One of the things I try to do when I'm listening to female musicians is to keep an eye out for how they're trying to speak. Women's voices are certainly often pushed to the periphery, so much so that some psychoanalytically inclined theorists like Julia Kristeva and Helene Cixous argue that women speak from a place almost outside of language itself. While I think this is overstating the case somewhat, I do think that in a kyriarchy female artists are required to deploy a variety of strategies to speak, and that we need to critically interrogate the value systems that prevent us from hearing them.
So what happens when we have a female artist who only makes instrumental music? One of the things people might say when they hear instrumental music is that it's neutral, that it's impossible to tell the sex of the musician from the sound.
But reading way too much feminist theory has taught me to be suspicious of anything that claims to be neutral and unmarked, for underneath often lurks what Donna Haraway calls the "God trick" of masculinist epistemology (that is, ways of knowing). So beyond the apparent neutrality of instrumental music, I think many (most?) people imagine a male musician and composer behind the music. Wikipedia has a a very long list of female composers, but it is primarily male classical composers who have been lauded. And it is, needless to say, too often the same with instrumental electronic music.
The British post-dubstep producer Ikonika produces entirely instrumental music, with her album Contact, Love, Want, Have out last year on Hyperdub. Many of Ikonika's lead synths sound like '90s video game soundtracks, and she's said that both the Sega Megadrive and the emotional quality of R&B music is present in her synths.
"Fish" is one of my favorites of hers. With its staccato rimshot drums, some very strange pads wobbling in and out of tune and pizzicato synth stabs, it feels like a decidedly woozy take on a nature documentary soundtrack.
"I'm the singer, I sing in synths..." she told Pitchfork. "I don't really know how to play keys... so I just smack them until something nice comes out. But I want my melodies to speak. They're simple, polite, and to the point... I guess they're from my attraction to pop and R&B hooks. I love things that are catchy and memorable. They do turn out a little sour and deranged but that's what I love about messing around with synths. To me, that's the whole point: Making these machines express their emotions, just like WALL-E."
Another of her best tunes is "Please," which was featured on the 5 Years of Hyperdub compilation. With its cascading out-of-tune 8-bit synth lead and plodding 808 drums, "Please" is a hard song to listen to, discordant, sickening. For me, this song makes an appropriate soundtrack to walking through a large city and seeing the warped social effects of late capitalism—but it could just as easily be read as expressing a lovesick plea, a discomfort with social roles. The title "please" is our only clue—it could be an entreaty, a cry of desperation.
Lastly, "Red Marker Pens" has a wonderful dreamy quality, with lush synth pad chords and a plaintive melody over the top, hyperactive drums and distant siren. It feels like the last song of a good night out, anthemic, melancholy.
When asked about this by Fact magazine, she explained that "red is my favourite colour. I love the colour red—contrast is really important to me, and the colour red, at its simplest form, it can be love, it can be blood… It's something I'm really drawn to."
Playing between love and blood strikes me as a really interesting, intelligent, concept for Ikonika, striking to the heart of what it means to live and most particularly what it means to live as a woman in a kyriarchy. I can't wait to hear what she's got to sing about next.