9 Women Composers You Should Know, Part III

In the first two parts of this series, you learned about six women composers whose contributions in the music world were largely ignored until recent years. Here are Part 1 and Part 2.

We will end with three more women pioneers who revolutionised electronic music and sound design.

Daphne Oram

If you thought ‘drawing’ note events into a digital audio workstation such as Logic Pro or Reaper was a late 20th century endeavour, think again. Daphne Oram, a British electronic musician and composer, invented a machine that one could ‘draw’ sounds into it. She named it Oramics – and it was one of the earliest forms of electronic sound synthesis. This was not Daphne’s only contribution: she set up the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, which was initially for radio effect experimentation and ‘radiophonic poems’. Two years later, she left to establish her own studio.

Daphne became interested in the potential of tape manipulation in the early 50s and while working at the BBC as a studio manager, she pushed to establish a space dedicated to electronic sound treatment for radio dramas. Unfortunately, it is believed she was pushed out on the pretext that being exposed too long to electronic sounds could be detrimental. However, this health-and-safety policy did not extend to her male colleagues. She formally quit the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1959 and branched out on her own after this experience. Although Daphne Oram was written out of the history of electronic music, she is finally being a praised as a pioneer and innovator.

“The BBC was an institution run by men, in a world that was more sexist… This is not to say she was perfect or everyone around her was villainous, but she was standing up for something she felt was undervalued. And she was met with the attitude: this woman is very difficult, and willful, and stubborn, and these are all bad things for a woman to be.” – Isobel McArthur, co-playwright of Daphne Oram’s Wonderful World of Sound, ca. 2017

“They wanted my ideas, they didn’t want me.” – Daphne Oram

(Daphne Oram = short documentary including examples of her work, ca. 1958-1972)

Wendy Carlos

In 1968, the album Switched-On Bach was released by composer, Walter Carlos, who eventually transitioned to Wendy Carlos in 1972. This epic release garnered three Grammys and put the Moog synthesizer on the map. It is the first time that a synthesizer is perceived to be a real musical instrument and not a sound experimental machine. This album is also the second classical album to sell over one million copies (Arthur Fiedler’s Boston Pops orchestral recording of “Jalouise” takes the distinction of being the first).  Wendy’s works include classic film scores such as A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, and Tron, along with a “Weird” Al Yankovic collaboration. She is also instrumental in influencing the direction Bob Moog would take with his synthesizers, making suggestions that would improve the action of the instrument’s keyboard.

When Wendy Carlos ‘came out’ to the world via a Playboy interview in 1979, the magazine treated her coming out event as a spectacle and dismissed her raison d’être, that of a composer. From then on, she never spoke about her experience as a transgender woman. Eventually, the public did not care, for she has left a legacy of works that will surpass her ‘transsexual’ identity.

“Being a transsexual makes me a barometer of other people’s own comfort with themselves. Those who aren’t sexually at peace with themselves tend to be the most uptight around me.”  Wendy Carlos in Playboy interview, ca. 1979

(An explanation on Wendy Carlos’s three asymmetric divisions of the octave)

Suzanne Ciani

America’s first female synth hero, Suzanne Ciani met Don Buchla, competitor of Bob Moog and the Moog synthesizer. She would use the Buchla synthesizer as her vehicle of expression to design sound and perform. Suzanne was one of the few people that knew how to operate the Buchla synthesizer since it lacked a keyboard, unlike the Moog. With her background in music composition, she started her own company and created jingles and sound logos for major companies such as Coca-Cola (she created the “pop and pour” sound effect). From there, she was offered opportunities to guest perform on albums. She also created the sounds to a pinball machine game and eventually went on to become the first female composer to score a film soundtrack in Hollywood.

Suzanne’s start as a musician and artist was not easy. As she shopped around for a record deal, the idea of her playing the Buchla synthesizer was not viable, neither was it understandable as to why a woman would want to perform with such an instrument. As a woman, she was expected to sing. This constant rejection eventually opened the door for her to work in the advertising world. Consequently, it allowed Suzanne Ciani to become the “Diva of the Diode”, where she was able to create new sounds, record her own kind of music, compose soundtracks and jingles, and explore performance spaces, especially with quadrophonic sound.

“Do not try to be men. Do your own thing by using your authentic voice. Be very good at what you do. You have to be better, to break through. You can’t show up and falter. Women have become better than men, because we have to be.” – Suzanne Ciani, ca. 2017

(Suzanne Ciani = Quadraphonic sound performance at Los Angeles Public Library, ca. 2019)

Spotify Playlist

To learn more about these composers, please check out my Spotify list below containing some of their works.

This concludes the series. However, next time, a bonus post introducing another influential female composer will be brought to you as a reward for reading all the way through this series.

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