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10 Female Electronic Music Pioneers You Should Know

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Of all the great albums due out this month, we’re perhaps the most excited about the return of Gudrun Gut. Her new record Wildlife is a fantastic piece of work, and the latest installment in a career that’s spanned three decades and a seemingly endless variety of electronic sounds. Electronic music has long been indebted to female pioneers, so to celebrate, we thought we’d highlight the work of some of the other great female innovators of electronic music, women who’ve been at the forefront of pushing the sonic envelope in their respective fields. Let us know if you have any to add!

Gudrun Gut

Even in a city as restlessly creative as Berlin, Gut stands out as a particularly interesting and innovative figure. She was in an early incarnation of Einsturzende Neubaten, and since then she’s released a heap of fascinating music, both with her band Malaria! and solo, as well as founding her own label, Monika Enterprise. Wildlife finds her going back to nature — its organic sounds evoke the atmosphere of the dark German forest, and it also include a great cover of Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best,” which we’ve included above. There’s a great podcast made for The Wire about her career here.

Daphne Oram

The BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop was one of the world’s great centers of electronic innovation throughout the 1950s and 1960s, and its doyenne was Daphne Oram. She was experimenting with electronic music as far back as the 1940s, and by 1959 she had her own purpose-built studio and her own drawn sound system, which she called Oramics — basically, the idea involved using patterns drawn on clear film to modulate sound produced by oscillators, an idea still used today by products like MetaSynth.

Delia Derbyshire

A contemporary of Oram at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and one of the most fascinating figures in 20th-century music, Derbyshire is best known for her astonishingly ahead-of-its-time 1963 arrangement of the theme to Doctor Who — one of the first entirely electronic pieces of music to be used on TV anywhere, and a fascinating story in its own right — but her work extends well beyond that iconic tune. “Blue Veils and Golden Sands” (above), the soundtrack for a 1967 documentary on the Tuareg people of the Moroccan desert, is particularly beautiful — and also, check out the remarkable proto-techno track she apparently developed “for interest only” in the mid-1960s. It’s decades ahead of its time — you can hear it here.

Charlotte “Bebe” Barron

Barron and her husband Louis created the world’s first entirely electronic film score — the 1956 soundtrack to Forbidden Planet, which was created in the duo’s New York studio on home-built equipment. The studio itself may well have been the first electronic studio in the US, and attracted luminaries like John Cage, Tennessee Williams, and Anaïs Nin (who was responsible for giving Barron her nickname). If you’re interested, there’s a great NPR program about the Barrons here.

Wendy Carlos

One of the earliest proponents of the synthesizer, Carlos’s unexpectedly popular 1968 record Switched-On Bach — a suite of Johann Sebastian Bach’s pieces, all recorded on an early Moog synth — was a hugely important step in introducing the whole idea of electronic music to the general public. You may also know her suitably futuristic score for the original Tron, and she was also responsible for various notable non-electronic pieces of soundtrack music (most memorably, the creepy score for The Shining.)

Annette Peacock

Flying Lotus, eat your heart out — Annette Peacock was recording experimental electronic rap as far back as the early 1970s. Her remarkable 1972 album I’m the One was as innovative as it was tripped-out and strange, combining elements of free jazz, free-form poetry and psychedelic rock to create a record that still sounds startlingly contemporary today. She was also one of the first artists to feed her voice into a synth, creating some gloriously wigged-out effects.

Clara Rockmore

There’s an argument to be made that the theremin remains the most gloriously sci-fi musical instrument that anyone’s ever devised, and few people played it better than Clara Rockmore. Rockmore was a violin prodigy in her youth, and discovered Leon Theremin’s remarkable new instrument in the 1920s when he arrived with it from Russia. The timing was perfect — Rockmore had been forced to abandon the violin because of an arthritic condition in her elbow — and she became its foremost exponent, collaborating with Theremin himself to refine the instrument’s design and creating techniques that are still used today.

Laurie Spiegel

After working with synths throughout the 1960s, Spiegel was one of the first musicians to grasp and embrace the possibilities offered by the advent of computers. She experimented with algorithmic composition — ”I automate whatever can be automated to be freer to focus on those aspects of music that can’t be automated… the challenge is to figure out which is which” — and shared what she’d learned in the form of software like Music Mouse, an intelligent synth program for home computers. There was something of a resurgence of interest in Spiegel’s work earlier this year when her track “Sediment” surfaced unexpectedly on the score to The Hunger Games. (Amazingly, she’s also on LinkedIn, where you can read what’s a pretty remarkable CV in full.)

Pauline Oliveros

At about the same time that the Radiophonic Workshop was pushing the creative envelope in England, the San Francisco Tape Music Center was doing the same on the West Coast of America. Pauline Oliveros was one of its first members, and became its director when it moved to Mills College in Oakland. She went on to found the Deep Listening Institute, a body devoted to advancing her philosophy of “distinguish[ing] the difference between the involuntary nature of hearing and the voluntary selective nature of listening.” Recently turned 80, she’s still going strong, as evidenced by this NY Times article from August.

Laurie Anderson

It’s not just “O Superman,” y’know. Anderson’s endlessly innovative approach to music has seen her devise several of her own instruments — most notably the tape-bow violin, which used magnetic tape instead of horsehair and was later refined to include a MIDI sampler. She was featured on seminal 1977 compilation Women in Electronic Music (along with Oliveros and Spiegel) and 35 years later, she’s still as inventive as ever.

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