Updated: Apr 20, 2021
Throughout the month of August, music is her passion will shine a light on the electrifying genre of electronic music in all its eclectic facets - and its fines female figureheads. However, before we introduce you to our record-spinning artists of the week, let's take a look at the history of electronic music from a female point of view.
Composing with electronic instruments
The invention that paved the way for electronic music as we know it today - ranging from EDM, dubstep, and techno, to deep house, trance, and electro-pop - was brought into the world through the 1913 conceptualization of the synthesizer by Italian artist Luigi Russolo. In the following two decades, more and more electronic instruments saw the light of day, but they were not used to create any sort of pop music, but rather an elevated form of classical compositions. Electronic music was used to create soundscapes, scores, and spheres alongside classical instruments. One of the most influential women of this period was German-American pianist, Johanna M. Beyer (1888 – 1944). She is known to be the brains behind Music of the Spheres, the first known score written by a female composer entirely for electronic instruments. Her oeuvre comprises an impressive collection of solo works for classical instruments, chamber music, and orchestral pieces, the music of the spheres being the best-known among them.
Daphne Oram, Wendy Carlos; and Delia Derbyshire followed in her footsteps: Daphne Oram was the first woman to direct an electronic music studio. Wendy Carlos' synthesizer compositions made it onto the film scores of groundbreaking classics like Tron, The Shining, and A Clockwork Orange. In 1963, Delia Derbyshire composed one of the first tracks to only include electronic elements: the theme to American Sci-Fi series Dr. Who.
In the 1970s, trailblazing American composer and producer Suzanne Ciani was one of the first female-presenting artists to take electronic music to the stage. With her extensive synthesizer set-up, she struggled to set foot in the competitive art scene of New York City. After receiving a grant to pursue her musical goals through the help of renowned American composer Vladimir Ussachevsky, Ciani took on a diverse and labor-intensive path of music production. From creating original film scores, being hired by A-list brands to create sonic logos; and receiving recognition for her phenomenal recording of a Coca-Cola bottle being opened and poured, Ciani explored a great variety of sound and electronic music production.
Electronic music on stage
After a 15-year hiatus of performing, she returned to the stage in the 1980s with her own creation: the Buchla synthesizer, an electronic instrument that lacked a keyboard providing her more creative freedom than commercial set-ups. Moving and fascinating the masses since she was a teenager, now 74-year-old Suzanne Ciani received numerous GRAMMY nominations and continues to release new electronic masterpieces to this day. Artistically, she set herself apart from the machismo of the electronic industry by exploring femininity and fragility with her music.
Throughout Ciani's long career, countless male-presenting producers, artists, and DJs set foot on the electronic music scene, as club-based dance music and turntables began to emerge from the tradition of Jamaican sound set-ups for dancing in the 1970s. From the get-go, turntablism and DJ-ing were widely associated with masculine stereotypes. The immense stage presence and ability to control a wild crowd were mainly expected to be found in male artists. On top of that, electronic musicians and DJs were expected to attract female audiences and evoke fangirling groupies, and sexy dancing go-go girls to elevate a nightclub's audience.
Female trailblazers of the past 30 years
From the 1980s on, electronic music diverged into a rich variety of sub-genres, each attracting a different crowd, setting, and mindset. Despite the electronic scene being largely male-dominated for three decades, there are several noteworthy female trailblazers within the electronic scene. In the 70s, New Order's keyboardist and guitarist Gillian Gilbert was one of the most prolific women playing electronic music on stage with a band. The following decade saw the conception of a never-before-seen dynamic DJ duo: Psycho-Bitch and Teri Bristol from Chicago, Illinois. The two met at a gay bar in the mid-80s, where waitress Teri was recorded to replace the recently fired DJ. It was a pure chance they crossed paths - but together, they ended up setting the tone for an entire generation of dance club DJs. When seeing their record-spinning friend Frankie Knuckles working his musical magic, a spark was ignited.
"I stood in the booth watching that man get pure pleasure from his heart and soul as the dancefloor had the exact same reaction. This was my AHA moment! That was the moment I realized what I wanted to do with all my records and the passion I had for music." -
Back when Psycho Bitch and Teri Bristol used to hit the Chicago DJ booths together, they were very much do-it-yourself women. They spent weeks planning their own events, and then entire nights playing music, leaving no room to think about producing original music. It seems as though women in electronic music were largely left to their own devices, often denied entry to the "boys club" of electronic music production.
Although this sense of female exclusion when it comes to sharing experiences in the industry seems to prevail today, as electronic music producer Jessiquoi told us in an interview, the 80s and 90s also saw the emergence of more and more female producers. There was Heather Heart, a New Yorker DJ and producer of techno music, who co-founded the first all-techno record store, Groove Records in 1990. Dutch-born DJ Saskia Slegers, better known as the legendary Miss Djax paved the way for the tradition of successful EDM from the Netherlands as we know it today, long before Armin van Buuren, Tiësto, and Martin Garrix ever arrived on the scene. In 1994, DJs Kemistry and Storm received critical acclaim for their contribution to the genre of Drum'n'Base, and they were two of the first female label bosses to release a dance album with international distribution.
In the 1990s, electronic music also began to re-shape pop and other genres beyond clubs and dancefloors, as Icelandic music and fashion icon Björk proved. In 1997, Jordana Lesesne was one of the first transgender DJs to make waves in the Drum'n'Base scene, and Superjane was one of the first all-women DJ collectives raising visibility for women in electronic music.
The new millennium
Thanks to countless incredible women of former times, the 2000s continue to look a lot brighter in regard to gender equality in electronic music. Peaches, Missy Elliott, M.I.A, Grimes, Peggy Gou, Nina Kraviz, and Annie Mac have left their mark on the genre today. Each of them remarkable for their own standard-setting achievements in their respective sub-genres, they represent a new generation of artists that has the nerve, talent, tools, and ambition to question the norms of the electronic scene in particular and the music industry in general. They refuse to be limited by gender stereotypes, genre boundaries, and antiquated expectations.
As our article shows, women in electronic music today walk in the shoes and on the paths of their legendary predecessors. They have come a long way since Suzanne Ciani first appeared on the scene in the 1970s. Yet, they are met with different (and perhaps increased) challenges and hurdles to overcome throughout their career than most male-presenting colleagues. Inequalities are most noticeable when it comes to bookings, payment, public recognition, and airtime on radio shows. A 2017 study of the web-based database Female: Pressure, an initiative founded by Austrian DJ and producer Susanne Kirchmayr, shows that only roughly 18% of booked festival acts in electronic are female. As a summer of online raves and Zoom turntablism comes to an end, music is her passion wants to dedicate its platform to women of electronic music.
In August, we will present to you a series of articles and interviews, introducing some of the hottest record-spinning women on the scene. It's a party!