Historically, experimental electronic music has been a field in which the work of men has taken precedence over that of women. Among the big names of those men who pioneered the artistic use of new technology, women such as Elaine Radigue, Wendy Carlos, or Laurie Spiegel may be mentioned less– though they had an equally important role in the development and proliferation of experimental techniques in music.
Radigue was one of the first women to experiment with the use of analogue synthesizers in the early 70s. She created minimalistic long-form pieces comprised of a series of hypnotic, sustained tones. Despite the noisier, drone-like quality of her work, Radigue could arguably be considered one of the fore founders of ambient music; in her compositions there exists a sublime quality that so much of today’s ambient still embodies. Listening to her 1998 release, Trilogie De La Mort, one could easily slip into a deeply meditative state.
Today, though women and non-male artists are slowly making progress in the world of experimental music– ambient is a genre in which female artists are still often seemingly forgotten. There are, however, numerous women who are currently producing note-worthy work in ambient.
Some of the most well-known women in the genre are artists Liz Harris, who produces under the moniker Grouper, and Julianna Barwick. These two have often been grouped together as the “token” women of ambient, although their work is highly distinct.
On many of her tracks, Harris makes use of airy vocals and drifting, melancholic melodies to carry listeners through visions of ever distant memories. And though her more recent releases are more lyric-based, in her early albums, such as 2005’s Way Their Crept or 2006’s Wide, the voice serves as nothing but a haunting reflection of the underlying hum of synths. In addition to releasing 10 albums and collaborating with other notable ambient artists such as Lawrence English and Jefre Cantu-Ledesma, she also creates stunning, optically complex visual art, and her drawings and wall-paintings have been displayed in numerous solo and group exhibitions.
Like Harris, Barwick also places an important emphasis on vocals, incorporating her classically trained voice into a heavenly cascade of gorgeous, layered loops. However, many of her tracks have a lighter and more atmospheric feeling, as exemplified in her highly praised 2011 release, The Magic Place. Tracks such as “Vow” or “Flown” evoke a sensation of rapturous clarity. Barwick often cites her time spent singing in church choirs as inspiration for her looping reverberations; this becomes even more evident in her enveloping live performances, where listeners may feel as though they are standing in an infinitely expansive cathedral echoing with sound.
Other notable women in ambient are Emily A. Sprague, Angela Klimek, and Christina Vantzou.
Sprague is a synthesist based out of Los Angeles who uses her modular synthesizers to create precise, yet natural pieces. Her debut album, Water Memory and most recent release Mount Vision are equally impressive in their technicality and charm. The gentle, looping synths and piano melodies on Mount Vision have a graceful delicacy that opens up space for quiet reflection. The album was featured on Bandcamp’s “Best Ambient Albums of 2018” list. Sprague also has a Youtube channel where she demonstrates the use of her synths in a variety of short, mesmerizing clips.
Angela Klimek, otherwise known as poemme, creates angelic soundscapes that have an especially feminine quality in their encircling comfort. Moments in Golden Light is a healing embodiment of the magical “golden hour” of light at sunset. Klimek’s work has a particular optimism that sets it apart from much of the more melancholic ambient being produced today. In Cleveland, she and her husband Andrew run an ambient label, Stereoscenic as well as an online radio stream called Ambient Sleeping Pill.
Composer and experimental filmmaker Christina Vantzou was first recognized for co-founding The Dead Texan alongside Stars of the Lid’s Adam Wiltzie. The pair released a self-titled audio-visual CD/DVD on Kranky in 2004. Since then, Vantzou has produced four solo ambient-classical albums, accompanied by short abstract films. Her most recent 2018 release, No. 4 feels like surrendering to the current of a dark, slow-churning river. There is a comfortable heaviness to each track that pulls the listener forward through a seemingly unending sleepwalk. Similar themes are explored in her films– in videos such as Shadow Sun, a hazy unreality is present, calling to mind the dream-like work of experimental filmmaker Maya Deren. Vantzou has made other abstract videos for various musical artists as well.
Giving more exposure to female artists working in the ambient and experimental genre is vital in order to promote inclusivity and encourage other women to create.
This push for representation is exemplified in vocalist and field-recordist Megan Mitchell, who currently runs Many Many Women, an online music index for female and non-male experimental composers, improvisors, and sonic artists. Mitchell also produces under the alias, Cruel Diagonals. Her latest album, aptly titled Pulse of Indignation, is a powerfully dark and heavy expression of the exploitative experiences that many women and non-men have faced in a male-dominated music industry.
There is something unique and dynamic about the female perspective that should be more regularly acknowledged in the world of ambient music. Whether it be modular synth loops, grandeouis orchestral compositions, heavily manipulated found-sound, or ethereal vocals, women have a lot to contribute to this genre, and deserve not only to be recognized for their phenomenal work, but to also have their own space beside men to continue creating outstanding music and art.
More need-to-know artists such as Sarah Davachi, Felicia Atkinson, Vanessa Amara, Cecile Schott (Colleen), Wild Adoration, and Leila Abdul-Rauf, are featured on PITP’s Essential Listening playlist, Women of Ambient.
Written by contributing PITP writer, Giovanna Lenski. Giovanna is an ambient artist based out of Chicago, under the alias, 'Phoebe'. You can listen to her latest release 'Reminder | Lucent' HERE.
We are excited for our friend, John Daniel, who creates beautiful music under the alias, Forest Management, in his new endeavor; Afterhours ambient label. We had the opportunity to speak with John about Afterhours.
Please introduce yourself and can you give us a little background information about you personally and the Afterhours label?
My name is John and I currently live in Chicago, producing music as Forest Management. I run a tape label with my friend Michael (Stumpf) called Reserve Matinee, and launched a separate imprint today to release ambient music on handmade CDrs. It's named Afterhours.
What prompted you to establish a label?
New ideas and inspiration, demos in my inbox, countless friends who are making amazing music, and a desire to work with my hands again. Some people may or may not know that I already had a CD label called Sequel. I've really enjoyed that label and am proud of all the artists that are on it. I learned a lot through that label (it was my first), made some mistakes, and gained rewards I never saw coming. Staying in Iceland with my friend Milena Kriegs in September, for example - you meet people from around the world who are like-minded, and with a label it feels like family. Sequel was no exception. I just needed to start fresh, it kind of became like a stress-inducing part-time job in 2017.. not what I was looking to do when I started out, but that happens. I wanted to start a new imprint that would be low hype, low expectation.. and very, very limited editions of handmade CDrs. I grew up in Cleveland and eventually discovered a community of artists who embraced handmade art and short-run editions of music, that also has been on my mind lately and served as inspiration.
What is your current roster of artists?
I don't want to give too much away about next year, but for this year there's a couple more releases arriving. As you can see, it's myself and Rime Trails at the moment. Evergreen Avenue, this young dude who lives in Georgia will be up next. Ross is another young producer based in Chicago, I met him while I was on a bad acid trip in the woods of Northern Illinois back in July. We've become friends, excited to hang with that guy more often.
How would you describe the music you release and plan on releasing?
Ambient and contemplative. The idea behind the name is just as it reads. I've recently grown a stronger interest in engaging late-night moments in Chicago with quiet and meditative music. There's an incredible, strong, and supportive dance music community here.. clubs like Smartbar are safe places for diving into an experience with music, with your body, with people. It's been a huge part of my Chicago experience since living there. I never saw that coming - when I started making solo music 9 years ago most of my music experiences had been with independent songwriting and folk music. It's cool how that community arc can expand; a central area that you become invested in (ambient music in my case) that eventually shows itself to be more universal and unifying than you originally thought. So I want to put these CDrs in my pockets and give them to friends at these clubs, at these after-parties and hangs. Anywhere.
What are your release plans or goals for 2019?
Only goals at the moment are staying in the green and learning new visual art techniques, for assembling the CDr jackets. I'm excited to try some art approaches that I've never done before. I don't consider myself a visual artist so this is also a vulnerable and challenging project, which is great.
Do you intend to release any albums on vinyl?
Not on this label, no.
Are you actively seeking demos and project submissions?
If so, how does one contact Afterhours?
I wouldn't say I'm looking for people to send me unsolicited music, but I will listen to any demos that get sent. I always try to listen to demos. I just honestly probably could fill 2019-2021 with all of the heads I know who are churning out zone by zone. I'm always overly aggressive with my music friends and annoying them after I hear 5 seconds of something they made, haha. I would say familiarize yourself with the label and its artists, then get in touch through the Bandcamp contact.