Celebrating the Heroines of Sound: An Interview with Bettina Wackernagel
Who were the female pioneers of electronic music? Bettina Wackernagel, curator of the sold-out Heroines of Sound Festival in Berlin, explains all to Culture.pl’s Filip Lech.
Since 2014, the festival Heroines of Sound has set itself the task of (re)discovering female protagonists in music and raising the profile of their work. With the long-term goal of strengthening the proportion of female artists in music, both nationally and internationally, the eclectic festival has so far presented over 80 woman artists from 20 different countries, with events in Aarhus, Den Haag, Wrocław and Istanbul in co-operation with Heroines Editions.
Filip Lech: Who was the first heroine of sound for you?
Bettina Wackernagel: That's difficult to answer. Maybe Bebe Barron? Bebe Barron worked with her husband Louis Barron, and they got a tape recorder as a wedding gift. They opened a recording studio in New York – John Cage and a lot of other people worked there. Her husband was more of an engineer, she was the one who composed the sounds. They did the first purely electronic film music, for Forbidden Planet in 1956. It's funny, from our point of view today, they were nominated for the Oscars, but the guild of composers said: ‘No, this is not music, it's purely electronic, we can't let this nomination pass.’
Another, very dear hero for me is Else Marie Pade, she was a Danish pioneer of electronic music. In fact in 1954 she was the first Danish electronic composer, and she established the first Danish electronic music studio. She was aware of the work of Pierre Schaeffer, indeed she visited him in 1952, but she did not do only musique concrète, she also used synthesizers. She was pretty well known in the beginning of electronic music, she worked with Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez. But I think for her in a long way it was difficult because she did not belong to any school. She died recently, in 2016, but in her 90s she was still collaborating with Jacob Kirkegaard, a young Danish composer. When she was 18, she joined the resistance movement against the Nazi regime and was interned at the Frøslev prison camp from 1944 until the end of the war. For one lifetime, that makes for a lot of achievements.
In fact there were so many very successful women composers: Pauline Oliveros, Laurie Spiegel, Daphne Oram, who invented a visual synthesizer (Oramics) and co-founded the Radiophonic workshop – an electronic music studio at BBC Radio. Or Suzanne Ciani, she created the sound design for the ‘plop’ of the Coca-Cola bottle. But still, we know very little.
Is it possible to write a new history of music? A ‘herstory’ of music?
I hope so. Our festival presents contemporary electronic music, not only pure electronic music, but also for ensembles with electronic instruments. We introduce an historic perspective because we think that's important and vital to see the boundaries of early electronic music. In fact, when I started music at the music school I really had great teachers, Ligeti was one of them. But I only heard about Nadia Boulanger and maybe Clara Schuman...
We need new textbooks…
Yes, we definitely need to enlarge a new perspective.
Some people might say that programming a festival with a purely female line-up can lead to the ghettoization of music…
There are many festivals which only have male artists and this doesn‘t bother anyone. Our mission is to present early electronic music made by female composers and current electronic music because we think audiences know very little about it.
During the festival Musica Electronica Nova in Wrocław I presented two pieces by Teressa Rampazzi, a composer and musicologist. Due to the wonderful work of the brilliant musicologist Laura Zattra, we know at least a little of her music, but basically there's very little documentation. For example, we have almost no photos of her. When a composer dies, it depends on who takes care of their heritage. If you’re lucky, you work with the Paul Sacher Foundation – that‘s great! But if you’re not, it's not so easy. Take Maryanne Amacher or Pauline Oliveros – they could be very great and prominent, they were very successful composers, but still so little of it has filtered through to the wider public.
I think that the gender question is now debated a little bit more often and the discussion about is not as dogmatic as it used to be. Society used to be a little prejudiced about the politics. Twenty years ago, some people would say that a feminist is a ‘crazy lesbian’. Feminism today is definitely out of the ‘dusty corner’ that denied equal rights. It has become mainstream or even a pop phenomenon. You can see Rihanna wearing a t-shirt with ‘I'm a feminist’, or Ivanka Trump saying she's a feminist.
The programme for this year's festival puts a focus on Elżbieta Sikora, who studied electroacoustic music in Paris at Groupe de Recherches Musicales with François Bayle and Pierre Schaeffer. In fact, until now her work is hardly known in Germany. In previous years, we‘ve presented works by other composers connected with the French studio: Beatriz Ferreyra, Catherine Groult, Clara Maïda. We also invited Jagoda Szmytka (she lives in Germany), Joanna Woźny (she’s also perceived as an Austrian composer), and Katarina Głowicka (she lives in the Netherlands). Elżbieta Sikora herself lives in France, so the ‘Polish section’ of our festival is very international.
In the end, I'm just pretty overwhelmed that we succeeded in such a short time to establish this festival. It’s sold out!
Interview conducted by Filip Lech in Wrocław on 27th May 2017. The Heroines of Sound festival is organised with support from Polska Music, an Adam Mickiewicz Institute programme dedicated to the promotion of contemporary Polish music.