Tangled Cartography (essay)

Tangled Cartography: The Mapping of Her Noise by Anne Hilde Neset

Maps have always been put forward as a representation of the real. Topographical features, the shifting of continents, the shading of political allegiances are accepted attributes of a modern map. But how accurate and objective is this purported reality? True to the Christian value system in the Middle Ages, Jerusalem was positioned at the centre of the world on medieval maps. After the discovery of longitude in the mid 18th century, the Greenwich Prime Meridian is always at the centre. On earlier maps the far reaching peripheries are hazy, a vague guesswork constituting continental shapes.The Western musical map has always consisted of the big rock’n’roll heroes — Beatles, Stones, Led Zeppelin, Elvis, The Who et al, or the big composers: Beethoven, Mozart, Bach. We have been submitted to so many ‘greatest rock band ever’ programmes and articles, and album box sets in every genre that are sold and packaged as history. All too often are these surveys completely devoid of female content. If Beethoven/Elvis/Beatles is the Jerusalem of the modern day music map, where does that leave Patti Smith, Pauline Oliveros and Hildegard Von Bingen? Experimental composition such as Oliveros’ work may have been cut out of popular music histories but how come she is not present in Michael Nyman’s book Experimental Music: Cage And Beyond – widely considered the standard text on the genre? Female composers are not so much written out of history as squeezed out of sight, in the hazy peripheries of continents yet to be conquered.

There has consistently been another sound seeping through the bars of popular music history, and like the steam through New York pavement vent holes, it has always originated in the underground. It is this sound colleague Lina Dzuverovic and myself decided to capture and display when we set out making the Her Noise project. We started out running regular cross media events focusing on sound, at the Lux Centre in East London in 1998. After four successful years we realised that only one woman had been invited to take part out of three dozen sound artists, authors, musicians and filmmakers. Why was this the case? We challenged ourselves. Were there too few women around making experimental music and sound art? Had we become biased against women after working with men for so long? We were both inspired by strong female performers while growing up. Bikini Kill, Kim Gordon, Diamanda Galas, Raincoats, Alice Coltrane to name a very few, but somehow our world had become almost entirely populated by male practitioners. The same went for my daily job at music magazine The Wire. Only a small percentage of CDs we received in the office and writers who approached us were female. Lina and I decided to make a mark and redress the balance. Her Noise was the result, an all female sound art exhibition with an accompanying performance programme, weekly workshops and with its own archive. The artists invited were Kim Gordon and Jutta Koether, Kaffe Matthews, Hayley Newman,Emma Hedditch, Marina Rosenfeld and Christina Kubisch, and the archive comprised as many fanzines, cassettes, 7”s, albums, CDs, videos, magazines and books by and about sonic art, female musicians and everything connected to the two, that we could get our hands on. The show relied heavily on audience participation, for example encouraging the public to play instruments in the Kim Gordon and Jutta Koether music tent. Her Noise was a messy, busy, active and over all noisy affair, with the gallery itself looking more like an chaotic artist studio than a fine art exhibition.

And so did the Her Noise Map come into being. Lina and I set out to create a diagram of what we saw as the background to Her Noise. A mishmash of names, inexplicably interlinked with a complicated structure of lines and boxes was designed for the Her Noise catalogue. Throbbing Gristle’s Cosey Fani Tutti and Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier are listed in the same box. What do they have in common? Not to mention the links. What can possibly the mutant, fiery ragga of M.I.A have to do with the medieval visionary compositions of Hildegard Von Bingen? Names are omitted. Huggy Bear for example (some think Her Noise is a reference to their track “Her Jazz”, when in fact it’s an anagram of ‘heroines’). Free Kitten, an unforgivable omission even if Kim Gordon is present. What about Alice Coltrane? She’s not there. And Steina Vasulka, Laurie Anderson and Elisabeth Cotten have their own spaces. How come? The Her Noise Map is a messy, intuitive and inaccurate guideline to the history of women within exploratory art and music. It provides a snapshot of a very long curatorial process; Her Noise wasn’t a result of focused feminist strategy, it ‘just happened’ in the end, it sprang out of the hundreds of interviews and conversations we had conducted over four years and a lifetime’s obsession. The Her Noise Map was an attempt to get what was in our heads onto paper, and in our minds there is an instinctual connection between Hildegard Von Bingen, Steina Vasulka and Afri Rampo. It is not a linear connection, it is a natural network. Sadie Plant once maintained that women were more adept at sustaining and nurturing all types of networks, as it is the opposite of the male ego driven solo ride.

In his essay for the Her Noise catalogue, writer and academic Christoph Cox examines whether it is possible to talk of a feminine sound. Cox looks at Dan Grahams’s assertion in his book Rock My Religion that female music is characterised as “plurivocal, heterogeneous and polymorphous”. Graham finds this particularly true in the music of New York post punk outfit Ut, who made a point of changing instruments and roles within the group for every song, and so put forward an internal democracy and non-hierarchical structure, different from the focused libidinal energy and hero worship evident in male rock groups. Another example of networked punk is The Raincoats, who made a point of collective song writing. One person never turned up to the rehearsal with a written song, Ana De Silva explains in a recent interview. All Raincoats songs happened in the rehearsal space with collective input, and each song would have sounded different if a person was absent from the recording. As Cox points out, plenty of all male improvising groups — such as The Scratch Orchestra or Musica Elettronica Viva have used similar idealistic and democratic tactics to make music. But Cox finds that it is in the realm of electronic avant garde composition that the feminine has been allowed to freely spread and flourish. Electronic composition displays a freedom from structure and hierarchy, and is awash with female practitioners. Electronics opened up composition to include what John Cage called “the entire field of sound” — in Cox’s words “all the noises of the world in all their messy heterogeneity laid out on a single plane … Julia Kristeva calls this “the semiotic” and philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari call it the “body without organs”. All maintain it has a unique resonance with the feminine”.

If the feminine domain is heterogeneous, polymorphous, uncentered and rhizomatic, it explains why women thrive in the realm of avant garde electronic composition. The Her Noise map works the same way. It is incomplete, sprawling, non hierarchical and with a spread energy. It doesn’t have a centre, there is no nucleus. The map is in no way an attempt to define history or make a definitive statement. Omissions are admitted. The map gives, at a glance, an inroad into the hazy continent that is female experimental composition, punk, electronics, sound art, performance, and is there to remind how densely populated it is with female artists. We took perverse delight in making the links and groupings mysterious and opaque, but at the same time tried to use some sense in the construction. Elizabeth Cotton, for example, a sole fingerpicking folk and blues artist, born 1895, was an unsung heroine whose music have inspired the likes of Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger. She is in her own box as there is no other female known to us who made similar work at the time. She is a one off, a lone female in a sea of celebrated male blues artists. We couldn’t think of anyone other than Laurie Anderson who strung their violin with magnetic tape, so she gets her own box. Thinking back, Anderson and Steina Vasulka could have been in the same box, as they both made innovations by abusing electrical implements. But whatever the links, the crux of the Her Noise Map is that it has no Jerusalem, no Beatles and no beginning or end. It doesn’t have a story, it has a myriad of interlinking and contradicting narratives. It is a momentary snapshot of a pulsating labyrinth of women in sonic experimentation, a guide to be bent out of shape, manipulated and added to, especially by bold initiatives such as Larm.

Anne Hilde Neset.


Tangled Cartography: The Mapping of Her Noise originally appeared in LARM: From Mouth Cavity to Laptop: the Sound of Nordic Art