as a synthesiser assembler for synth brand Critter & Guitari, and helped to design one of their machines, the Organelle, and so knows many of her instruments inside out.

Perhaps as a result, her music is often described as an electronic form of DIY punk, and looking back at the work of earlier pioneers who made sonic magic in cramped and badly underfunded studios, Ela Minus sees a similar spirit. Starting out, she says, her set-up was “very dirty, using old, cheap machines off eBay that were non-functional. I would buy them, tear them apart, fix them, and make them work – I would have to tape them together. My room as a student was tiny, and full of wires and old broken parts.”

Ela Minus
Credit: Teddy Fitzhugh

Similarly, Suzanne Ciani recounts a DIY experience back when she began exploring electronic music. In order to raise enough money to buy her own Buchla, she worked at the synthesiser company soldering and assembling them. In the meantime, she would hole up at the San Francisco Tape Music Center, which had been co-founded by another early experimenter Pauline Oliveros in 1960. The centre housed a Buchla that Ciani could rent by the hour.

“Oh my God,” she recounts, “I lived there! Technically you were supposed to pay $5 an hour but there was nobody there. I could stay all night. We were not allowed to do commercial work. But, you know,” she adds. “I was in the process of trying to earn the money to buy my first Buchla, and I did my very first commercials there. I kept the script hidden in the drawer.”

In order to release music, Ciani set up her own label, and financed ‘Seven Waves’ herself. “My first album I spent a fortune on,” she says. “I found receipts for $50,000 in my storage space the other day. I also found a letter from a radio station that said: ‘People didn’t have an ear for this; there were no receptors… There was always the feeling of not being understood, not being heard. Maybe that’s changing today.”

“There was always the feeling of not being understood, not being heard” – Suzanna Ciani

Her Buchla 200, meanwhile, would frequently break: “I remember one concert from the Buchla concerts in 1975 – at the [weekly public concert] Free Music Store in New York. The power supply melted! So I called up Buchla in California. I say: ‘Don, what can I do?’, He told me there was one other person in New York with a Buchla – ‘Call him.’ He was an odd guy, very religious, and he brought the power supply over. I had so many disasters that I developed an outlook that said: the bigger the disaster, the better the outcome.”

Across the Atlantic, it was a similarly chaotic picture at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, where composers Daphne Oram, Delia Derbyshire, Maddalena Fagandini, Glynis Jones and Elizabeth Parker all worked at some point in their careers. Their equipment consisted of old tape recorders, home-made instruments and various test oscillators nabbed from other departments – and that was more or less it. Delia Derbyshire produced the Doctor Who theme tune by splicing and cutting up analogue tape.

The likes of Kraftwerk and producers such as Giorgio Moroder frequently get credit for yanking disco into a brutal and industrial new era, utilising synths – then, a relatively new innovation – for mechanical thrust. But when Suzanne Ciani first moved to New York, several years before Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’ or Kraftwerk’s ‘Trans-Europe Express’ album existed, few people understood what she was trying to do.

“When I got to New York, there were no guys [doing what I did],” she says. “When I started making my early recordings, I was working in New York City with all the studios and top people: this was a new language and a new way of hearing, [and so] the successful male engineers were interested.”

“People say: ‘how did you get ahead in a male-dominated world?” she adds. “I always say to women, if you want to be successful, find a place where there isn’t anybody else. I think for women, [electronic music] gave us independence. I studied classical composition, conducting, the whole thing, and it was a man’s world – and still is today, really, annoying as it is. But in electronic music, you could do the whole thing yourself. That’s what attracted women. This is a story of intimacy, in a way, with these machines.”

 “Synthesisers are so powerful, and the frequency range is infinite” – Ela Minus

Ciani explains: “I think of electronic music in very feminine terms. A lot of my inspiration is the sea, and the rhythm of the ocean. That’s a rhythm that is slow and [with synths] those long, sustained sounds are possible… I see electronic music as flowing… Sexually speaking, if you look at dynamics, men have this pounding rhythm and then – boom. Women have this very slow build and release. The wave to me symbolises that form, emotion and energy system.”

Ela Minus agrees: “I think it’s beautiful that Suzanne Ciani says that. Synthesisers are so powerful, and the frequency range is infinite – so if you want to be seen as strong and powerful, you’ll use the spectrum of lower frequencies. It’s so shallow compared to the interesting and beautiful layers you can accomplish if you’re not only drawn to power and bass”.

Relatively speaking, electronic music is still in its infancy. There are still, Ciani says, many misconceptions around the full potential of the genre: “People think it’s about making crazy sounds, weird sounds, new sounds – whatever. I always say it’s not about the sound; it’s about the way that the sound moves. I’m a little annoyed when people talk about the strange sounds it can make. Who cares?”

Pondering new developments on the horizon and previously undiscovered voices still to be unearthed, Ciani concludes: “I hope I’m alive to see some of it. I’ve been through so many interactions in this world, and I’m so grateful to be able to witness this renaissance of interest in the field I care so much about.”

Electronic runs at the Design Museum, London, until February 14 2021

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