Elsie Martins, also known as Atom Eye, spent a year making strange noises with magnetic tape. She recorded sounds, then stretched, suspended, looped, and reversed them. Magnetic tape is the recording medium used by tape recorders and other analog recording devices, and it consists of a long, narrow strip of plastic film with a magnetized coating. This is the thin, shiny tape that your cat might have pulled out of your old cassettes. The result of Martins’s work is an impressive experimental sound art album called The Otolith Sessions that comes with an “audio cookbook” that Martins filled with technical knowledge that she hopes will help listeners to create their own experimental music.
“The listener can immerse themselves into the music but also in the techniques used and the imagery of the creation process,” says Martins.
The world of ambient and experimental music is rather male-dominated. With her album plus “cookbook” combination, Martins aims to encourage more women to break into the field.
One of the main things that keeps women—and all non-professional musicians—out of the field is lack of access to instruments and expensive professional recording devices.
Although avant-garde experimental music is usually perceived as unapproachable, it’s actually one of the genres of music that can be most accessible for young artists working on a tight budget, since it doesn’t require any specialized instruments and can be made with lo-fi technology. You can create deeply complex and beautiful recordings using just materials you have around your house and an old analog tape recorder. “You don’t need fancy equipment or expensive vintage machines to experiment,” says Martins. “Experimental music is about ideas and exploring other ways of doing things, other ways of seeing or hearing the world around you.”
The thing that differentiates ambient music from other forms of background and instrumental music is that it doesn’t demand a particular level of attention from its listener—ambient music can be something that you sit down and really listen to, but it can also be something that you completely ignore with your conscious mind while you do something else, and many composers claim that it enhances concentration. One of the driving features of ambient and experimental music is uncertainty and doubt—the sounds are intended to be difficult to identify, which creates a reflective listening experience that isn’t as straightforward as most other forms of music.
Brian Eno and John Cage are the superstars of electronic music today, but there were lots of women involved in experimental and electronic music in the early 20th century, many of whom Martins cites as influences on the music she makes today. Pauline Oliveros is a composer and accordionist who is credited with developing theories surrounding the ideas of “deep listening” and “sonic awareness.” Maryanne Amacher was a site-specific installation artist who created ‘sound shapes’ by using many diffuse sources of sound in a single room. Delia Derbyshire worked for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop for many years, and created an electronic rendering of the Doctor Who theme song that was later reworked and used, and for which she did not receive a co-composition credit. Daphne Oram developed the ‘Oramics’ sound technique that allows a composer to create their own ‘alphabet’ of composition symbols and then draw those symbols on a piece of paper that, when fed through the machine, will record the corresponding sounds on magnetic tape. All of these artists accomplished the bulk of their work in the mid-twentieth century, before most people knew anything about electronic or experimental music, and before Brian Eno was even making music. Today, Martins recommends Laurie Anderson, Ikue Mori, Cosey Fanni Tutti, and Gudrun Gut for those interested in checking out current female artists working in ambient and experimental music. Ekho, a blog devoted to cataloguing the work of women in sonic art, is another great source for exploration.
“I think that women are making their mark in sound art, ambient and experimental music more and more. It’s also a style of music which doesn’t require the same level of ‘sexing up’ your image as much as rock, pop or other genres,” says Martins. Because experimental music is often less accessible to a mainstream audience, there is more emphasis on the art than on the artists themselves, which might create a space for women to produce work that is not scrutinized through the lens of their gender expression.
Martins’s work as Atom Eye is an example of music that feels in many ways detached from its creator, music that directs attention away from the artist and towards the sound because of the unsettling and disorienting effect it can produce in the listener. Her long-standing curiosity about magnetic tape as a medium, an analog recording format more commonly used by the women artists mentioned above than by current electronic musicians, formed the basis of her work on this album.
“Living in the digital age, the precise nature of computer recording programs offer instantaneous results, but tape allowed me to take some of the creative processes and break them down into more organic and tactile exercises,” explains Martins. “What I gained from working with magnetic tape was an added element of unpredictability, of losing control over what the exact results might be. This spontaneity was very much the underlying force fuelling the sessions.” This sense of the unknown is apparent in the music on the album.
Check out more electronic music on this mixtape of women-made electronica: