Tate Modern

We might celebrate, in a few decades from now, the event that ushered in the revolutionary era of the Feminine Sonic Sensibility. Her Noise exhibition at the South London Gallery (2005) dared the ‘dangerous combination’ of the two most unwanted concepts of the art world then, namely ‘sound’ and ‘feminism’. Acting on a passing remark by Kim Gordon about the lack of documentation regarding women in experimental music, Lina Dzuverovic and Anne Hilde Neset started the Her Noise project with the aim to investigate sound art and music in relation to gender and build up a long-lasting archive of the area. In 2005, they invited women artists who ‘use sounds to investigate social relations, inspire action or uncover hidden soundscapes’ to participate in a group show. This included Kim Gordon, Jutta Koether, Christina Kubisch, Emma Hedditch, Kaffe Matthews, Hayley Newman and Marina Rosenfeld. Interestingly, Lina Dzuverovic said that, while it took the best project management skills and determination to convince a gallery to host the show, funding it had been a piece of cake. Today, they’d probably faced the reversed problematic.

Dzuverovic was talking at the Her noise: feminisms and the sonic symposium, the third part of a three-day event held at Tate Modern on Saturday 5 May. Building on the initial Her Noise project, the aim of the event was to ‘investigate feminist discourses in sound and music through a programme of talks, performances, discussions and film screenings.’

The opening night was a talk and performance by the formidable composer and performer Pauline Oliveros, the proponent of the Deep Listening practice. In her improvisation piece, she played the ‘Roland V’ re-tuned accordion, which incorporates two different systems of just intonation, in addition to electronics, altering the sound of the instrument and allowing her to explore the sonic characteristics of the room. After a few ‘inspirations’ (which, she pointed out, is French for ‘intakes of breath’) from the bellows, she abruptly let a cacophony of notes flee across the auditorium. They reached the audience like a slap in the face. A medley of dissonant sampled voices violently discharged their ire. Among them, one could perceive a hysterical male voice resembling the wails of Robert Wyatt meddling with the organ in Alifib. Oliveros’ quick, assertive fingering and intense stares infused an incredible energy to the piece. At times, she caressed the keys, teasing the beast that growled and puffed. At other times she beat the notes out as if venting her own spleen. Throughout the piece, moments of calming, meditative drones alternated with dark, ominous soundscapes. The piece was suitably called Listening for Life/Death Energies. Oliveros commented that titles were important for providing a focus to her improvised performance.

It’s certainly not coincidental that she chose the accordion as her instrument of choice. Appearing as an extension of her body, it adds a deeply personal touch to her rousing performance. In an earlier interview, she confessed that ‘it’s an old friend, comfortable and expressive. Symbolically it is aligned with *the people* – working people. It is also a challenge to play an instrument that grew up after the period of classical music.’ Invented in the early 1800s, the accordion is tied to the history of folk music, and has consequently been shunned by classical composers. It was, however, a woman, Miss Louise Reisner, who wrote the very first concert piece for the accordion, Thème varié très brillant pour accordéon méthode Reisner (1836). This fact undoubtedly gives the accordion its particular appeal to a female sound artist, especially when coupled with electronics. Indeed, advances in technology in the post-war period opened up the field of experimental sonic exploration, and contributed to free female artists from structure and hierarchy. In her talk, Oliveros reminded us of the role played by the first computers in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but she emphasized the creative potential of technology over its destructive aspects. This is exemplified by her Roland-V, but also by the use she makes of internet and its networking possibilities. In recent years, she has developed a close-knit community of creative listeners, requiring her students to post all of their work to a public website and encouraging them to manipulate the sounds made by others. Ultimately, she fruitfully harnesses technology to enhance the philosophy and practice of Deep Listening, which seeks ‘to cultivate an appreciation of sounds on a heightened level, expanding the potential for connection and interaction with one’s environment (…) and performance with others’. The mesmerising rendering of her piece To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of Their Desperation (1970) by an ensemble of female performers (including a captivating theremin player) in the Turbine Hall, was a moving homage to her creative enterprise.

The second night of the event focused on the voice as exploratory practice for women artists, with a film screening about the queer and extravagant vocal performance art of Meredith Monk. The celebration of these two influential female pioneers set the scene for the all-day symposium’s programme of festivities, which focused around four areas: Situating Her Noise looked at the issues around mapping and archiving sound art produced by female artists, followed by Affinities, Network and Heroines, which highlighted the DIY ethics, the support networks and the personal at the heart of female sonic practices; Vocal Folds presented the work of women centred around the voice, which may provide women a way to find their own path in the dominant culture; and Dissonant Future explored the gendering of sound technology and its subversive potential in the hand of female artists.

The great variety of roles, personalities and styles among the participants made for an exciting, if challenging, kaleidoscopic discourse. The ultimate message was that there are as many feminist perspectives, directions and possibilities within the emergent sound art practice as they are women working within this vast, interdisciplinary field. By bringing them together, Her Noise symposium revealed a subtle net of interdependences and connections. Juxtaposed with vocalist Maggie Nicols’ powerful mix of energetic, non-sensical spurts with a serious, impassionate, humanitarian speech (she run workshops at the Occupy Movement), the lecture by Nina Power on the use of the ‘techno-neutral female voice’ in our public services and its possible re-appropriations by women had a particularly vocal resonance on the gender and power debate. The possible uses and disruptions of the embodied/disembodied voice is just one of the potentially disquieting strategies offered by the emergent sonic field onto the dominant socio-cultural and political sphere.

One of the characteristics of deep listening is that it makes us re-think our relationship to power. Pauline Oliveros once claimed there was an affinity between sound art and women’s art for they are both marginalised. Women’s work in this area may thus contribute to the development of an emerging auditory culture that draws attention to the dominant structures of power.