Women in computer music

(An earlier version of this post was directed at some other events in addition to mine, but these references turned out to be factually incorrect and more upsetting for the people involved than I could have imagined, partly because they have been working tirelessly and successfully to address the below concerns. Sincere apologies.)

Here’s an interesting looking event: Algorave.

This event has some things in common with many events in UK electronic music; it has fine organisers and performers who are among my friends, it involves performance of computer music, and has a long list of performers, nonefew of whom are women. I feel able to criticise this latter aspect because I am one of the organisers, I am male and so cannot be accused of sour grapes for not being invited, and because I think it’s in everyone’s interests for this situation to be put in the spotlight — we should be open to ridicule.

I went to a live coding event in Mexico City recently, they’ve built a truly vibrant live coding scene over the past two years, and gender balance seems to be a non-issue, in terms of performers, audience and atmosphere. It may have been the mezcal, but compared to the often boarish atmosphere around UK computer music events, it felt refreshingly healthy.

What can be done about it? In software engineering, if you release an all-male invited conference line-up, you will probably be quickly ridiculed and maybe shut down. While this is disasterous for the people involved, to me it signals a healthy improvement. This is not really about positive discrimination, but more about not having the same old safe line-ups built from the regular circuit of white middle class men, and doing some outreach. Note that this is a recent problem, the UK electronic music scene was in large part founded by women, who through recent efforts are only now being recognised.

I really want to organise events showcasing people writing software to make music for crowds to dance to, but I can’t find female producers in the UK or nearby who are doing this kind of thing (please let me know of any you know!). I don’t know why this is – maybe because of a general higher education music technology focus on electroacoustic music? There are fine people such as Holly Herndon further afield, but I don’t think I can afford to bring her over. There are plenty of female computer musicians, but for some reason I don’t know any making repetitive dance music. This seems a peculiar problem to the narrow focus of algorave — I was recently involved in a fairly large performance technology conference which did seem reasonably balanced across organisers, presenters, performers and audience.

For my next step, I’m looking for funding to work with experts on making generative/live coded electronic dance music more accessible to female musicians (any help with that also appreciated!). The algoraves could also have an ambient/illbient stage, which would be massively easier to programme, but I’m not sure if we’ve got the audience for two stages at this point. I’d also like to lend support for guidelines to electronic/computer music organisers to follow to improve this situation, Sarah Angliss raised this as a possible move forward. Lets see how that goes, but in the meantime feel free to ridicule any male-only line-ups I’m involved with, for the retrogressive sausage parties they are. I think that ultimately, the pressure for reform is positive.

5 thoughts on “Women in computer music

  1. Hi Alex! Thank you for your concern with women. Thank you also for apologizing on your previous comments about the event at Macbeth – I was invited to perform and am sorry for not being in London at the moment, so I felt a bit embarrassed. Yet I imagine that Daphne Oram would be pleased that this homage celebrates her work independently from her gender! ☺

  2. Thanks Adriana and sorry to cause your embarrassment. On the plus side there’ll be at least two women playing at the algoraves now.

  3. I’m tempted to comment with too much length (as usual) and not enough specificity. I don’t know enough about the fields of generative dance music or academic conference organization to be properly specific or maybe even accurate. As for the length – I’ve got no excuse – here goes:

    I suspect a big part of the problem may be women getting cut out at early stages of getting involved in the practice/community. Plenty’s been written over the years about forces that socialize women away from computer science. And the music / visuals / club scene’s problems with sexism are fairly notorious But being a female coding-artist seems to complicate things exponentially. Female programmers often assume you’re a graphic designer trying to pretend to be a programmer. Male coding-artists often assume there’s a guy behind the curtain doing the coding. And all sorts of people get caught up in the circular perception that if a woman did it, there can’t be much to it. (We can see this one all the way back to Eniac, where the programmers were virtually all women, and programming was considered clerical work. Once men returned from WWII in large numbers, they started to fill programming jobs and it suddenly morphed into “man’s work.”)

    This last point – devaluing the work that women are doing – is a problem that comes up all over the place. As a professor teaching algorithmically-generated digital media, I’ve observed that sometimes women students will approach a broad topic differently than men – from content to technical approach. During crits, there’s a tendency for their peers to see the men’s approach – which is often more overtly about technology (I could write another tome about why I think that is) – as more substantive than the women’s. But it’s not more substantive, it’s just more overtly about technology.

    So back to conferences: are the conferences failing to find women to invite? Or are the bigger problems a) women being discouraged at early stages of participation in the field and b) women not being recognized as doing work that is relevant to “the field” because the field has been defined in a way that devalues or excludes the work that women are doing?

    Again, these are general thoughts not really based on much experience of the topics at hand, but with the idea that some of what I’ve observed over several centuries as a female coding-artist/professor might help shed some light.

  4. I think Amy has it. Livecoding is a tiny niche within the already small exclusionary niches of computer science and music.

    The upshot is you only a dozen women need to get involved to achieve gender parity.

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