Someone I was talking to today said something I’ve been thinking about ever since: “Books are my teachers.” While I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable with that idea (which is odd for someone with as many bookshelves as I have in the house), I’ve been sitting here in my studio/office/place of refuge in the lockdown and staring at my bookcase. From time to time over the last few years, I’ve written about some of the books on those shelves. I’d like to say a bit about one of the books that has meant something to me as part of my shelter-in-place reading: Tara Rodgers’ Pink Noises: Women on Electronic Music and Sound.
The process of trying to interest someone in reading something is always about coming up with a way to explain why you think a book matters – its style, content and play of language, the arguments or worlds it presents, and the simple pleasure of reading it. I’ll take a run at all three instead of waving the book in your face and hollering “Buy this and read it!”
20 years ago, Tara Rodgers created the website Pinknoises.com, devoted to promoting the work of women in electronic music – interviews, information, and resources. It was and is an absolutely singular undertaking which has staked a claim to changing the ways in which we think about electronic music. If you don’t know the site, please stop reading this and go visit it now.
10 years ago, Tara published Pink Noises. Its content is simple to describe yet rich in content: a set of two dozen interviews with women of widely varying ages and backgrounds working in every corner of electronic music practice (Maria Chavez, Beth Coleman, Antye Greie, Jeannie Hopper, Bevin Kelley, Christina Kubisch, Le Tigre, Annea Lockwood, Giulia Loli, Rekha Malhotra, Riz Maslen, Kaffe Matthews, Susan Morabito, Ikue Mori, Pauline Oliveros, Pamela Z, Chantal Passamonte, Maggi Payne, Eliane Radigue, Jessica Rylan, Carla Scaletti, Laetitia Sonami, Bev Stanton, and Keiko Uenishi).
These interviews are divided into groups of six different themes (Time and Memory; Space and Perspective; Nature and Synthetics; Circulation and Movements; Language, Machines, Embodiment; Alone/Together), and so well chosen and curated that you’re likely to think about the six of them as a grouping system you might use yourself going forward. The wide-ranging and very different interviews are preceded by a critical Introduction by the author that is as good an examination of the gendered culture of modern music as I can easily name (some readers might find the book worthy of their time for the introduction alone). It also includes a glossary intended to assist the intrepid reader who might not recognize the terminology used, a helpful discography for the listener who finishes an interview dying to hear some interesting music, and a great bibliography section (one of the reasons I personally find this a compelling book). Taken together, they combine to form an essential work for me.
But the comments on content, form and style leave something out: It’s a real pleasure to read the collection of interviews themselves. I’m sure that the vast array of interviewees in Pinknoises.com provided a rich source for possible discussions, but what you come away with is something akin to my enjoyment for a book like In the Field: The Art of Field Recording: that sense of meeting interesting persons sharing similar interests, forms of work, and methods of working from whose midst ideas and inspiration emerge. Even though the book itself is a decade old, I think it retains its ability to turn you outward toward the people you’ve just met; it’s chock full of rabbit holes to go down at some future point – a nice thing to have with you during a pandemic.
In terms of the book's thesis, it shares with the Pinknoises.com website the desire to make information about electronic music and its practice and makers more accessible to women and girls (and to me, as well, happily). What emerges from the collection of discussions is a set of creative methods, the roles of gender in their work, and – at the end of the day – a set of personal histories, too. And beyond the pleasure of reading, those things help to fulfill a larger purpose.
Tara Rodgers’s background as a scholar and a practicing electronic musician allows her interviews to explore both the creative situation of the artists’ works and their individual processes. What I find interesting about the book is that the collection of dialogs don’t explicitly push toward some kind of theoretical inquiry as they allow those ideas to emerge. It seems to me as though the choice of focusing entirely on the interviews after the author’s well laid-out and well-argued introduction might seem insufficiently polemic, but it helps the book in terms of presenting a series of meetings with interesting and inspiring women – foremothers, colleagues, and emerging artists. It is a place to begin, and a place to depart from.
I honestly don’t envy anyone who is teaching survey or history courses on electronic music practice these days. While I doubt that anyone is still in the habit of presenting histories and curricula as “universal,” the breadth and range of contemporary practice is so broad that some kind of implicit bias seems unavoidable for even the best and most dedicated among us. All that can be done is to try to make account of one’s partialities up front.
And what of those among us outside of the traditional educational structures who share a desire for knowledge and connection as they begin their work? What about those persons for whom their books are their teachers?
In the wide and poorly charted fields of practice where technology and composition and programming and practice trundle back and forth on their own errands and occasionally meet or collide – where I find myself these days – it seems all the more important to consider the idea of representation and the creation of a situation in which all of us – colleagues, students, and the people we’re sharing a label or a bill on the current on-line remote electronic music festival with – can find their own interests (and themselves, really) mirrored in our shared pasts, our presents, and the futures we imagine.
To call for some kind of politics of representation seems both more martial and something I’m not sure I’m the best person to be making, so I’ll say this: creating a shared and imagined future benefits greatly from the welcoming community snapshot that Pink Noises provides (and to which the Pinknoises.com website continues to contribute). In addition to being an enjoyable read and a great resource, this book is also an agent of change.