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Pioneers of Electronic Music: Laurie Spiegel, Pauline Oliveros, and Éliane Radigue

Drew Schlesinger

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Women have made some of the most significant contributions to electronic music, and here we pay homage to three of them.

If you ask your average synthesist to name an important woman in electronic music, chances are they’d say Wendy Carlos, and if you’re lucky, Suzanne Ciani. Ask for another name, and you might get a blank stare. It’s not because other women haven’t done amazing work in the field, but they’re not terribly well known. In this article, I’ll tell you about three other important composers: Laurie Spiegel, Pauline Oliveros, and Éliane Radigue.

Laurie Spiegel

Laurie Spiegel’s involvement with electronic music began in the late 1960s with EML Electrocomp 200 synthesizers. While attending The Juilliard School, she visited Morton Subotnick’s studio in New York and was exposed to his Buchla 100 system. She was immediately enthralled, leading her to acquire a Buchla system of her own to further expand her compositions.

Photo by Stan Bratman

In the 1970s, Laurie worked at Bell Labs, writing code focused on algorithmic composition programs and working alongside Max Matthews. While there, she developed GROOVE, her computer-based compositional platform. Using the powerful Alles additive and FM-based synthesizer at Bell, Laurie composed pieces that would become her first album, The Expanding Universe (1980). Her track “Harmony of the Worlds” was included on the gold-plated record aboard the Voyager spacecraft—an amazing accomplishment for an unknown composer.

After Bell Labs, Laurie continued developing algorithmic music tools. Armed with an Apple Macintosh 512 and along with the advent of MIDI, she created Music Mouse, a real-time compositional and MIDI performance program. Using the mouse to scroll across a screen grid, Music Mouse created a stream of MIDI notes based on specific rules to create a composition on the fly. It was a totally unique and totally cool program.

Laurie used Music Mouse to help create her second album, Unseen Worlds (1991). It’s a dense, emotive, and sonically exploratory work that further established her credentials as a serious electronic composer. Both albums have been re-released and absolutely deserve a listen; they’re amazing records.

More recently, Laurie keeps a low profile as she continues to compose, program, write, and create visual art. Last year, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame along with Sonia Sotomayor, Jane Fonda, Gloria Allred, and Angela Davis.

Pauline Oliveros

You may be surprised to learn that Pauline Oliveros was first and foremost an accordion player. She studied music composition at the University of Houston and San Francisco State College. In 1962, she helped establish the San Francisco Tape Music Center along with Morton Subotnick and Ramon Sender. The STFMC ultimately led to Don Buchla’s creation of the first Buchla synthesizers. Pauline was integral to this development and to the early use of synthesizers. 

In 1966, the Center moved to Mills College, with Pauline as its director. At Mills, she worked extensively with the Buchla 100 system. That’s where she first developed a unique audio signal processing system to help realize her improvisational compositions in both recording and performance. Focused study with a theoretical physicist and earning a black belt in karate ultimately transformed how she looked at the musical experience.

In 1981, she left academia behind and moved to upstate New York, a place away from the noise and bustle of the city and an environment where she could realize her new concepts. A performance of her music at the bottom of a 14-foot reverberant cistern led her to coin the term deep listening, a concept that would provide the foundation for all her music going forward. Deep listening leveraged electronic music approaches, sonic meditation, improvisation, and environments, culminating in a new way to experience music.

She also created the Deep Listening Band, which performed live in cisterns, caves, oil drums, and cathedrals. She developed new ways to treat her accordion using devices like the Lexicon PCM70 reverb to create an expansive sonic landscape. With roots in electronic music, Pauline was an important and influential composer with a large catalog of recordings that are absolutely worth exploring.

Éliane Radigue

In the 1950s, Éliane Radigue studied and worked with the prominent musique concrète composer Pierre Schaeffer in France. She also worked as Pierre Henry’s assistant in the 1960s, developing electronic sounds for his works. Her use of feedback and tape loops apparently proved to be a bit too extreme for Henry’s taste and needs, and they parted ways.

Moving to New York in 1970, Éliane shared a studio with Laurie Spiegel and became familiar with Laurie’s Buchla system. Éliane had a clear vision of the type of music she wanted to compose; today, it would likely be called ambient. She envisioned slowly evolving tones spanning over a long period of time—sounds that would “unfold,” to use her word.

She worked with both a Buchla and a Moog system, but the newly released ARP 2500 caught her attention and ultimately became her instrument of choice for more than 25 years. Because it was a modular synthesizer, it allowed for a broad range of tonalities, and Éliane made all of her sound paintings with that instrument. She developed a deep understanding of the 2500 and became intimate with its capabilities.

It’s interesting to note that most early electronic composers apparently gravitated to a specific system: Morton Subotnick used Buchla systems, and Wendy Carlos composed with her large Moog modular system. In Éliane’s case, the ARP 2500 provided all the sound creation capabilities she needed.

In 1974, she composed her first important work, entitled “Adnos I.” It premiered at Mills College, the former home of Pauline Oliveros. Éliane became deeply interested in Tibetan Buddhism, converting and studying it for three years before coming back to music. Apparently both Éliane and Pauline had somewhat similar metaphysical paths that affected their approach to music.

Éliane continued composing, and in 1979 and 1980, she released two additional works. Entitled “Adnos II” and “Adnos III,“ they picked up from the earlier Adnos I” in both approach and sonics. Éliane’s largest work was “Trilogie de la Mort,” a three-hour composition based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead and the six stages of consciousness.

Éliane’s last electronic work was in 2000, but she continued to collaborate with various composers through 2011. Her works are beautiful, evocative, and not far removed from music by Brian Eno and other ambient composers. The Adnos recordings are quite special and highly recommended.

These are only three of many women composers in electronic music, each with a unique approach and background, but in this case, with some common threads shared among them. All three are quite special and worthy of musical exploration.

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