Smart Bar launched its annual Daphne festival in 2015 to spotlight women and nonbinary electronic musicians in a scene where they’re often marginalized or overlooked. It takes its name from British electronic and musique concrète pioneer, Daphne Oram, who in 1958 composed the first completely synthesized TV score. She later developed an “Oramics” machine that used photosensors to generate complex tones in response to shapes drawn on glass plates and 35-millimeter film.
The fourth Daphne festival includes concerts by women and nonbinary musicians every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday in March (plus a special edition of Queen! on Sunday, March 4). It also features two free panel discussions and three free workshops exploring the history and culture of electronic music and teaching production and listening techniques.
Smart Bar talent buyer Jason Garden has been booking Daphne since 2016, when he took over from Marea Stamper (aka the Black Madonna, who closes this year’s fest with a set on Saturday, March 31). He hesitates to romanticize dance music’s past, but he does think that commercialization damaged the inclusiveness that prevailed in the early house-music scene. He sees Daphne as a step forward.
“We’re trying to be viable in a commercial setting, but also to take into account more points of view and provide more opportunities so that gender disparities and all these other disparities are less of a thing,” he says. To that end, he’s made a point of handing Daphne’s reins to members of the communities that the festival represents. “I tried to do a better job of stepping aside to let the residents—particularly those who operate outside the dominant vector of gender—direct the course of the good ship Daphne,” he explains in the fest’s press materials. “While I can serve as a good switchboard for the conversation, it’s not really my voice that needs to be heard.”
Daphne’s first panel discussion, on Thursday, March 1, address the electronic-music industry. Moderated by DJ and musician Eris Drew, it also includes four panelists: Seattle DJ and organizer CCL, Metro booker and journalist Christen Thomas, Bandcamp editor and activist Jes Skolnik, and Milwaukee DJ and promoter Fortune. The second panel, three weeks later on Thursday, March 22, is moderated by Smart Bar resident Sassmouth (aka Sam Kern) and features four Chicagoans: writer and journalist Britt Julious, DJ Heather, WLUW disc jockey Kat Sutherland, and DJ and promoter Kristen Kaza.
“For women and people of color, queer people, and trans people, sometimes getting into a world that is frankly still cis-male dominated can be a daunting task,” says Garden. “To have a group of people who have done that in some form or fashion can prove that it can be done—it’s not as daunting as it might seem—and shed light on some of the pitfalls you can avoid. Representation is the main goal, as far as we’re concerned.”
Like the panels, the workshops at Daphne offer a more explicit window into the festival’s purpose and mission that its concerts might. On Friday, March 2, Glenna Fitch (aka Sold) and Alex Bond (aka Hi-Vis) present “Women in Experimental Electronic Composition From Past to Present,” a multimedia talk covering the mid-20th century through the 2000s. They plan to highlight the contributions women have made to electronic music and shed light on the importance of accessibility and representation to the future of the genre. “As far as artists today carrying the torch,” Fitch says, “anyone pushing the boundaries of sounds, anyone forging ahead despite obstacles, and anyone making what they do as accessible as possible for others to enjoy is doing what those early women such as Daphne and Delia [Derbyshire] were doing, but even more so. It’s so important to younger generations to give them a chance with their musical passion—not just a chance, but a space to do it.”
Bond says that experiencing music in a group is important, no matter if it’s loud or soft: “We’ve found it’s best received in a safe and welcoming environment, where there’s no presumption of familiarity with the music but just a shared receptiveness to listening and sharing listening experiences.”
On Thursday, March 8, Eris Drew will dig into the esoteric, spiritual, and philosophical with a presentation titled “More Than a Party: Rave Culture, Archaic Shamanism, and States of Ecstasy.” These days electronic music is often perceived as pure entertainment or valued mostly for its ability to generate revenue, but Drew argues that this trivializes raves and similar events.
Drew explains further: “To find echoes of shamanism and ecstatic trance in Western culture, we have to look at the mystery religions of Greece, the festival at Eleusis, and private writings of the alchemists. That is, until rave. None of these sources of personal connection to the Other is as potent, as easily accessed, and as widely available as rave and house culture.”
On Friday, March 30, Daphne’s workshops wrap up with gear lessons rather than philosophical advice: DJ and librarian Elly Schook (aka DJ Kiddo) and Sam Kern (aka Smart Bar resident Sassmouth) cohost the program “Walking and Falling: A DJ Workshop Week and Mentor Program for Women-Identifying and Non-Binary Music Enthusiasts.” It doubles as the conclusion of a weeklong program that isn’t itself an official part of the festival but that offers women, nonbinary, and non-gender-conforming artists the chance to attend electronic-music tutorials, go crate digging at Gramaphone, and visit venues, dance parties, and radio stations. (You don’t need to have attended the longer program to come to the workshop, though.)
In 2013 Kern took young Detroit transplant Jarvi under her wing, and Jarvi enjoyed such a rapid career upswing that Kern and Schook decided to establish a more formal program to provide the same sort of support to other artists. They collaborated with Jarvi and Chicago producer Ariel Zetina to launch “Walking and Falling,” the aforementioned weeklong program, now in its third installment. It welcomes people completely new to electronic music as well as artists looking to network and further develop their skills. “If you can count to four on beat, you can learn to DJ,” Schook says. “If you can tap your foot in time with music, you can beat-match. It’s the desire to learn, and there’s no reason that anyone should have a psychological barrier to this. It should be more equitable and open to others. I think there’s this perceived notion that because it’s technological and involves machines that somehow it’s intimidating, but it’s really not.”