Pioneering Canadian Women In Electronic Music

September 29, 2016

Recent lists of pioneering women in electronic music have bolstered the fact that women were right there making significant work during the nascence of electronic music, from the late ’50s to ’70s, on a quest for sounds and sequences never heard before. Yet most of the women who helped pioneer electronic music in Canada don’t pop up in those lists. On the surface, the early electronic era in Canada looks like a man’s game, yet looking a little deeper you’ll find Canadian women on the margins, surrounded by tape machines, computers and instruments of their own making.

The dearth of women in the early days of electronic music in general was a product of its time: electroacoustic music developed in the last century within a Western music canon and within institutional confines dominated by male scholars and prodigies. On top of that, rather than only requiring an acoustic instrument such as a piano, electronic composers needed access to an electroacoustics lab or commercially funded studio or the means to buy the necessary equipment to produce and record sound. That’s a high ladder to climb. Yet we know now that dozens of women tackled it rung by reverberating rung.

On the surface, the early electronic era in Canada looks like a man’s game, yet looking a little deeper you’ll find Canadian women on the margins, surrounded by tape machines, computers and instruments of their own making.

It’s for good reason that we know the names Suzanne Ciani, Daphne Oram, Delia Derbyshire, Wendy Carlos, Pauline Oliveros, Ruth White, Laurie Spiegel, Clara Rockmore, Bebe Barron and Éliane Radigue, all important artists in academic labs and music scenes in Europe and the U.S. – now it’s time to shine the light further to illuminate their counterparts, including women who took the lead in electronic experimentation in Canada, whether as part of electronic music studios at the University of Toronto and McGill University or forging Montreal’s electroacoustic avant-garde.

From classical arrangements on electronic instruments and tape to electronically manipulated field recordings, the work of the following ten Canadian artists represents exploration and expression, a convergence of art and technology in which neither dominated and the result inspired new ways of thinking about and making music, electronically or otherwise.

Norma Beecroft - "Jeu II"

Norma Beecroft

Norma Beecroft’s reputation as a formidable composer, coupled with her CBC radio production work, opened the door for her to join other electronic experimenters at the University of Toronto Electronic Music Studio (UTEMS) in the early 1960s. Having already composed From Dreams of Brass at Columbia’s Electronic Music Studio in 1964, she began working alongside Hugh Le Caine, Gustav Ciamaga and Barry Truax, blending electronic, acoustic and choral elements into her compositions. Hammond keyboards, voice, flute and other acoustic elements met tape recorders and reproduction machines such as the Ampex 352 ¼" – she added filtering, reverb, ring-modulation, sine tones and noise, splicing and looping tape to produce the effects she wanted.

Beecroft’s commissions by artists, ensembles and organizations such as the National Ballet ran into the dozens as her career expanded into TV and radio production, cofounding the New Music Concerts series with Robert Aitken and conducted research interviews with the world’s leading electronic composers. She specialized in live performances where electronics harmonized with choirs and orchestras: a score for a puppet show at Montréal’s Expo ’67; the ballet Hedda for orchestra and tape; Evocations: Images of Canada for digital MIDI synthesizer and mixer. By 1976, Beecroft moved into her own studio, where she composed electronic scores for Shakespeare productions at the Stratford Festival and made a radio documentary The Computer in Music. She recently published an e-book Conversations with Post World War II Pioneers of Electronic Music and still gives guest lectures on music history.

Canadian Composer Ann Southam

Ann Southam

With one foot in tradition and one in technology, Ann Southam composed with exacting technique, intent on coaxing warmth out of her machines and bringing electronic music into new spaces. Conventionally trained in piano and orchestral composition, she began “mucking around” in electronic composition in 1960, studying with Gustav Ciamaga at the University of Toronto.

Immediately engrossed by electronic music’s possibilities, she set up a studio in her apartment, filled with cabinets dedicated to synthesizers, tape recorders, a mixer and a what she called a “minimum of sound equipment,” including a vintage EMS synth and a grid-like AKS machine. By 1968, she’d begun writing expressive electronic scores in collaboration with the New Dance Group of Canada (Toronto Dance Theatre) as their composer-in-residence, inspired by dancers’ and sound’s relation to space. She continued to craft electronic scores for film and innovative choreographers such as Aiko Suzuki, before creating Winnipeg concert organization Music Inter Alia with distinctive and prolific composer Diana McIntosh in 1977.

Immersed in that particular world of new music, Southam’s own compositions soon shifted from Romanticism-meets-electronic to an American minimalist style glancingly similar to Philip Glass, Terry Riley and Steve Reich, tonal and lyrical and emphasizing a process that beautifully transformed tradition, as in her 1981 Glass Houses series for solo piano and optional tape and her collection of piano pieces, Rivers. In 1980 she became the founding president of the Association of Canadian Women Composers. Further collaborations in dance and visual arts led her towards wholly acoustic works and into compositions grounded in women’s experiences of subtle shifts in repetitive tasks, revolutionary in itself at the time.

Micheline Coulombe Saint-Marcoux - "Alchera"

Micheline Coulombe Saint-Marcoux

Sound’s connection to place consumes the work of Quebec composer Micheline Coulombe Saint-Marcoux. Her early life was filled with song, something she later explored through voice in her piece Arksalalartôq (1970) and the sonic natural landscapes of Moustières (1971), yet a more traditionally classical music path lead her to the Conservatoire de musique de Montréal in 1965. Her graduate-prize-winning composition, Modulaire, paired an orchestra with early electronic instrument the Ondes Martenot – that composition also distinguished her as the first woman to receive the Académie de musique de Québec Prix d’Europe.

Studies with Iannis Xenakis, Pierre Schaeffer and Parisian Groupe de recherches musicales nudged her further into exploring electronic music’s technical methods alongside a poetic approach to sound’s relationship to image. By the end of the ’60s, she’d co-founded the Groupe international de musique électroacoustique de Paris concert collective and returned to Montréal to launch the electroacoustic music studio at the Conservatoire de musique de Montréal with Otto Joachim and Gilles Tremblay.

Striving to make electroacoustic music better known, she formed the Ensemble Polycousmie, matching percussion and electroacoustic music with dance, and collaborated with visual artists, dance companies and theatre. Even her acoustic orchestral compositions didn’t shy away from electroacoustic methods, similarly playing with spatiality and sound trajectory, as in Hétéromorphie for the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal in 1970, where the orchestra split into four sections, sound moving like wind or a wave across them. Her smaller scale atmospheric works used synths, tape, Ondes Martenot and the human voice, with some later works drawing from Quebec poetry that evoked strong a sense of place.

Hildegard Westerkamp Peter Grant

Hildegard Westerkamp

One of the first composers to bring soundwalks into mainstream consciousness, Hildegard Westerkamp dove headfirst into electroacoustic soundscape composition, focusing on sound’s environmental contexts and the place of composers and listeners in the soundscape. In the early ’70s, she worked with Barry Truax, R. Murray Schafer and Jean Piché on the World Soundscape Project at Simon Fraser University, a multi-tiered musical investigation into noise pollution and sound ecology that evolved into the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology in the ’90s (she currently sits on the organization’s editorial committee for Soundscape - The Journal of Acoustic Ecology.)

Westerkamp’s work has always made use of environmental sound recorded within its natural context, balanced with in-studio work: from her Vancouver-based Walk Through the City (1981) and Harbour Symphony for Expo ’86, to integrating live performance in Cool Drool (1983) and India Sound Journal (1993), location always mattered. She developed field recording techniques that suited not only her composing style but her investigative deep-listening style, using close-miking and appropriate equipment for location and weather and learning how to move around a space to authentically record its specific sounds and musicality.

In the studio, she would transform recordings using analog techniques of her own devising before broadcasting the final pieces on Vancouver Co-operative Radio (where her original “Soundwalking” series aired in 1978) and other stations, performing them in site-specific performance spaces or incorporating them into sound installations. Westerkamp continues to make music and lead composition workshops worldwide.

Marcelle Deschênes

An electroacoustic and multimedia performance icon in Quebec, with numerous Canadian and international awards to prove it, Marcelle Deschênes was, and is, no music snob. From the start she worked across disciplines and communities, her compositions resolute on new combinations of music, technology, radio, film and video, performance, visual arts and the collaborative possibilities that might arise. Graduate degrees in composition at the Université de Montréal in the mid-’60s with Jean Papineau-Couture and Serge Garant led Deschênes to work with François Bayle and other composers in the Groupe de Recherches musicales de Paris, and into further studies at Pierre Schaeffer’s Conservatoire and the University of Paris, where she delved into ethnomusicology.

Back in Canada in 1971, she researched auditory perception at Laval University’s electronic music studio and carried out experiments in collective music. Acclaimed artists and non-musicians rubbed shoulders in her investigations of mixed-media techniques and sound perception and within electroacoustic and multimedia organizations she co-founded, such as ACREQ and the Canadian Electroacoustic Community.

Never one to pause her musical inquiries, a soundtrack for NFB film Le Port de Montréal was followed by co-founding electroacoustic studio Bruit Blanc; she crafted award-winning solo and collective compositions such as deUSirae and Big Bang; part of her multi-media work OPÉRAaaaAH! went into Paul Saint-Jean’s world-touring multi-media show; she represented Canada at the Centre Georges-Pompidou in Paris in 1983. From 1980 to the late ’90s, she continued to share her knowledge and expansive skill set teaching electroacoustic composition and auditory perception at the Université de Montréal.

Ginette Bellavance

A composer with a research-minded bent for auditory perception and a Masters in electroacoustics, Ginette Bellavance parlayed her experimental compositions to become a popular figure on CBC radio and television, bringing classical and contemporary music to a wider audience.

While studying composition and music at the Université de Montréal with Serge Garant in the late ’60s and early ’70s, she directed and wrote songs for the experimental music group YUL. Though some of her works, including incidental music for theatre, were atonal and for acoustic instruments, they featured aspects of sound-mass that showed up in her electroacoustic compositions: her Match en coordonnées (1971) combined two percussionists, two electric guitars and tape. Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, she worked as a composer, researcher and producer for CBC radio and TV in Montréal, Quebec City and France – yet soon enough she moved in front of the camera, singing in the 1980 premiere of Walter Boudreau’s Coffre I.

Her connections to national institutions brought her work on a variety of projects, including scores for National Film Board shorts and the 1981 feature Not a Love Story, while other works focus primarily on sonic elements, such as her music for marionettes in Comment Wang-fo fut sauvé (1982) for flute, french horn, Ondes Martenot, cello, piano, percussion and tape.

Gayle Young

Innovative electroacoustic soundscapes, instruments of her own invention, sound sculptures and more traditional compositions for acoustic instruments make Gayle Young one of the most interesting Canadian composers of the 1970s through to present day. Almost as soon as she completed her undergrad in contemporary music at York University, she had played her first concert of microtonal music on the percussion instrument she designed and built, the Columbine, using 61 steel tubes and 23 pitches per octave. Shortly after, she composed three works for sculptural installations by Reinhard Reitzenstein.

Her inventiveness got her a consulting composer gig in 1979 with Bill Buxton’s Structured Sound Synthesis Project at the University of Toronto, researching graphic interfaces for computer music systems. Yet the inaccessibility of computers at the time – they couldn’t fit in her home studio, for instance – kept Young on an electroacoustic path, layering looped tapes of her instruments over live performance (as in In Motion) and, in 1980, building 24-stringed microtonal percussion instrument the Amaranth. Intent on communicating the artistic and social significance of new music and sound art, she wrote for Musicworks in the late ’70s, becoming the magazine’s editor in 1988 and then its publisher. She also wrote The Sackbut Blues, a biography of inventor and electronic composer Hugh Le Caine, and became a founding board member of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology and the Canadian Association for Acoustic Ecology.

Kristi Allik - Electronic Zen Garden

Kristi Allik

From the University of Toronto to Princeton-Columbia’s Tape Studios to a doctorate from the University of Southern California in the late ’70s, Kristi Allik crafted compositions while studying with electronic pioneers Gustav Ciamaga and Milton Babbitt as well as composers steeped in traditional orchestral and chamber music. By the early ’80s, Allik was composing purely electroacoustic pieces, such as Introspection, as well as combining conventional instruments with electronics and electroacoustic tape, as in Meditation, and writing the chamber opera Loom Sword River. A collaborative relationship with visual artist Robert Mulder resulted in multimedia works that let her experiment with electroacoustic tape, live sound effects, interactive audio-visuals and MIDI electronics, such as in 1984’s Electronic Zen Garden.

No matter what the instrument, Allik coaxed out unusual sounds in ultimately expressive ways, writing conventional piano trios, chamber orchestras, electronic works and much in between for commissions that spanned Canada and the globe. As technology evolved, her multimedia works verged towards the digital and interactive, though later compositions involve soundscape and environmental recordings. In 1988, she joined Queen’s University to establish the Computer Laboratory for Applications in Music, later becoming its director.

The dearth of women in the early days of electronic music in general was a product of its time: electroacoustic music developed in the last century within a Western music canon and within institutional confines dominated by male scholars and prodigies.

Michelle Boudreau

For self-taught pianist Michelle Boudreau, it took winning a prize for her playing to pursue music and composition studies at the Université de Montréal in the early ’70s. She went on to write over 50 compositions, from solo piano pieces to opera, orchestral works and musical theatre, often informed by her electroacoustic work with magnetic tape and other media at McGill University’s Electronic Music Studio. In 1981, she designed and built the Nomosphase mechanical instrument, composing pieces for it that involved tape, vocals and lighting effects.

She founded and became artistic director of the Musiques Itinérantes MI Ltée in 1986, a prolific and boundary-pushing year for both her electroacoustic and acoustic work. With her compositions regularly performed internationally and in Canada by the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec, ARRAYMUSIC, the Vancouver Symphony and more, she’s kept exploring the limits of electronic sound and its connections to visual art and performance, as in works like L’Etoile libre for mezzo-soprano, live electronic treatment and film, performed at the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts in 2011.

Ondes Martenot de Montreal & Radwan Moumneh | Impro in C Bayat

Ensemble d’ondes de Montréal

Canadian women also stand out as figures in the history of the Ondes Martenot. Invented in France in 1928 by Maurice Martenot, the Ondes derived its voice-like vibrato sound from two high-frequency waves, with pitch controlled by a keyboard or a ribbon attached to a player’s ring. French culture crossover in Quebec brought the Ondes to Canada, and in 1976 a handful of solo Ondes experts joined forces to form l’Ensemble d’ondes de Montréal at the Conservatoire de musique de Montréal.

Original members included founder Jean Laurendeau and four women: Lucie Filteau, Johanne Goyette, Marie Bernard and Suzanne Binet-Audet. In concert, they played works created for the Ondes by Canadian composers such as Walter Boudreau and Micheline Coulombe Saint-Marcoux, as well as classical works they transcribed for the instrument. Popular Quebecois rock groups Beau Dommage and Harmonium even introduced the Ondes into their albums in 1975, inviting ensemble member Marie Bernard, an award-winning soloist and Ondes composer in her own right, into the recording studio.

Today, the founding members (save for Filteau and Goyette) still play in the ensemble, now considered an open group with rotating players. Some of the players are featured in recent documentary film Wavemakers, and many played on the version of Olivier Messaien’s Fêtes des belles eaux (Feast of the Beautiful Waters) that featured in Alejandro González Iñárritu Oscar-winning The Revenant, contributing an otherworldly sonic atmosphere to the film.

Header image © Oliver Barrett

On a different note