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Pioneers of Electronic Music: Delia Derbyshire, Maryanne Amacher, and Suzanne Ciani

Drew Schlesinger

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This month, we pay homage to another trio of women who have made outstanding contributions to electronic music.

In last month’s article we focused on three unique and groundbreaking women: Laurie Spiegel, Pauline Oliveros, and Éliane Radigue. We continue this month with three other important and influential women synthesists and composers, all of whom were early adopters of the medium. Each of these women has made significant contributions to the art and science of electronic music: Delia Derbyshire, Maryanne Amacher, and Suzanne Ciani.

Delia Derbyshire

Delia Derbyshire was from a working-class town in England and showed great musical promise at a very early age. By the time she was ready for college in the mid-1950s, both Oxford and Cambridge accepted her. That was in an era when those institutions didn’t accept many women. She graduated from Cambridge in 1959 with a degree in mathematics and music.

Post-graduation, she was intent on entering the audio field. When she applied to Decca Records, though, they told her recording studios didn’t hire women. Nevertheless she persevered. In 1960 she joined the BBC as a trainee assistant studio manager working on a program that reviewed classical recordings. However, she set her sights on being directly involved in sound recording. In 1962 she was finally able to join the Radiophonic Workshop, the premier sonic laboratory at the BBC. Ultimately, Delia worked at the Radiophonic Workshop for 11 years, creating scores for over 200 shows and programs.

Her first major composition was a fully electronic score for the popular Doctor Who series. It was also one of the first shows to feature music solely created by electronic means. Amazingly, the show used her theme music for 17 seasons, from 1963 to 1980. However, the BBC never credited her onscreen until the show’s 50th anniversary in 2013.

In 1966 she teamed up with Brian Hodgson, also from the BBC, and Peter Zinovieff (who would soon go on to create the EMS VCS3 synthesizer). They played experimental electronic music under the name Unit Delta Plus. After only a few performances, the group disbanded a year later.

Her next significant effort was a collaboration with Hodgson and David Vorhaus to help build the Kaleidphon studio in the late ’60s. Together they recorded an album as White Noise entitled An Electric Storm, an early, influential, and groundbreaking electronic music record. Interestingly, the album features the EMS VCS3 serial #001 created by Peter Zinovieff. Vorhaus still owns and uses it to this day.

Delia left the BBC in 1973, stopped creating music in 1975, and died in 2001 at the age of 67. A collection of more than 267 reel-to-reel recordings and papers were found in her attic. They have been digitized and are now accessible at the John Rylands Library in Manchester, UK. Delia’s work and contributions to electronic music finally received the recognition they clearly deserve.

Maryanne Amacher

Maryanne Amacher was unique among composers, and her approach was highly unusual. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1964 and spent time studying with Karlheinz Stockhausen. She also did graduate work in acoustics and computer science at the University of Illinois.

Maryanne’s interest was in the psychoacoustics of sound, and most of her major works were large-scale sound installations. Starting in the late ’60s she created telematic performances using multiple microphones located in different parts of the city, or in multiple cities connected via telephone lines into a composite performance. (The telematic approach refers to using communication technologies to enable multiple contributors from different locations to contribute simultaneously.) Her City-Links: Buffalo, a 28-hour piece that WBFO in Buffalo broadcast live in 1967, was one of the first.

Her approach to sound installations was also unique. Instead of using various speakers in a space aimed upward or toward the potential audience, she placed the speakers facing down, toward the walls or floor. The purpose was to create “psychoacoustic illusions” and the indirect presence of sound emanating from indeterminate sources. Her major installations were in various cities in the U.S, Europe, and Japan from 1967 to 1985.

In the ’70s Maryanne did fellowships at both Harvard and MIT and, unsurprisingly, collaborated with John Cage. She created the soundtrack for his 1975 multimedia work, “Lecture on Weather.” She also worked on the 10-hour “Empty Words” composition for voice in 1978.

Her recorded work was just as unusual and utilized a phenomenon called auditory distortion product, whereby the listener is provided a combination of two different tones, and at the proper volume (usually loud), additional virtual “ghost tones” are created by the ear. The actual technical term is distortion product otoacoustic emissions, in which the ears themselves generate these tones. It also happens to be a process audiologists use to test hearing in newborns and in adults as well, especially those with tinnitus.

Numerous examples of her recorded work are available online. “Chorale,” “Synaptic Island,” and “The Third Ear” videos are a few that are easily found among others. These are extremely strange, and you may find them uncomfortable to listen to, but they are also very interesting.

Ms. Amacher won numerous prestigious grants and awards during her career and taught at Bard College for the last 10 years of her life. She was an extraordinary pioneer in sound and the perception of audio. She’s probably not as well known as some of the other women of electronic music discussed here but no less impactful or interesting.

Suzanne Ciani

Suzanne studied music at Wellesley College in Boston from 1964 to 1968 and took classes at MIT. That’s where she first encountered music technology. While studying for her master’s degree in composition at Berkeley in California, she met Don Buchla. That meeting would shape her musical endeavors to this day. She rented access to a Buchla system at Mills College and took courses in acoustics and computer music with Max Mathews, who worked with Laurie Spiegel at Bell Labs.

Like other synthesists I’ve discussed, Suzanne worked at the San Francisco Tape Music Center, which helped her fund the purchase of a Buchla 200 system. She worked directly for Buchla and Associates for a time, soldering circuit boards and assembling modular systems. In 1970 she moved back to Los Angeles, built a studio, and recorded her first album, Voices of Packaged Souls.

In 1974 Suzanne moved to New York where she performed with her Buchla system and started her company Ciani Música. She became immersed in providing electronic sound design for advertising and commercials as a first-call studio synthesist. One of her most famous works was creating the sound of a bottle of Coca-Cola being poured. She created sonic logos for many other large corporations that included Energizer and the American Broadcasting Company (ABC).

But Suzanne’s main passion was music composition. From 1982 through 2006 she released numerous albums that received critical acclaim along with five Grammy Award nominations in the New Age category. Several of her recordings, such as Velocity of Love, were not just electronic, but also featured piano, making them appealing to a wide audience.

Since 2014 Suzanne has been extremely active, touring and lecturing on her approach to electronic music with her Buchla 200e system. Some of her Buchla concerts from 1975 were re-released in 2016. She also recorded new music with fellow Buchla user Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith. In addition, she was the first woman to receive Moog Music’s Innovation Award in 2017. She continues to be a leading force in promoting electronic music and sharing her years of experience with a new generation of synthesis aficionados. She’s clearly worthy of her moniker, “Diva of the Diode.”

As I mentioned last month, it’s really interesting that these unique and talented women were not only drawn to, involved in, and responsible for such important work in electronic music, but they all gravitated toward developing an intimate relationship with a specific type of synthesis system, be it Moog, Buchla, ARP 2500, or another. Is there something unique about women’s approach to electronic music that the rest of us can learn from? I think it’s likely so.

Top photo by Maria Jose Govea

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