Vermittlung Magazin

Women in Sound Art

7 Musical Micro-Portraits

Sabrina Peña Young

Intermedia composer, percussionist, author, and obsessive sci-fi buff, Young composes mind-numbing electroacoustic works heard in Asia, North America, Australia, and Europe.

The 20th century witnessed an explosion in technology, music, and sound art. Composers like Pauline Oliveros and Alice Shields found the intermeshing of music with technology created an even more expansive orchestral palette, incorporating analog synthesizers, tape, and computer music to create new exciting interactive musical works. Sound Art, electroacoustic music, electronic music, computer music – the field itself seems to defy definition. As composer Annea Lockwood states, Sound Art is "a liberating term – so broad that it escapes category, encompassing work in any audible medium, from anyone from whom sound is central."1

Such a broad field as Sound Art includes literally hundreds of talented musicians spanning the globe. From emerging 21st century composers like Hsiao-Lan Wang, Kristina Wolfe, and Jaclyn Heyen, to established musicians like Judith Shatin, Laurie Spiegel, Laurie Anderson, Susan Frykberg, Pamela Z, and Ximena Alarcon-Diaz. Resources like Elizabeth Hinkle-Turner’s Women Composers and Music Technology in the United States, and Tara Rodger’s Pink Noises: Women on Electronic Music and Sound cover the topic of women in music technology in more depth. What follows are seven snapshots of contemporary women involved in various aspects of sound art, including musical explorations in performance and improvisation, multimedia, zoömusicology, and avant-garde classical composition. These portraits will give you a tantalizing taste of contemporary Sound Art’s multifaceted interface.


I - Pauline Oliveros

With an incredible career spanning several decades of music making, composer Pauline Oliveros is a legend in electronic music. In 2012 the Foundation of Contemporary Arts awarded Oliveros with the John Cage Award in recognition for outstanding achievement. From developing the meditative Deep Listening system to innovating approaches of live processing with the Expanded Instrument System (EIS) to co-creating the Adaptive Use Musical Instruments, a cutting-edge technology that allows impaired individuals to create electroacoustic music, Oliveros impacts the field of music technology and sound art on multiple levels. Oliveros continues to embark on exciting new journeys of sound art and improvisation with projects like the Telematic Circle, an international exclave that uses broadband and iChat as a means of creating "telepresent music performances."2


The Oliveros Expanded Instrument System, or EIS, provides an interesting method of creating sound art. The EIS, originally developed in 1965 with tape delay and tape machines, has evolved to include software like MaxMSP and the latest computer gadgetry.3 The EIS reprocesses a live improvisation, essentially sending the signal through preset software parameters that then emit the sound through a multi-channel speaker set-up that may include multimedia and live video processing. While this tech-speak sounds complex, what it actually sounds like is an immersive environment where the performer and audience enter a state of meditation as the echoing sound loops reverberate throughout the space. Oliveros sits in a web of wiring, her accordion and percussion instruments part of a tangled complex system of foot pedals, switches, software, and controllers. As she blows into a conch shell, improvises on various percussion instruments, and performs on her trusty accordion, complex sounds echo, delay, and wash over the listeners with deep waves of sonority. Oliveros continues to imbue her musical philosophy to each generation through the Deep Listening Institute and her quest for innovation.


II - Maggi Payne

The complex electroacoustic works of Maggi Payne encompass an array of intricate and complex synthesis, lush abstract videos accompanied by immersive soundscapes, and avant-garde acoustic compositions. Payne says of her works: "All of my work is sound-driven: each grows and evolves as do crystals forming under the microscope."4 Interestingly, many of Payne’s films include crystal growing slowly under the watchful eye of the microscope and other incredibly abstract natural imagery.


Payne’s sound art has uniqueness all its own, with an ingenious approach to sound synthesis and the visual. Often collaborating with video artists and dancers in her sonic explorations of the micro natural, works like Here Wait, Desertscapes, and System Test (Fire and Ice) create an audiovisual world that is at once familiar and quite alien. System Test (Fire and Ice) combines manipulated sounds of ice melting, paper, and Jacob’s ladders with multimedia, creating danger, powerful frequencies, and intense sizzling of electrical discharge.5 Here Wait fills the hall with a deep rumbling wash of sound as two dancers move mirror-like using angular motions projected via video. While not a work of traditional sound art, Desertscapes takes the soundscape out of the electronic realm and into the concert hall through spatially separated a capella female choirs treated not unlike sound waves manipulated through synthesis. Maggi Payne continues to inspire and create works of incredible alien beauty through complex synthesis, stunning visual works, and an uncanny ability to combine the audiovisual into a surreal sonic landscape.


III - Alice Shields

Interweaving vocal music, dance, and electroacoustic music into dramatic works of operatic proportions, composer Alice Shields is a bastion in the world of electroacoustic music with an impressive array of complex compositions combining vocal music, dancers, and tape. Her lengthy list of large-scale multimedia works includes the opera Apocalypse and the poignant Mass for the Dead. Since her earliest days at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in the mid-1960s, Shields has infused sound art and electroacoustic music with a mosaic of august compositions.


Compositions like Dust combine Shield’s fascination with classical Indian rhythms, instrumentation, and melodies with a masterful manipulation of voice and sound. Like The Mud Oratorio, Invocation, and Shenandoah, Dust is both a standalone composition and a work meant for dance. The transcultural collaboration built a bridge between East and West through national tours in both North America and India and a conscious effort to combine both traditional spirituality and musicality.6 Alice Shields continues to broaden her musical horizons with compelling works of grand proportions.


IV - Adina Izarra

Venezuelan composer Adina Izarra’s electronic works delve into a complex world of Supercollider synthesis, multimedia, and zoömusicology, specifically in relation to birdsong’s anthropological implications. Sound art opens up the mind’s ears to what Izarra calls the "problems of pitch material", bringing to light all types of sound.7 By opening up the very definition of music to a more Cageian sense of sound as music, a composer can expand artistic creation beyond conventional pitch, rhythm, melody, and harmony.


A recent work of Izarra’s exemplifies the composer’s passion for birdsong and electroacoustic manipulation. The interactive composition titled SISTEMAS VOLATILES combines Max/MSP with bird sounds and live flute performance. The flautist controls and convolutes complex bird sounds using software manipulations in the live setting. In this way, Izarra creates an interesting three-movement work that uses aleatoric algorithms, convolution, speed changes, and filters to create an ever-changing exploration of melodic flute and birdsong through Max/MSP and an array of pedals and filters. While not all of Izarra’s works fit within the scope of sound art, the crux of her musical discoveries for the past decade continue to combine a mature fascination of avian sounds and electronics.8


V - Brenda Hutchinson

From earlier experimentations with the Long Tube, a 9 foot tube for performance with interactive electronics, to her dailybell series and current social sonic experiments in the work What Can You Do?, Hutchinson has taken sound art to new spaces of experience and creativity expanding even to virtual worlds like the Avatar Orchestra Metaverse in the game Second Life. What drives Hutchinson’s art? The composer has a keen interest in the function of music as what she describes as "primal" communication and the social aspects of music making as a communal activity.


What Can You Do? provides a means for exploring the ideas of music as a communal and social interaction. In this pseudo-performance art piece, performing pairs approach strangers in an attempt to interact on a musical and social level. One member asks a stranger about a special talent, usually related to music. After a demonstration from the stranger the first performer attempts to mimic the talent while the other interprets the entire interaction through visual, written, or recorded documentation. Through What Can You Do? Hutchinson breaks the "invisible bubbles" in the "fractured, often hostile public space."9


Improvisation, Sound Art, and interaction have been key elements in Hutchinson’s works from her 1972 tape and performance work A Grandmother’s Song to Tiny Offerings, a 2010 collaborative performance work between artists and farmers at Project Grow.10 The sound of Brenda Hutchinson transcends the concert hall through direct social interaction and inventive communal approaches to traditional electroacoustic music.


VI - Annea Lockwood

Exploring the many miniscule facets of sounds, from didgeridoos to cats purring to colanders swinging over the heads of the audience, Annea Lockwood uses the many found sounds in our world to create complex large scale compositions like A Sound Map of the Hudson River, a work of sound art derived from her fascination with rivers, steams, and springs. As mentioned in a review by Julian Cowley, "The essence of Lockwood’s compositional act has been discovery through attentive listening rather than radical intervention."11 A journey into the musical world of Lockwood reveals the beauty and meditative spirit of the natural (and sometimes unnatural) world around us in the truest spirit of sound art.


Like many composers involved in new music, Annea Lockwood explores various musical forms including fixed tape works based on found sounds from natural environments, full-scale acoustic works, and interactive compositions. For one such 1985 piece, titled Three Short Stories and an Apotheosis, Lockwood and technician Robert Bielecki created an interesting sound ball contraption from colanders, foam, and speakers. During the performance, which included found sounds and visual art, Lockwood tossed the ball using a fishing wire over the audience, creating an eclectic and visually interesting interactive sound piece. Annea Lockwood continues to relish what she calls the "immateriality and impossibility" of music and sound in innovative compositions.12


VII - Elainie Lillios

Like many contemporary composers, Elainie Lillios avoids labeling her music with terms like "Sound Art" or "electroacoustic music". Refusing to be boxed into traditional ideas of static electronic music, Lillios prefers to create amazing musical works in a variety of mediums without focusing on whether the work is a soundscape, acousmatic, electroacoustic, interactive, or electronic. In her own words from an e-mail interview to the author, Lillios writes:


"My musical explorations, whether fixed media or interactive, always employ technology as a tool – technology is simply the vehicle for my sonic explorations and compositional endeavors. It’s a means to an end; it provides me with a method to explore ideas and assemble sounds into a time-based structure called music…My objective for each piece is to create an engaging, provocative sound world cast from a strong musical idea, developed over time, cast within a solid formal structure."13


Through manipulation of found sounds from the environment through synthesis, Lillios created works like Dreams in the Desert, an incredible liquid soundscape exploring water through sonic experimentation. While the earlier works of Lillios revolved around more traditional fixed media works, such as standalone tape works, current compositions explore live interactive electronics, sound installations, and works using programs like Max/MSP for live processing.


An example of Lillios’s sonic explorations includes the piece Nostalgic Visions, an intriguing composition for live interactive electronics and piano. Nostalgic Visions explores sonic space through enveloping dissonances reverberating through a ghostly electronic spirit created through live processing. At once the listener loses sense of time and reality as echoing notes encircle the hall. Employing extended and experimental piano techniques that would make Cage and Cowell proud, Lillios succeeds in developing a world of inescapable Sound Art.14


VIII - Conclusion

From the intricacies of birdsong and micro natural sound exploration, grandiose operatic works, and meditative improvisations, the works of these seven women truly expand contemporary definitions of sound art and electronic music. Each woman addresses the implications of electroacoustic music on society in a unique way, from the intimate social interactions of Brenda Hutchinson to the Deep Listening techniques of Pauline Oliveros and the zoömusicological experiments of Adina Izarra. Technology provides the catalyst for these complex sonic explorations. Though the combined experience of these women reaches into the past several decades from the earliest beginnings of electronic music, the cutting edge nature of each new composition reveals an unquenchable thirst for the undiscovered crevices of sound art and innovation. The future of music, evidenced through explorations in virtual worlds, complex interactive software, and robotic musical instruments, may very well stem from the depths of Sound Art.


  1. Annea Lockwood, e-mail interview to author, April 2012.
  2. The Deep Listening Institute. “The Telematic Circle.” Accessed May 2012.
  3. The Deep Listening Institute “Expanded Instrument System.” Accessed April 2012.
  4., “Maggi’s long and winding bio.” Accessed May 2012.
  5. Ohrenhock der Gerauschladen. “System Test (Fire and Ice). Accessed May 2012.
  6. Arangham, “International Collaborations.” Accessed May 2012.
  7. Adina Izarra, e-mail interview to author, April 2012.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Brenda Hutchinson, e-mail interview to author, May 2012.
  10., “Biography.” Accessed May 2012.
  11., "Press: A Sound Map of the Danube." Accessed May 2012.
  12. Annea Lockwood, e-mail interview to author, April 2012.
  13. Elainie Lillios, e-mail interview to author, April 2012.
  14., "Nostalgic Visions." Accessed May 2012.