The Shaggs may not be one of the first examples that come to mind when thinking of notable female sound practitioners and role models for women in the sound arts. They are often not taken seriously: their music’s “ineptitude” something to marvel and laugh at – “so bad it’s good”, a joke listeners and collectors of their music are in on but the band themselves are not.
The Wiggin sisters’ feminist credentials could also be debated: their father was their Svengali, and pushed them into taking music lessons, performing and recording – he regimented their lives to such an extent that he home-schooled them rather than allow them to attend public school so that they could put in more hours of daily playing practice. He was determined to make them “happen” and thought the girls would eventually “make it big” and help provide for the struggling Wiggin clan. However, though the operation was indeed masterminded by him, the music was entirely created by the girls and the product of their playing. And there is something truly precious and original in their “imperfect” music, which was caught on record in its innocence before “becoming”, before being molded into “proper” pop music.
On their album, Philosophy of the World, it’s as if the sisters were playing steadily but independently of one another, occasionally falling into unison by chance. The voices however seem to religiously follow the guitars in their every strum, which results in their peculiar, monotonous tone. This creates a tension, but things never fall apart. At times chance convergences are produced, and it’s as if the music was following its own set of rules.
Beyond the sonic singularity of their music, the innocence and openness of their lyrics also makes them particularly interesting. They speak of the concerns of young women going about the business of living in a small uneventful town with remarkable un-selfconsciousness.
To some, this is “bad” music, and in a way it is – it fails at fitting the standard of a successful “conventional Western pop song”. Measured by its own standards however, this music succeeds. These were three girls creating their own pop music, constructing an alternative pop music from scratch. They could not play “proper” pop music, so they played Shaggs music. Maybe they were not the most consciously revolutionary group out there, but out of need and by embracing their “ineptitude” they made up their own language, they created their own alternative to what was considered “acceptable” in the mainstream, and as such I feel these women’s music deserves to be included in the Her Noise Archive.
An item already in the Her Noise Archive that has particularly caught my attention is the Her Noise map, a collection of names of female sound practitioners of note, spanning various generations, presented on one page and organised in interlinked groupings of varying size. Though the map’s creators, Anne Hilde Neset and Lina Dzuverovic, acknowledge that there is a logic behind their choices of groupings, they also make this logic intentionally opaque, admit to consciously creating a non comprehensive list of names, and that the thick network of lines linking the groups together is created so as to deliberately appear random. The map also intentionally has no centre, no originating point, and is neither chronological nor generational (the groupings are cross-generational) – it does not tell a linear history or create hierarchies to guide the viewer. Its intention is precisely that of being consciously messy and imperfect as a map.
The map is a self-doubting map: it contains doubt and illustrates it. It doubts the very function it is meant to carry out as a map. It rejects linear models of history-making and progress in favour of creating networks of ideas between past and present, and inter-generational groupings. The history it displays is therefore not one of progress and improvement of present over past. Thus, the map is not just a map – it illustrates a point.
New combinations and networks are formed, highlighting the randomness of groupings, the randomness involved in the process of mapping – which names make it onto the general map of history and which names are left out. Indeed, though maps are thought of as representing reality, they are not necessarily objective or accurate in this representation: as Džuverović and Neset state, map-making is always a political process.
The Her Noise map does not have a beginning, end or straight story: it instead links together a multitude of contradicting and incomplete narratives. It is a perfect representative of the Her Noise Archive, as well as acting as a response to the criticisms directed at it: it openly admits that it can never be comprehensive but aims to be a mere (non linear) start-point for questioning the existing canons and thinking of alternatives. These female practitioners are “put on the map” (an expression which also could mean they are written into history), and in doing so a statement is made. But at the same time, through its contradictions, the map shows it does not seek to canonise and choose these names to the exclusion of others or carve a new history into stone, but to raise questions and invite the viewers to think of possible answers.
A book I would very much like to see added to the Her Noise Archive is Judith Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure. Through my reading, I came to regard the notions of perfection and success as suspect: what is “imperfect” is dismissed as lacking, as failing, but perfection itself is a very arbitrary quality. Who sets the standards perfection and success are defined by? And who is set to gain from these? A lack of “perfection” is used as a way to silence those who are in some way on the outside of canons or hegemonies in ways that uphold asymmetrical power-relations. Only if you are “perfect” are your opinions given weight. Thus, if you are considered inherently “imperfect” through being “other” (outside the “norm”, and thus already “deficient”), then the effort of achieving the perfection necessary to gain a voice and be listened to is almost Sisyphean, resulting in silence.
In her book, Halberstam argues that the imperfection embodied by “failure, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing” offers alternative, “more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world” (p 2-3). According to her, the Western insistence on positive thinking as a cause for success leads to the implication that if one is not experiencing success, then their failure and hardship are of their own making, a consequence of their ‘bad attitude’ and of their lack of determination, rather than that of very real external structural conditions that they may have no control over.
Espousing failure and negative thinking can then free one from “grim scenarios of success that depend on trying and trying again” and from the “norms that discipline behavior and manage human development” and can allow space for compassion, for awareness and for protesting injustice (p 3). After all, the social realities we inhabit are not natural or inevitable. Many other possible ways of being in the world were discarded, “disqualified” or absorbed in the process of establishing the one we consider to be the “norm”. Forgetfulness and refusal to learn could become a form of resistance if “directed at a dominant narrative rather than at subaltern knowledges”(p 77).
A person who I think needs to be interviewed for the archive, is Maggie Nicols, someone whom I have wanted to learn more about ever since I had the incredible privilege of meeting her and playing with her at the Her Noise symposium at Tate Modern in 2012, and of witnessing her part speech/ part performance in the Vocal Folds section of the symposium. I feel somewhat embarrassed that, despite her notoriety and great influence on the improvisation scene in Britain, and of my interest in improvisation, my knowledge of her incredible output is so limited. So perhaps for selfish reasons, and because I think she is a captivating speaker, I would like to see her interviewed for the Archive. I would also like to learn more about the Feminist Improvising Group, of which Maggie was a founding member, and whose contribution and importance I feel may have been overlooked in the history of free improvisation.
Image credit: Maggie Nicols by Dennis Austin
— Greta Pistaceci, 2013
Greta Pistaceci is a multidisciplinary artist, performer and improviser. Though her practice has its start-point in sound, her interests go beyond the sonic field. Her recent works have explored categorisation in art, muting and feminist issues, perfection and failure, art as therapy, and experiencing the moment.
She has a First Class Honours BA degree in Sound Arts & Design from the London College of Communication, University of the Arts London and has recently completed the Sound Art MA programme there.