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Wendy Carlos, Terre Thaemlitz, ARCA: Electronic Women Composers and Fluids


15 April 2024
This month's topic: Electric & Porous -a continuous presentResident Editor: Natalia Piñuel Martín
ARCA Artista en una foto de prensa.

Wendy Carlos, Terre Thaemlitz, ARCA: Electronic Women Composers and Fluids

Of all the possible paths that can trace a new genealogy of electronic music, I will share three examples (Wendy Carlos – Terre Thaemlitz – ARCA) from three very different places in history that have most marked the present and future generations.

The first is Wendy Carlos, a pioneer composer and a pioneer who identified herself and appeared publicly as a trans woman in the 1970s. As a composer of electronic music she is associated with the tradition of sound artists within the field of science fiction in which, since the 1950s, women such as Delia Derbyshire and Bebe Barron have stood out. Within the film industry, fantasy and horror genres always leave room for both thematic and formal experimentation and that is why the producer of B movies[1]Bebe Barron was an American composer and sound engineer who, together with her husband, Louis Barron, made the first completely electronic soundtrack for a film, Forbidden Planet (Fred M. Wilcox, … Continue reading of about monsters and alien invasions during period had no problem hiring women to create the films’ sound design and soundtrack. Wendy’s electronic composition and production also met with mainstream success. She was born in a small town in Rhode Island in 1939. She studied physics and music, and in 1962 she moved to New York, a city where she still resides today. She completed a Master’s degree in music at Columbia University, where pioneers such as Laurie Spiegel[2]Laurie Spiegel is an American composer and academic who was a pioneer in understanding and embracing the possibilities offered by the arrival of computers in the 1960s. She experimented with … Continue reading. In the 1960s, Dr. Robert Moog adopted the idea of voltage control to build the first modular synthesizer, the origin of synthesizers as we know them today. This creation led to the greatest revolution in the history of contemporary music, as anyone could buy them and assemble them at home, a precedent for DIY culture, ten years before the London punk movement. In 1969, Wendy Carlos, in collaboration with Moog, recorded a series of works by Johann Sebastian Bach on an album entitled Switched on Bach. A Moog modular synthesizer and a 4-track recorder were used to produce it. The album was incredibly successful, selling over a million copies, and it was the first electronic music album to win a Grammy. Wendy Carlos began her transition in 1968, hiding the hormonal process, though it was not until 1979 that she announced her sex change and presented herself as a trans woman in an interview in the famous Playboy magazine. In the early 1970s, there were hardly any rights for trans people, there were no trans people in the media, and the struggle of the LGBT movement was just beginning. She presented herself to filmmaker Stanley Kubrick in 1971 with a facial hairpiece and dressed in men’s clothes. The film director was a fan of her album with Moog and wanted to use electronic music in the soundtrack of his next film, A Clockwork Orange. Wendy Carlos reinvented classic pieces giving them the futuristic tone that the film required. Title Music from a Clockwork Orange is an electronic transcription of the music for Queen Mary’s funeral written by Henry Purcell in the late 17th century. March from a Clockwork Orange is based on the fourth movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, and was the first song in history whose vocals were recorded with a vocoder, that is, a voice synthesizer. In 1980, Kubrick used her again for the score of his new film, the adaptation of Stephen King’s horror novel The Shining. Two years later she worked for Disney on the creation of the TRON soundtrack, a score that incorporated orchestra, choirs, organ music and synthesizers, both analog and digital. This paved the way for synths to become the stars of all the horror and science fiction movie soundtracks of the 1980s. In fact, her influence continues to this day, with the soundtrack by Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein for the Netflix series Stranger Things. At the beginning of the 21st century, most of her catalog was remastered. Eventually, she gave up making music and instead became a musical landmark, but her vision of the alliance between music and technology remains more popular than ever. In addition, she was the first trans woman in electronic music and one of the first people to make gender transition visible. In the 21st century, the connection between electronic experimentation and science fiction continues with composers such as Mica Levi and Hildur Guðnadóttir, the first woman to win an Oscar for an electronic composition soundtrack.

As a pioneer, but from the academic world, genre studies and clubs through his alter ego as DJ Sprinkles, Terre Thaemlitz is another artist originally from deep America who has preferred to have a base in a friendlier place, Japan. There he owns the record label Comatonse Recordings and organizes numerous cross-cultural sensitivity workshops at the Uplink Factory in Tokyo. His work critically combines issues of identity politics (including issues of gender, sexuality, class, linguistics, ethnicity, and race) with an ongoing critique and reflection on the socioeconomics of commercial media production. This diversity is matched by Thaemlitz’s wide and unorthodox range of production styles, which include electroacoustic music, deep house, ambient, and digitally composed neo-expressionist piano solos. He has released twelve albums, numerous EPs, singles and vinyls in collaboration with other artists, as well as remixes and video works since the 1990s. I was always interested in Thaemlitz but it was after a conference at the MACBA in Barcelona[3]The Idiorrhythmias program existed between 2017-19 at the MACBA Museum. The title refers to the concept explored by Roland Barthes in his seminars at the College de France given in 1977 and published … Continue reading in which he talked with brutal honesty about hypocrisy in the art world that I became even more of a fan (if that is possible). The podcast talk took place with Laurence Rassel, art curator and cultural manager, who had lived in Barcelona working for the Center d’Art Santa Mònica and as project director of the Antoni Tàpies Foundation. The best conference/class/encounter/talk I have ever attended, they talked about the concept of hospitality and how, years ahead of the current situation, new tech companies and cultural institutions would embrace post-capitalism with a false idea of kindness that serves to capitalize on a good image, something evident within the LGTBQ+ community and the queer and feminist movements. This violence was discussed in MACBA in a criticism of museum institutions that invite artists to exhibit.

I quote Thaemlitz in a clip he shared with attendees that day about an interview with Bandcamp that they censored: “There is an idea that the LGTBI clubs that started in the 1960s and evolved in the 1980s were safe spaces. But there was a real risk if you went to these types of clubs. Today, the language of safe spaces come from institutions that are aligned with the mainstream. Just as we are now in MACBA talking about these things. We have lost perspective and we must keep in mind that this entire fight is actually a process that has not yet ended. The sense of risk is not the same now as before, the language is not the same, because the context is not the same. To begin with, we live in a society that relies on likes. And so relationships have changed. Many of today’s clubs are run by institutions that align with the discourse of power. There is a feeling that everything is going well and that we are now in a safe place.”

Society is perverse and the latest texts published by Thaemlitz show this, and this is also reflected in his music, with publications and sessions that he himself publishes and that drift towards noise and formal experimentation that is further removed from contemporary electronic fashions. For Thaemlitz, companies (and when I say companies I also mean institutions and governments), demand hospitality and good manners so that their workers and collaborators feel happy being where they are. During the conference, I remember that they also talked about the origin of this perversion in schools and universities in which the faculties of Fine Arts are trained to function in the art market. In the same way, film schools manufacture audiovisual artifacts for online platforms. Where is the artistic freedom? Where is the diversity? Terre Thaemlitz admitted to being outted in the US, so the main reason for moving to Japan was to go unnoticed. I understand how managing this situation of emptiness is important, that not everyone can do it but that if you do it, it is a much more real way of being in the world. Sometimes, and this is an idea that I present to those who read me and are part of all this, don’t you think that we are going overboard with the issue of visibility, thereby accepting to be part of normality? Hypocrisy is extremely tiring. In his Nitsa session, which he prohibited from being recorded, it became clear that he had never been a hospitable DJ.

From Thaemlitz’s not-at-all complacent activism to the complete opposite. Or perhaps not so much, perhaps it has the same validity and legitimation to do it within that complacent mainstream, of course! ARCA is a visionary and more than just electronic music she has created a character that is a performer in itself. She does everything. She came out of the underground. The underground of the 21st century with the RR.SS. is not comparable with that of the 20th century, except in some aspects of otherness. Alejandra Ghersi is ARCA, and she was born into a wealthy family in Caracas, moving at a very young age to New York and then to Barcelona. Origins matter, and as she studied piano since she was little and had an excellent training, she was also able to travel to the north and start publishing songs taking advantage of the popularity of Latin urban rhythms in the general (white) European and US public. In 2018, she declared herself a non-binary gender person and in 2019 she came out as a trans woman. Her career began in 2017 when she began DJing and performing in a club on the Lower East Side. Like many other trans artists, ARCA talks about the dance floor as a safe, free space. Since then she has become a digital diva. In 2020, she released a spectacular album KiCk i and worked with artists such as Björk, Rosalía, Shygirl and Sophie. The deconstruction of pop is strongly rooted in her image and video clips, in which she frequently appears as a 3D image, with fantastic animals, dreamlike landscapes, oversized painted nails and classic references to her country, along with as the presence of the painter María Lionza. Vulnerable, fierce, organic and digital. The books of Donna Haraway and Ursula K. Le Guin inspire her, and she is an example of how to materialize the figure of the cyborg through physical and sound mutation where all excess has a place with the capacity to free the body from the trap of constructing a gender.

[Featured Image: ARCA. Press photo].

1 Bebe Barron was an American composer and sound engineer who, together with her husband, Louis Barron, made the first completely electronic soundtrack for a film, Forbidden Planet (Fred M. Wilcox, 1956), a science fiction cult classic.
2 Laurie Spiegel is an American composer and academic who was a pioneer in understanding and embracing the possibilities offered by the arrival of computers in the 1960s. She experimented with algorithmic composition and wrote much about electronic music as we know it today. She continues to work in New York University. In the mid-80s, she worked for Apple Mac creating a smart synthesizer for personal computers and was also a pioneer in online music distribution.
3 The Idiorrhythmias program existed between 2017-19 at the MACBA Museum. The title refers to the concept explored by Roland Barthes in his seminars at the College de France given in 1977 and published posthumously under the title How to Live Together. The program included performances and meetings.

Natalia Piñuel Martín is an art historian, cultural researcher and curator. Co-founder of the Playtime Audiovisuales platform based in Madrid since 2007 from where they develop projects for museums and cultural spaces such as MUSAC (León), DA2 (Salamanca), Espacio Fundación Telefónica and Museo Centro de Arte 2 de Mayo (Madrid), AECID or the Cervantes Institute. She has been programming music & activities for the She Makes Noise Festival at La Casa Encendida since 2015. She writes regularly in the media and gives classes and talks on contemporary artistic practices and gender issues. She has curated exhibitions for the MEIAC (Badajoz) and audiovisual and performance cycles for the Women’s Institute and the Her Festival. She currently directs and hosts the Derivas podcast. She is in her second year as a doctoral student at USAL. Photo: Enrique Piñuel.

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