In 1957 the BBC commissioned its employee Daphne Oram to create a score for a television version of the French play Amphitryon 38. Hired in 1943 as a 17-year-old junior program engineer, Oram had become a music-studio manager in the early 50s—she was a talented and adventurous composer, as well as one of the network’s biggest advocates for the futuristic sounds it called “radiophonics.” For Amphitryon 38 she used electronic and music-concrète techniques, and when the program aired in March 1958 her work became the first completely synthetic score to appear on television.
Oram pulled this off with few tools, most of which would seem primitive to modern practitioners: according to a 2011 Wire magazine feature, she usually had only one tape recorder at her disposal, so she worked in the evenings in order to use the machines of employees who’d gone home. In April 1958 she and fellow studio manager Desmond Briscoe helped found the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, but Oram left the network before the end of the year. (Workshop staffer Delia Derbyshire, probably most famous for creating the original Doctor Who theme in 1963, didn’t come aboard till April ’62.)
Oram continued to explore electronic music on her own, refining a practice she called Oramics—the machine she built allowed her to control pitch, echo, timbre, and more by drawing shapes and lines on ten synchronized strips of 35-millimeter film, so that the ink acted as a mask to vary the amount of light that reached the device’s photocells. When the London Science Museum began displaying the original Oramics machine in 2011, museum historian Tim Boon told BBC technology program Click that “it is as important for electronic music as the models of the Great Eastern ship are to the history of maritime engineering.”
Oram is one of many women who’ve made historically important contributions to electronic music, though her accomplishments haven’t earned her the posthumous fame you might expect. Today electronic music is a lopsidedly male domain—if you were to judge by scanning the names of headliners at contemporary EDM megafestivals, you might think that all DJs and producers are white men. But while it’s true that in the early days of electronic music—when hardly anyone knew what it was and there wasn’t any money to be made—the genre was more democratic than it is now, it still can’t be summed up by the image of, say, a guy in an oversize mouse-head helmet.
To push back against the patriarchal notion that only men have the aptitude to excel at electronic music, last year Chicago institution Smart Bar launched the series Daphne: A Women’s Movement in Dance Music. Named after Oram, it celebrates female, female-identifying, and nonbinary electronic musicians with workshops and concerts. After its monthlong debut in 2015, Daphne returns to Smart Bar as a four-day affair that begins Thursday, July 7.
Daphne grew out of a conversation between Smart Bar staffer Marea Stamper, aka DJ and producer the Black Madonna, and Tara Shanahan, daughter of Smart Bar owner Joe Shanahan. According to Stamper, they discussed “the idea that women are often misperceived as not being technical and not being producers.” The inaugural Daphne ran throughout March 2015. “The main thing was just to put women in leadership positions and show that women could lead—not just when it was all women. Men were also on the bill.”
Daphne: A Women’s Movement
in Dance Music
Cherushii, Nathan Drew Larsen (aka Eris Drew)
Workshop and discussion. Thu 7/7, 8:30 PM, Smart Bar, 3730 N. Clark, free, 21+
Cherushii (live), T. Mixwell, Ariel Zetina
Thu 7/7, 10 PM, Smart Bar, 3730 N. Clark, $15, $10 in advance, 21+
Aurora Halal (live/DJ hybrid), Dahlia
Fri 7/8, 10 PM, Smart Bar, 3730 N. Clark, $17, $15 before midnight, $12 in advance, 21+
The Black Madonna, Chrissy & Hawley (live), Sold
Sat 7/9, 10 PM, Smart Bar, 3730 N. Clark, $17, $15 before midnight, $13 in advance, 21+
Michael Serafini, Garrett David, Eris Drew
Sun 7/10, 10 PM, Smart Bar, 3730 N. Clark, $10, 21+
This year Daphne is shorter in part because Stamper became Smart Bar’s creative director last July—her replacement as talent buyer, Jason Garden (aka DJ and producer Olin), was still finding his footing in the job when he needed to start planning the 2016 installment. But Smart Bar nonetheless assembled a festival that’s true to Daphne’s original mission. “There’s a perception that women are rare or that they’re at some lower standard than men, and it’s just empirically not true,” Garden says. “That’s the goal: ‘Well look, here’s half a dozen. This wasn’t hard to put together.'” He also credits Smart Bar’s history of inclusiveness for helping him promote lesser-known female musicians year-round.
Among the performers at this year’s Daphne are spacey NYC producer Aurora Halal, San Francisco house experimentalist Chelsea Faith (aka Cherushii), and the Black Madonna, who returns home after spending most of the past two months touring the U.S. and Europe.
The series kicks off Thursday night with a free workshop led by Cherushii and Smart Bar resident Nathan Drew Larsen, aka Eris Drew, a trans woman and part of the team behind the club’s polysexual surrealist monthly dance party, Hugo Ball. Cherushii and Eris will discuss setting up a live rig and cover synth basics for onstage performance, as well as deliver a woman-centered history of synthesis. Among their subjects will be theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore, who helped inventor Leon Theremin improve the instrument in the 1930s; new-music pioneer Laurie Spiegel, who developed the algorithmic composition software Music Mouse; and trans film composer Wendy Carlos (A Clockwork Orange, The Shining), who contributed to the development of Robert Moog’s early synthesizers.
Inspired by this history—and by the festival’s theme—I decided to ask as many Daphne artists as I could to tell me about a female or female-identifying musician who’s played a crucial role in electronic music but hasn’t gotten her due. Most people ended up mentioning several names in the course of discussing their main pick—including Chicago veteran DJ Heather and Bjork. As Garden told me, “It’s not even so much that women didn’t get their due—it’s that they’ve always been there.”
Kelli Hand (aka K-Hand)
A woman I really look up to in the world of dance music is Kelli Hand. She’s a DJ and producer from Detroit who’s been running her own label [Acacia Records] for 25 years and has a deep discography. Kelli has been DJing since the 80s, and you can tell; she’s clearly so comfortable behind the decks. Her track “Mystery” from 1993 was one of the first I really fell in love with when I discovered techno and house; it’s simple, yet so emotive and beautiful.
She’s of the same generation of Detroit producers as Carl Craig and Moodymann, but is seldom praised with the same awestruck regard as her male peers. She was running a label and producing her own tracks long before techno became a global phenomenon, and yet she isn’t even a footnote in the genre’s history. As far as I know, Kelli was one of the only women doing what she was doing in Detroit in the early 90s, and she’s still doing it; her most recent 12-inch [“Do It Again”] came out in 2015. I deeply admire her for all the work she’s done, and yet her lack of recognition is so discouraging. In a culture as supposedly forward-thinking as electronic music, women are still so often invisible.
Pauline is who came to mind first, and she’s actually who I’m going to be leading off the presentation with. Her work—and when she did it—was running parallel to things John Cage was doing. But she diverged with him in very important ways formalistically, and those further marginalized her. Even though she was a woman, she was also doing things that were viewed as traditionally feminine or ethnic, things that Cage was very much against.
Her ideas about silence and about the possibilities of what could be music, her interest in duration and tape music—all of these things were happening at the same time Cage was exploring them. Scholars are pretty unanimous on the fact that she was thinking about these things at the same time—or before. I found out who Cage was maybe 20 years ago. So as someone who’s really loved electronic music and has been interested in women’s stories in particular—especially as a trans woman—to have this person out there and to have not found out about her for a long time, yet to investigate her work and find that it’s as compelling [as Cage], it’s very interesting to me.
I found out about her on the Web—searching about women in electronic music, actually digging down to do that kind of inquiry. Whereas she was marginalized for the choices she made and for who she was—there’s less literature out there from, say, the 60s about her—these stories are now being told.
To say she’s marginal is kind of an interesting thing, because she was playing with [Terry] Riley. She was friends with John Cage. So she’s accepted within that group, but she operated outside of it in important ways—the most significant being that she didn’t shy away from exploring the connection of the body and the spiritual with music. Cage had a real distrust of the body, and he worked very hard in his compositional process to eliminate that from his music. That was really carrying on a line of Western thought that we’ve seen now for centuries—this notion of getting the body out of music, making music about the rational mind and about the will of the composer. Oliveros essentially confronted that. She said, “No, I’m interested in improvisation. My music’s physical, it’s expressive. I am exploring my own life, birth, and death energy.”
By 1970 she’s done away with formal score almost completely, and she’s essentially created communal environments by which she plays with other people and improvises. As someone who’s made electronic music for about 20 years now, I make it through a very expressive process—especially as a queer person and as someone who’s always been trying to find my body in music. When I would look at Cage, I always found his music interesting, but I never found it emotional. I never really connected with it.
When I found out about Pauline, it was like the missing link: here’s this experimentalist from the avant-garde who was also interested in how to use technology to make music that engages with our body and which forms communities around it. I think she’s very, very profound.
Chris Shively, aka Chrissy
(of Chrissy & Hawley)
There’s a group called Lime that were in Quebec in the 80s. They were a husband and wife, Denis and Denyse LePage—actually they’re divorced now, and Denis has transitioned, so there’s one cis woman in this group and one person who now identifies as female. They made really amazing dance records that were really important in the history of house music and had a huge influence in Chicago, and they wrote and produced these together. It wasn’t the situation you see so much of—a guy kind of calling the shots and corralling some chanteuse that he can force to do his bidding on a stage or whatever. It was a couple who wrote songs together, produced them together, got in the studio and fiddled with gear together, and then went and performed them onstage together.
Obviously I don’t know the dynamics of their marriage, but it’s a heartening thing to see these two people being real creative partners in this enterprise. And the records are great. Especially outside of Chicago, people just aren’t aware of them and aren’t aware of the influence they had on, like, Frankie [Knuckles] and Ron [Hardy] and all these early Chicago people who played a lot of their records and borrowed a lot of their techniques in early house music.
A lot of the stuff that I write just shamelessly borrows ideas from them—their sensibility of making really catchy, kind of over-the-top cheesy pop tracks that are also just really beefy and all 808s and 909s and big sounds. Everything about them has influenced me in a big way.
The Black Madonna
Ellen, I think, held her first major residency before even 1990. She comes right after the fall of the wall in Berlin, and Ellen was doing major residencies at, like, [Berlin techno institution] Tresor. Goes on to do tremendous early work, completely in line with all of her male peers. People understand that she’s big and that she’s been around forever; they don’t understand how fundamental she is to beginning of techno proper in the way that we understand it. She’s the founder of BPitch Control, which is certainly one of the most important labels that has ever existed in all of techno. She’s a foundational member of this scene, but never really gets quite the credit that she’s due. And a phenomenal DJ. Ellen’s just really special, and she’s such a godmother, and is often overlooked. I think that she’s a perfect example of how we treat women different when it comes to legacy in time.
We just don’t have words that mirror the words with a male connotation when we talk about women. When we talk about artists who are in control of a room or artists who are transcendent, we use words like “maestro.” We use words like “godfather.” All of that language is gendered, and I feel like it’s 2016 and we don’t even really have the words to talk about this yet—like, what it would mean to be a woman and operate at that level. The closest you ever see is “high priestess,” but it sets a very different connotation—it’s more about magic, it’s not about skill. Or we use the word “diva,” which has not only some negative connotations built into it, but which also is intrinsically linked into the idea of singing. There’s this idea that women must sing on their records also.
I reject all of that; I don’t think women have to do any of that stuff. The history that I’m looking for and hoping for is the secret history of women mastering these techniques in precisely the way that their male peers do, because I think that women do master these techniques in a way that their male peers do.
I think Ellen has gone into the hall of fame, but she deserves much more credit than people give her. And Ellen gets a lot of credit. She remains a popular, beloved, respected figure. I would love to hear Ellen talked about with the kind of reverence that some of her less-deserving male peers get.
One person who has really been blowing me away—and I think she’s blowing most people away who are paying attention right now—is Helena Hauff. She’s a phenomenal DJ and producer. She’s got this amazing sound that’s a blend of hard-edged industrial electro, European techno, and older American sounds. It really pulls you in, and it unites all those things in a way that’s kind of unique to her.
She just did this really bangin’ acid track, “Rupture,” which is something that I’m always into, and I was like, “Who is this person? This is super good. It’s aggressive but it’s mature and everything seems to be in its right place.” I started digging a little deeper and I was like, “Oh, her other productions are good.” She DJs, and I started listening to that. Everything I’ve heard her do has been super, super good. And very her as well—she does a lot of things really well, but it sounds like her.
Her sound really resonates, I think, as far as the American audience, because it has a lot of touchstones of the early rave stuff—like midwestern techno as well as Detroit and Chicago sounds. I really want to book her, and I’m working on it; she’s super busy right now, so hopefully I can coax her over here. But I play her tracks when I DJ. If there’s a thing I admire that I try to integrate into my own work as a DJ and producer, it’s the hard-edged aggressiveness but also using space. It’s not blunt, there’s nuance to it—there’s something to chew on in every track and mix. She gets creative with her sounds, and I think that that’s what excites me about it. v