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.