The lack of women's visibility in the world of electronic music had, by the late '90s, exhausted the composer, academic, historian and optimist Tara Rodgers. Roused by the loosely-knit federation of feminists that surfaced out of Riot Grrrl's punky strain of activism, Rodgers set out to address the gender deficit by creating an analogous movement by and for women in electronic music, wherever they were. By the turn of the century, pinknoises.com — a digital sanctuary where Rodgers could promote the work of female electronic musicians, link up networks of artists, even provide tools and inclusive resources for the electronically-inclined — was alive. Ten years after that, Rodgers' project had formed the bedrock of an even more pointed effort in parity.
"The tools for making electronic music are not innocent," she writes, with juicy provocation, in the introduction to 2010's Pink Noises, a New Testament-length collection of interviews with women in electronic music and sound cultures. "They are an interface to ghosts of technoscientific projects past."
A modern mainstay of feminist electronic music discourse, the printed Pink Noises upholds the primacy of women across the electronic world's lifespan by way of close examination, first by scrutinizing how female-identifying artists orbited about the music and its machines, then by investigating how lines of gendered history were contained and contested. By the end of its 24 interviews, the book had crystallized Rodgers' two decade-long inquiry by revealing that the very design of the music's canon encumbered the visibility of women's work — just as it often does to work by those who are queer, or of color, or both — in this case by critical gatekeeping based on ideas of women's domestic compliancy, its genesis in the technologies of war, and the presence of a reductive and "essentialized feminine aesthetic" when it came to sound art.
Eight years since the publication of Pink Noises, progress is certainly marked, but slow. Electronic music remains relatively behind other genres when it comes to equity in both reception and representation, and the women that do participate commonly suffer the excruciating fates of dunderheaded comment boards and blithely sexist criticism. Women's work in the genre today is, of course, as myriad as the music itself, but the act of closing this strange, old maw can often feel less like an act of bridge-building and more like a centuries-in-progress tectonic shift.
This past month, Rodgers' decision to finally and formally release an album feels necessarily tangled in her lifelong historiographic work. Animated by the perpetual need to clear space for women's work in the form, Fundamentals, her aptly-titled EP, places imagined pressure on electronic music's history, fitting itself into the music's long continuum uncannily like a key element of its past and its present at once.
You don't need to know much about techno for Fundamentals to register as something special. In fact, this may be partly by design: Even as far as techno goes, Fundamentals demonstrates a brilliant facility for making what's seemingly simple feel like a revelation. Rodgers' maximalist tendencies in her detail-rich interviews and academic writing is almost reversed in her EP, which is a beautifully austere, four-track exercise in quality control and rigorous decision.
Released under the stage name Analog Tara through the D.C.-based label 1432 R, the EP makes easy work of bending of space and time. [Disclosure: The label's co-owner, Sami Yenigun, is a producer for the NPR newsroom. Yenigun had no involvement in the writing or editing of this article.] Each track's ultra-technical song title ("Pulse and Light," "Propulsion," et. al) prologues compositions so deceptively basic and cool and chewy that they sound atemporal, as kin to the original Detroit roots of techno as they do of the more spectral work from the founding women of electronica (Oliveros, Ciani, Carlos, Oram, Fagandini, Derbyshire). Rodgers' successful sonic unplaceability lies in her ability to divert rhythmic punchlines, never allowing phrases to resolve, writhe or mutate across the landscape of a single track until they've presented a sort of signature of each form: funky jazz noodling swerves into '90s acid house, then back into techno, then back to acid, as if to flex each style's archetype.
This redeployment of classic sounds gives off the genuinely strange sense that this is music lifted from anywhere across the scope of electronic music's history. "Percolation" could be a lost B-side from contemporary supernova Octo Octa; some of "Density and Light" might remind one of bits from Laurie Spiegel's pioneering 1975 composition, "Drums." But there is more in this than anachronism – it is assertive work, bold in the precision and subtlety it takes to mix such signals with thrill and grace and restraint.
Either by Fundamentals' agelessness or her stage name, it's no surprise that Analog Tara operates very chiefly in a world of MIDI processor set-ups and analog pneumatics, something of an anomaly in a landscape dominated by digital-only work. Her choice to remain largely analog, however, doesn't mean that her work is retro-fetishistic, or more authentically pure than work that does utilize more contemporary tools. What it does easily evoke is a sense of fundamentalness – that Rodgers finds true pleasure in discipline, and that the historical subtext of these instruments – and those who once weilded them – feel alive, active, and honored in her music.
In fact, the sonic and conceptual thrust of the EP rests sturdily on these twin pillars of rigor and reverence: sequences are hardly broken, machines are hardly stuttered and few acts of glitzy aural acrobatics occur. There is nothing splashy or outlandish wrung out of her synthesizers, but what is done can feel suggestive of the perfect geometries in natural constructions, like that of spider webs or nautili or stone ridges - consummate, authorless, made by math and magic.
In the opening interview of Pink Noises, Pauline Oliveros (often cited as the matriarch of feminist electronic music thought) describes her now-renowed 'deep listening' discipline – a physical as well as philosophical practice that advocated for listening to music, as well as to all sonic stimuli, with meditative thoughtfulness – as part of "an attempt to return the control of sound to the individual alone...specifically [for] healing."
Rodgers — a student of Oliveros' at Mills College and, otherwise, her psychic disciple — shares her mentor's fascination with the theraputic properties invoked by sound, but Fundamentals suggests that this idea can be taken several steps further from Oliveros'. Where 'deep listening' aims to center the self in the present, Rodgers' aims – both musical and academic - hope to center the self against history, steeling women's contributions against the sometimes suffocating tide of time. It's why, perhaps, I feel such a sense of strategy within her work, moving in directions that seem to push past sound and into an act of necessary self-assertion.
"While sound is a formidable force," writes Rodgers at the conclusion of Pink Noises' introduction, quoting theorist Douglas Kahn, "it is also a potent and necessary means for accessing and understanding the world....it leads away from itself."
Fundamentals is out now on 1432 R.
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