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Een afbeelding van Ale Hop

A new language for a new music industry

LONGREAD Heroines of Sounds VI

Six successful editions of Berlin-based festival Heroines of Sound in just five years have proven that a feminist music festival is needed more than ever to create a strong network and to fight misconceptions, essentialism and persistent stereotypes that shape gender disparity in the music industry. Above all, it turns out that it is actually not very difficult to sell out a festival by programming only high-quality performances by a wide range of (international) female* artists. But how do we go from here?

The many respectful conversations at the Heroines of Sound Festival in the past five years have brought us closer to understanding the structural causes of the underrepresentation of female artists and gender disparity in the music industry and media. And to the collective conviction that we can’t carry on like this, that ruthless demands must be made.

Yes, a lot of festivals have become more sustainable, more diverse and more aware of the need to create safe spaces for all artists and visitors. However, talking about the underrepresentation of female artists in the music industry still results in a backlash of defensive reactions. 

The current discussion in the Low Countries seems to be stuck in an infertile discussion about numbers and quota. For a real change, we need to be able to have another kind of conversation and a new language.

Day 2 @ Heroines of Sound Festival 2019 37 © Udo Siegfriedt 2019
Audience at Heroines of Sound (photo: Udo Siegfriedt)

Part 1. Five years of progress or status-quo?

The current wave for change in the music industry started around 2014/2015, even before the advent of the #metoo movement.

Next level

Awareness about gender disparity reached the next level in 2014. An eye-opening discussion about gender disparity took place in the framework of KLANGZEITORT at the UDK in Berlin, which was later published as an article. It is reprinted in the publication ‘Heroines Of Sound. Feminismus und Gender in Elektronischer Musik’ (2019), published to reflect on the festival’s five years anniversary. Many other contributions in the volume refer to it. 

That same year I wrote a long review of the 15th edition of the Berlin CTM Festival: an excellent edition, but the overwhelming amount of men with modular synths on stage was very conspicuous. Initially, the CTM organisation was not pleased with my critique and that of other music journalists, but they were fair to acknowledge the gender disparity and changed their curatorial practice. 

Gender Pay Gap

By that time, I had started researching female pioneers and contemporary producers in electronic music. I met them at various events, for example at a festival organised by q-02 in Brussels. I co-curated a festival and became increasingly uncomfortable by the male dominance both on and off stage, and by its gender pay gap. When I returned from a sabbatical at the end of 2014 during which I had long discussions with female artists from Turkey to Japan, I knew we had to make a change in our editorial policy at Gonzo Circus as well.

The next step was to make the gender disparity visible by letting the numbers speak for themselves. In 2013 female:pressure started publicizing FACTS: counting female artists at festivals worldwide, as was one of the early strategies also applied in literature worldwide to raise awareness about the problem. For a talk in the series New Emergences, as part of TodaysArt 2016, I was asked to reflect on this.

Diversifying staff?

At the time, I was also counting, looking into awards granted to female artists in the Low Countries since World War II. The results were shocking. The gender disparity in music industry professionals was likewise reflected in appalling numbers.  When looking at numbers provided by Kunstenpunt in Flanders, it became clear that previous volunteer or small scale music organisations becoming professional music venues and festivals in the late 1990s – early 2000s still had a predominantly white male artistic staff. Budget cuts in recent times have prevented those organisations from diversifying their staff. Again with new budget cuts coming up and in the context of new policies announced by the Flemish Government, this topic will not be high up on the agenda.

It is no surprise that in this context Heroines of Sound started out in 2014 as an explicitly feminist festival aimed at pioneers and contemporary composers in electronic music. It immediately filled a gap with its all-female line-up, in-depth discussions and collaborations with other (international) organisations. In the Heroines of Sound publication, many contributions by artists, scientists, theoreticians and curators emphasize the importance of the festival in the last five years.

But where are we now?


Recently, the Guardian headlined ‘It’s an act of defiance: the rise of all-female festival lineups’. In the article (not mentioning Heroines of Sounds) Emily Eavis, organiser of Glastonbury and ambassador of Keychange (see below), was quoted saying that the pool of female artists still just isn’t big enough. However, the list of successful all-female festivals or festivals with 50/50 gender split proves this argument invalid.

In the article, a number of reasons were cited for the rise of all-female festivals: frustration, impatience and a need to redress the gender balance, a specific response to injustice especially in the context of #metoo and the insurgence of a new feminist and queer wave. And as mentioned at the Heroines of Sound-festival: the more confident, emancipated audience has become an active agent for change.


The bottom line remains that there is a structural gender disparity in the music industry. As Vanessa Reed, founder of the Keychange-initiative for 50/50 gender splits at music festivals, puts it: ‘There are still so many male promoters and bookers and established networks that have traditionally booked more men than women. All those things mean it’s harder to instigate change.’ And the music journalism which prides itself on keeping a critical distance is not exempt from this. 

Sadly, only five organisations and festivals in The Netherlands and two (very successful) festivals in Belgium have so far committed to the Keychange Initiative. While the situation continues to be dramatic, as the most recent survey by She.Said.So Belgium made clear, the same refuted arguments pop up every time: a misconception of the nature of quality and an essentialist discourse that keeps reproducing stereotypes about female as well as about male artists.


‘The pool just isn’t big enough’ or worse: ‘the pool of high-quality female artists we are looking for isn’t big enough’ are persistent clichés constantly repeated in The Netherlands and Flanders. When I gave a talk during a New Emergences event at Todays Art 2016 about gender disparity in the music industry, a young man could not wait to tell me that as a curator he only looked at the quality.

Maybe he felt ashamed, maybe his ego was put to the test, but this question turned out to be a blessing and an eye-opener to many people in the audience. The other panel members quickly stepped in to fundamentally question the notion of quality. 

How do we define what is quality? What bias is ingrained in a particular idea of quality? What are the standards we use to define what is quality? Do we talk about quality in female artists in the same way when we talk about male artists? And which other factors (such as the number of bookings, and releases of an artist) are included in the notion of quality? 

Cultural archive

In her 2015 master thesis ‘Een verkennend onderzoek naar genderdispariteit in de muziekindustrie bij niet-performers in Nederlandstalig België’ (‘An exploratory study into gender disparity in the music industry among non-performers in Dutch-speaking Belgium’) Gaëlle Vanhaeverbeke has argued that one important element in defining quality is the proximity or similarity to our own world. What we know intimately is often perceived as quality. And since many curators are still male, line-ups turn out to be still predominantly male.

I would like to add another idea recently developed by Dutch feminist Anja Meulenbelt in her new book on class and identity, ‘Brood & Rozen’: it is the similarity and intimacy defined by our own wider ‘cultural archive’ that defines ‘quality’. If one has grown up with Bob Dylan and indie pop/rock and subsequently goes on to become a curator at an indie pop/rock festival, it will be hard to recognize the quality of e.g. footwork, Gqom, K-Pop or the new wave of Northern-African musicians. Awareness of this cultural bias is crucial before any change can be made.

Sukitoa o Namau – Nari III: Day 3 @ Heroines of Sound Festival 2019 17 © Udo Siegfriedt 2019
Sukitoa o Namau – Nari III: Day 3 @ Heroines of Sound Festival 2019 17 © Udo Siegfriedt 2019


As German composer and professor Iris Ter Schiphorst quotes composer and performer Laurie Anderson: ‘Language is a virus’. If we want to get rid of the essentialist discourse in The Low Countries, we need to have more conversations, more contextual programs at festivals about feminism and language. Stopping the conversation by saying ‘enough has been done’, is not an option.

Heroines of Sound teaches us how language shapes gender disparity. In her contribution to the Heroines of Sounds publication ‘Werde Komponistin?!? Über Berufe, Rufe, Anrufungen und andere Rituale’, Ter Schiphorst carefully dissects essentialism in German language. The similarities with essentialism in the Dutch language are striking. This essay should be compulsory reading for everyone in the music industry.

Female nature

Seemingly feminist statements that are actually rooted in essentialism are not recognized by journalists and subsequently reproduced in media. In a report on gender disparity in the music industry in Flanders a few years ago, a female pr-agent stated that ‘the female nature’ is really suited for a pr-job. An internalized attitude I recognize from my experiences in the film industry over a decade ago.

More recently, national Dutch newspaper NRC published an interview with Bryce Dessner, composer at The National. He stated that female voices conveyed more emotion and that with the ‘use’ of female voices the music of this all-male band will be more ‘universal’. Calling female voices more emotional is a damaging stereotype, not only for women but also for men.


What shocked me was not only that Dessner’s idea of empowering women is based on a division of roles of the genius composer and the female performer of the emotions of said composer, but also that he was genuinely convinced that this essentialist approach would set a good feminist example for his daughters. 

And what was even more shocking was that the (female) journalist didn’t recognize this sexist language, and again reproduced the stereotypes in one of Holland’s major newspapers.


After reading this article I decided to put the rhetorical question on my Facebook page: do we still need these kinds of stereotypes being reproduced in the music industry and major media? Predictably, a small shitstorm and lots of mansplaining came my way. Men who call themselves feminist direct messaged me to explain to me how I got it all wrong. 

Fighting stereotypes is something that empowers Bettina Wackernagel, festival director of Heroines of Sound. She points out that the mentioned stereotype is based on the fact that for a long time composing was seen as something so abstract that it couldn’t possibly be a female occupation. Similar stereotypes were used when Björk’s authorship was questioned or in the treatment of the famous composers Olga Neuwirth, video artist Valie Export and Nobel Prize winner and writer Elfriede Jelinek when working on a new piece for the Vienna Opera House.

But Wackernagel is sure a change is coming, since not only a younger generation, but many previously marginalised groups are speaking up. Meanwhile, she insists on putting the finger on the sore spot, time and again, until real change is made.

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Part 2. 10 LESSONS

Continuously calling out misconceptions and fighting essentialism is exhausting. But despite the backlash, the angry festival directors, the shitstorms on social media or threats, the above examples illustrate the necessity to continue developing the conversation. And over the past five years, Heroines of Sound has set a high standard with its line-up, panel discussions, and publication. So, what can the music industry in the Low Countries learn from an initiative like Heroines of Sound?

1. Search, acknowledge & share freely

The final pages of the publication ‘Heroines Of Sound. Feminismus und Gender in Elektronischer Musik’ include a list of the female pioneers in early electronics that have inspired the festival. 

On that list – between the likes of Delia Derbyshire, Hilda Diana and Pauline Oliveros – four Belgian female pioneers are featured: Jacqueline Nova, Annette Vande Gorne, Ingrid Drese and Elisabeth Anderson. For the Netherlands, only Anna La Berge is mentioned. With the exception of La Berge, none of these groundbreaking artists have been featured in Gonzo Circus magazine.

Take one example from this list: Annette vande Gorne. First I thought I had only vaguely heard of her before because she is mainly active in the French-speaking part of Belgium. When I told a male journalist in the music industry about the pioneering and amazing body of work by Annette vande Gorne (1946), he suggested rather fiercely: ‘aren’t we too quick to call her a pioneer?’ It left me wondering if he would have said the same about Andre Brasseur (1939) – also from the French-speaking community in Belgium – who was embraced as a ‘rediscovered pioneer’ a few years ago.

Without wanting to generalize, from personal observation it seems that especially older male journalists tend to pride themselves on being the first to know a band, to have attended a concert by a band before they were famous or to name-drop obscure bands. 

When someone else rediscovers a ‘pioneer’ it seems to prompt a sense of guilt and shame: it can make one feel stupid or like an imposter. Am I worthy of working for a music magazine if I have never heard of this artist before?

Heroines of Sound teaches us that we should not feel shame – nobody knows everything – but rather keep searching and learning as well as taking pride in helping each other rediscovering these pioneers from all over the world because it offers us additional beautiful artistic experiences and opens up new perspectives and dialogues.

Everyone engaged in music – journalists, curators, musicians and listeners – can join what famous architect and educator Joseph Albers (husband of the amazing artist Anni Albers) called the ‘genuine search’ – rather than the goal-driven research.

And this is what Heroines of Sound achieves: searching together without limitations. During the first years of the festival, the panel discussions, documentaries and retrospectives (e.g. on Ellen Bute during last year December’s edition) have focused on the work of these forgotten pioneers.

The focus during the most recent edition in July 2019 was really about searching, and acknowledging and then shedding the shame. Especially when you are part of an existing ecosystem, awareness doesn’t come overnight. But shame will not bring us closer to a more gender-equal and inclusive music industry.

PANEL I – Female Future Sounds Day 1 @ Heroines of Sound Festival 2019 03 © Udo Siegfriedt 2019

PANEL I – Female Future Sounds with Bettina Wackernagel,
Nina Dragičević, Anna Schürmer and Marleen Hoffmann.

Day 1 @ Heroines of Sound Festival 2019 03 © Udo Siegfriedt 2019

2. Practice and streams should speak as loudly as formal releases

A befriended cis-male audiovisual artist who doesn’t want to release an album because the format doesn’t appeal to him had a hard time to get coverage and bookings, despite his very innovative body of work. In today’s music industry releasing records, giving interviews and subsequently touring is still the usual format. Labels, festivals, venues and media are thus intertwined in a seemingly endless, tedious and increasingly corrupting loop.

Luckily, a few labels have recently opted to shift criteria when releasing albums in an attempt to liberate themselves from the exhausting business model that has been in place ever since we can record and redistribute sounds. Festival premieres are another way of escaping old routines. The idea is that this will not only help to fund new work, but also pull audiences. Moreover, (co-)producing new work often generates income for festivals.

But the current ecosystem continues to diminish chances for female artists to be booked for a live performance or to be covered in a magazine. For many female artists, it is difficult to get their music released in the first place, as some of the panellists at Heroines of Sound testified. Why female artists are getting fewer opportunities to release an album deserves a proper research into what Vanessa Reed calls the ‘old boys networks’ in the music industry.

An interview with Klara Andersson (Fågelle) – last year’s Heroines of Sound Festival revelation to me – in Gonzo Circus magazine was postponed until she had released her album. It is not only the case in popular music or in print. Only this year the acclaimed composer Nadia Boulanger made it to the top-100 of most airplay composers on German radio, as one of the few female composers.

On top of this are we now confronted with a new challenge: more and more music is only released through streaming services like Soundcloud or platforms like Bandcamp. For artists who are not white cis-male, it is part of the solution, although it takes more to circumvent the obstacles mentioned above. 

As was remarked during the panels: it requires a new mindset to take the music released on these platforms seriously in the whole body of work created by an artist. How do we make sure that because of the ephemeral character of this music in the cloud, these female artists will not once again be forgotten in the history of music? The general conclusion at the panels during Heroines of Sound was that we certainly don’t need new physical release-only canons that will exclude large groups.

Even if artists have not released (many) albums or only released work online, they can have an inspiring story to tell and we shouldn’t wait with interviews until there’s a physical release (if there is ever going to be one). After all, as a publication you want to inspire audiences and curators. 

Taking the time to look at an artist’s whole body of work, including alternative platforms, offers the opportunity to highlight surprising, innovative artists who are not yet very well known, who often have no formal training. 

And we can take an example from Heroines of Sound VI since this edition of the festival got this balance and communication just right: by focusing on premieres of work commissioned by the festival on the one hand and on the discovery of an interesting body of work on the other hand.

3. Create real equal opportunities for all

As mentioned above, commissions and premieres are very important. Heroines of Sound presented 3 new commissioned works (at the same time world premieres), 5 world premieres and 3 German premieres. It is an active way of creating more visibility for women. A strategy director Wackernagel is clearly very passionate about, as she confirms during a short conversation we had just before the start of the final panel.

However, contrary to other festivals, she doesn’t want to commission work and then continue to sell it as a sort of agency. In a way, this could be a pity for the artists. Critics could even say the festival is snobbish. On the other hand: Wackernagel says that she is always happy when artists they program appear on other line ups without commercial pressure from Heroines of Sound as (co-)producer and funder.

It is a clear break with common practices in the music industry that often limit the artistic and ‘commercial’ freedom of artists or is currently creating an (unintended) mono-culture across European festivals.

And in creating opportunities and/or commissions for female artists, the same high standards should be offered in terms of feedback during the artistic process, resources to create the work and finally, the circumstances for performing. Tucking away a commissioned work by female composers in an afternoon slot in a concert hall with substandard acoustic qualities might even be worse than not commissioning work by female artists at all. This has, unfortunately, been experienced at other festivals by female artists I have met in almost 15 years in the music industry.

Elsa M’bala – I am Day 2 @ Heroines of Sound Festival 2019 17 © Udo Siegfriedt 2019
Elsa M’bala – I am Day 2 @ Heroines of Sound Festival 2019 17 © Udo Siegfriedt 2019

4. More money and fair pay for all

This also brought on the discussion during the panel about feminism and #metoo in the music industry. It is astonishing that so far, in the music industry relatively very few #metoo-stories have come to the surface. When one story breaks, there is an expectation that an avalanche will follow, since most female music professionals know stories or have sadly experienced abuse. But it strangely hasn’t happened yet.

During the festival, outspoken scholar, activist and artist Nina Dragičević pointed out it remains important to tell the stories of appalling power abuse in the music industry. But we need to face the fact that the old power structures in the music industry are still very much in place. And that the old powers are fighting back by re-traditionalizing the position of women in society, and therefore also in the music industry.

Hence, the time of ideological nitpicking on strategies should be over, Dragičević said. I fully agree with her. Festivals like Heroines of Sound and other initiatives like New Emergences, female:pressure, and She.Said.So need to join forces to look further than the historical and current abuse – which definitely needs to be addressed and processed – in order to co-design a healthy, balanced music industry ecosystem.

As musician and activist AGF put it: ruthless demands are in place now. Everything that might be of help should be used. A list of strategies was named during the talks. For example: as members of the audience and artists, we can encourage existing cultural spaces to reinvent themselves. If that is possible, because, as writer Debory Levy pointed out, if sexism and racism are part of the DNA of an organisation, it becomes very hard, if not impossible, to change them. 

Other demands are: new spaces, putting pressure on governments and private funds to make inclusivity a requirement for funding, educate fellow travellers, quota, putting pressure on festival curators by holding them accountable, sharing best practices, more commissions and awards for female artists and engaging in a continuous dialogue with the audience, policymakers and a wider network. The jury is still not out on whether a quota is necessary or not. For Wackernagel it is obvious: in her view a quota is needed to change current, persistent curatorial practices.

Nina Dragičević’ call for more political action was unfortunately not really discussed in-depth at Heroines of Sound but would be a good topic for the next edition. As a lot of feminist scholars have pointed out, the traditional left has a very bad track record when it comes to supporting emancipation movements of women and other minorities, while liberal parties have pushed female entrepreneurs in a male format and at the same time considering artists as entrepreneurs, which could prove a twofold blow. 

But most of all more money is needed. As in health care and education, once a field is labelled as female, it loses prestige and, subsequently, funding. This trend has to be reversed since it mostly affects women who already provide a lot of unseen and therefore unpaid work in the music business, which gives policymakers a further excuse to cut budgets. Fair practices should be for all if we want a healthy music industry ecosystem.

5. Build strong supportive networks, avoid ghetto’s

Heroines of Sound 2019 also offered a much-needed support network, as labelled necessary by Anja Meulenbelt in her recent book. So-called identity politics haters are quick to label support networks as a source of ghettoization or sectarianism. 

However, Heroines of Sound carefully avoids this: at the core of this intersectional feminist festival is the lack of a dominant group. Not only the line-up but also the audience at Heroines of Sound couldn’t be more varied and inclusive, as is confirmed by their most recent audience research.

In the Heroines of Sound publication, American-Dutch composer Anne La Berge recounts: ‘It was a profound honour for me to be included in the first edition of Heroines of Sound where I could rub elbows with, listen, hang out and share work with my colleagues. I became less lonely.’ And being able to exchange experiences and thoughts as well as listening to new music, Heroines of Sounds offers an even more needed space to recharge. In the course of the festival new energy to fight sexism and racism in the music industry and society was bubbling through the audience. 

And such recharging is necessary. Reading all the reports on gender disparity, and having endless private conversations on sexism in the music industry can make one feel very tired or even give up. As mentioned during the panel: among female composers, there is some resentment about a few established female composers who don’t speak out or worse: defend the status quo. 

But luckily, most female artists do speak out. And do so more and more. Among others, Wackernagel praised Olga Neuwirth, the first female composer who became a member of the German Akademie der Künste and who keeps raising her voice against sexism and gender disparity. Strong supportive networks with key players are crucial.

Ale Hop

Peruvian ALE HOP grew up with daily violence: the cycle of war in South-America never seems to stop. Curfews and the male dominance in the public space make it hard to perform and build networks for female musicians. On top of that are the neoliberal stereotypes of femininity part of Peruvian society: she is often being told she plays like a man.

With her roots in the Andes, she faced double discrimination based on her ethnicity and on her gender. The music of the Andes is still being dismissed by the contemporary elite as ‘non-human music’ because the traditional Peruvian music ‘doesn’t know harmony’ and is made by people the ruling class since still doesn’t acknowledge as real humans.

The fact that these colonial stereotypes in 2019 are still being reproduced and that in Lima she is still considered a second class citizen, drives her anger. Something she expressed in her amazing set the day before where she combines visuals of her youth in a city in lockdown with noise, ambient and exquisite experiment. ALE HOPS new album ‘Apophenia’ is out now on BUH records and should not be missed. And read the interview in the upcoming issue of Gonzo (circus).

6. Embrace other values

As everyone agreed during the panel discussions, we should keep fighting gender stereotypes. Essentialist ideas of how female artists should compose or perform are no longer valid. We should also be aware of how we phrase experiences. Noise music by a male composer is often described as ‘powerful’, while the same music made by a female composer is described as ‘violent’, as French Composer Clara Maïda points out in her contribution to the Heroines of Sound book. And let’s not deny it, it happened in Gonzo Circus as well. And it still happens on a daily basis in mainstream journalism.

One of the most inspiring people at last year’s and this year’s panel discussions during Heroines of Sound is the aforementioned Nina Dragičević’. Last year she spoke about the amazing heritage by not formally trained and non-recorded female composers from the Balkan region. Her research led her to conclude that gender doesn’t have a sound (female singers don’t have a more ‘emotional’ voice), but sound has a gender. Sound is the articulation of a subject and contains signifiers, like gender. 

Dragičević is convinced we need all the background information about a work to attach meaning to it, but we should avoid putting essentialist labels on music because of this information. Renowned cultural institutions, classically trained musicians and bands like The National still seem to have a hard time making this distinction.

This also brought up the discussion about blind auditions or blind submitting of work for commissions and contests. As Dragičević pointed out, it is proven by research and is painfully proven by composing competitions like Gaudeamus, anonymous submissions have so far never lead to gender equality at festivals or competitions. It is simply not enough to balance the structural inequality of the music industry since e.g. gender bias can be ingrained in the submission forms.

Another often repeated essentialist point of view is often that with more women in an organisation, or a more ‘feminine’ discourse, these organisations and companies would become instantly more profitable and sustainable. 

Obviously that doesn’t have to be the case, but it is probably safe to say that their experiences in the music industry make women question existing values so they tend to put other values (and sounds) to the forefront. And this makes more inclusive music platforms and (young) organisations thrive. 

And because of these experiences women in power will often make different choices. As Bettina Wackernagel refers to Susanna Eastburn who is now Chief Executive of Sound and Music in the UK and has finally set a gender quota for commissions.

The clash of values between the essentialist view and the premise of questioning existing standards became painfully clear during the panel discussion on breaking taboos through failure, glitches and disruption, a topic already firmly explored in electronic music and arts. The keynote lecture by Alain Franco (composer at Anna-Theresa De Keersmaekers dance company P.A.R.T.S. and teacher at the Universität Der Kunste) on failure as a strategy felt odd and outdated.

Composers Laura Mello and Annesley Black tried to shift the perspective in the discussion by bringing other, more contemporary strategies and values in the discussion, like choosing a way of composing that would dare ‘institutionalized musicians’ or by questioning ‘knowledge’, ‘virtuosity’ and the idea of the ‘male genius’.

Ultimately, the panel proved to be an interesting failure itself because it highlighted the gap between ‘institutional thinking ’ as shimmering through in Alain Franco’s keynote and the strategies of the makers presented at Heroines of Sound, often working outside the institutions.

7. Dare to act

During our short conversation, Wackernagel stressed that Heroines of Sound is not a festival for Agitpop, but to her, no music exists in a space without society. If I ask her if the surge of the extreme-right in Germany has affected the funding of the festival, she doesn’t answer directly. But it is clear she has little trust in politicians.

She puts more trust in the audience that shares her curiosity and awareness and artists like Laura Mello (see below) who acts against the destructive policies of Brazil’s president not only in terms of the Amazonian rainforest but also in destroying civil society and laws for gender equality. 

And Wackernagel dares to mingle the organisation in political debates when she knows Heroines of Sound can make a difference. When in 2018 only 3 out of 20 research and development grants for artists by the Berlin Senate were appointed to women, Heroines of Sound started a petition because she was appalled that this could happen in Berlin, a city that prides itself on its openness and inclusivity. It turned out that little female and LBTQIA+artists had applied, raising the question about gender bias in admission procedures. I hope more Flemish and Dutch organisations will speak up in the future, not allowing themselves to be silenced for fear of losing funding.

8. Show solidarity

‘Perspective changed my perspective’: in the book, Japanese composer Midori Hirano aka Mimicof hails the intersectional approach of Heroines of Sound. Intersectional feminism and identity politics emerged in the 1970s when black and/or poor women didn’t feel represented by the dominant strand of feminism that focused on the claustrophobic experience of wealthy suburban white women. 

In her contribution to the Heroines of Sound book, Susanna Kirchmayr, also known as the artist Electric Indigo and founder of the international network female:pressure, talks about how she became more and more aware of her white privilege through her interest in Detroit- and Chicago-techno and current discussions in the female:pressure-network.

And while the position of female artists in Europe remains precarious, the third and last panel on female composers from South-America, now all mainly based in Europe, shifted the perspective again.

María del Rosario Cardona - PANEL III Day 3 @ Heroines of Sound Festival 2019 03 © Udo Siegfriedt 2019
María del Rosario Cardona – PANEL III Day 3 @ Heroines of Sound Festival 2019 03 © Udo Siegfriedt 2019

Although the trigger for each composer that took part in the panel has been different, the distance from their home countries made them all even more aware of the position of female composers worldwide. 

The overall macho and sexist atmosphere in South-America makes work in their home countries very difficult, if not impossible, like in Brazil where all social progress has been reversed and social movements are now even being criminalized by the new extreme right-wing president Bolsanero, as Laura Mello testified.

But Chilean composer and video artist Paula Shopf also scratched off the veneer of political correctness in the western music industry. Yes, a lot has been achieved and Europe offers more respect and opportunities, but the artists still feel underrepresented e.g. at festivals and sexism is still omnipresent. In that respect, the gap is not so big.

Each story by the six composers in this panel was impressive, especially those by the young generation represented by María del Rosario Cardona (Columbia) and Ale Hop (Peru), who both (re)search the colonial gender and racist stereotypes that are still being reproduced in South-American society and music. It is not a surprise so many female/queer collectives currently pop up in South America. Solidarity – not by accident the theme of this year’s Unsound Festival in Poland – is pivotal in bringing change.

María Del Rosario Cardono

Years of war on drugs and fear have silenced civil society in Columbia, explained María Del Rosario Cardona. For a long time, electronic music was closely associated with drug dealing and was mainly strong in the underground queer scene.

This changed around 2000 when DJs and musicians who travelled to Europe brought back new and exciting music. Del Rosario Cardona, who first didn’t want to be part of the scene, plunged into it when she discovered it was different than the traditional dance styles that fitted the typical heterosexual norm.

Electronic music offered her the opportunity to experiment – as Elisabeth Shimana in the book recalls being excluded from formal training brings new opportunities – to discover her body via music, especially through the inclusive and very outspoken version of reggaeton, neoperreo. 

It became obvious to her that she needed to start a collective to raise awareness and in order to collect data because in Columbia there still is a lot of fear, there is yet no living in peace and music can offer a perspective and solace.

9. Erase borders

It is rare when the intentions of a festival are almost completely reflected in the line-up. But this year’s Heroines of Sound came close to achieving this, while opening up the line-up to more genres and different artistic practices. The musicians came from more varied backgrounds than previous years when the focus was mainly on contemporary acoustic and electronic composition.

As during the previous editions, the curators have proven to have a nose for discoveries. Last year, both recently graduated Jessica Ekomane and Klara Andersson (Flagelle) were the revelations of the festival. This year’s epiphanies were ALE HOP and Moroccan artist Sukitoa o Namau. Her intense live performance could best be described a vortex of apocalyptic electronic sounds and distorted traditional Moroccan sounds.

The Lappetites – Borderless: Day 3 @ Heroines of Sound Festival 2019 42 © Udo Siegfriedt 2019

The Lappetites – Borderless: Day 3 @ Heroines of Sound Festival 2019 42 © Udo Siegfriedt 2019

The festival closed with The Lapettites ‘Borderless’, an ongoing project by AGF, Kaffe Matthews and Ryoko Akama. Speculative fiction, words, spatial live sound, noise and sine waves come together in a performance in which the audience is invited to participate. Everyone receives a small piece of paper with instructions.

The audience was then invited to follow those instructions by using paper, crayons, rocks and erasers to create a collaborative landscape which was projected live. The overall inclusive and respectful atmosphere at the festival was briefly disturbed when a man dared to claim all the space to himself. But thanks to the festival’s aim, both audience and artists were not trapped in anger.

My piece of paper read ‘erase borders’. 

The heroines of sound

That any emotion can be attributed to a voice – female or male – became very clear on the first night of Heroines of Sound, in two recent works by Slovenian composers. Rather than using an ‘emotional female voice’ a wide range of emotions in the human voice shaped Maja Osojnik Noise Chansons/Radikal Pop-performance ‘About Missed Beginnings and Interrupted Endings’. Her voice sounded exactly as the program mentioned: ‘dreckig, sanft, lustvoll, verstört, komplex, kalt, sphärisch, schneidend und feminin.’

For Irena Z. Tomažin the voice is an instrument-body embedded in current in history, culture and a symbolic order. Voices are also pivotal in the new work by the outspoken Brazilian composer Laura Mello, ‘Pidg In Note Out’, a commission by the Heroines of Sound Festival. For this live mixed-media performance, she uses professional voices from the internet to create a musical pidgin that reflects on migration, identity, language and voice.

It was funny as she handled sounds and voices in an innovative and capturing way. Learning more about the situation in Brazil and her position as a migrant in Berlin during one of the panel discussions added to the already many layers in the sounds. It would actually have been perfect if this beautiful piece would have been performed again after the final panel discussion.

Known for her work with voice is German audiovisual artist and ‘poemproducer’ Antye Greye also known as AGF. Not only was she the curator of a part of this year’s music program and moderator of the panel on The Electronic Music Scene and Gender in South America, she also premiered her new album ‘Commissioned Work’ during her performance ‘Position / Sound / Composition’.

Far from emotional, but surely not less poetic and ‘powerful’ she addressed current topics about borders, diversity and our position. Her take on them only became more layered and intricate once you know more about her political activism, her complete body of work since the 1990s and her energetic personality full of compassion and unlimited solidarity.  

Delving into an artist’s background as a strategy for more inclusive line-ups, as mentioned by Nina Dragičević’, could definitely work because unfortunately AGF’s work is not widely enough appreciated.

This strategy could also work for Hungarian composer Andrea Szigetvári, who already defied the odds by founding the Hungarian Computer Music Foundation and teaching electronic music in the music academy in Budapest. 

Her ‘Beef Kohlrabi Cantate’, a German premiere, is nothing short of a sledgehammer, calling out the Hungarian government on the treatment of refugees and the half-hearted European reaction to this extreme policy. Her work takes us back to September 2nd 2015 at the Keteli station in Budapest where so many refugees gathered that the situation turned into a humanitarian crisis. 

Between the repeating noises of train stations, news reports, the refugee’s stories and the voices of the compassionate volunteers, the populist xenophobic voice becomes more dominant, ultimately silencing the news presenter, the interpreter and the audience. 

It turned ‘Beef Kohlrabi Cantate’ in a strong statement to not let us be silenced. Director Wackernagel told me it was important for her to program this piece as it is a very strong example of how artists can question unnecessary territorial borders and normative values.

Another premiere was the new electronic multichannel composition by the Belgium-based Charo Calvo. It was my first encounter with her music. Both her works ‘Contactos’ and ‘The Grass’, the latter based on a poem by American author Jeffrey Yang, forced us to listen carefully, to each other, and to the beautiful music Calvo makes. ‘Contactos’ could be a sharp artist’s knife to open up the discussion of Belgium’s still not digested colonial past, if only she would perform more often in Belgium and The Netherlands.

Overall, the quality of all performances at Heroines of Sound was superb. Curator AGF choose for very different perspectives by five very different artists from different corners of the world in different genres: from Argentinians Tatiana Heuman’s deconstructed pop, ambient by KSEN (Croatia) to Elsa M’Bala, whose field recordings and recorded sounds merged into a short but urgent radio play about the depressing political situation and corruption in Cameroon, the country where she was born. Highlight of the evening being ALE HOP

10. Hope

Although I have published on gender disparity before, I always feel a little intimidated just before I press ‘publish’. You know there will be a shitstorm, gender essentialism and/or plain sexism and most of the times all of that together. But after almost 20 years in the music industry, I didn’t want to let the hope brought on by Heroines of Sound VI evaporate. It is necessary to speak out.

While it is a long journey and some people might never understand it, my hope for change turned out to be justified recently by more and more heart-warming reactions of many male artists who have turned into educated fellow travellers by realising shame will not help us and that this gender essentialism hurts us all.

Because let’s face it: the old power structures in the music industry are still very much in place. So, I can only fully agree with AGF’s conclusion of Heroines of Sound IV: we must not be scared to speak out. We need to make ruthless demands. 

I press publish.

* Since Heroines of Sound focuses on the various experiences of female artists, I only refer to female artists in this article, but ruthless demands are also in place for a better representation of other groups who have been marginalised by the current power mechanisms.

I was asked to reflect on the outcomes of Heroines of Sound VI by the organisation. I accepted the return ticket from Amsterdam to Berlin and the admission to the festival on the condition that I was allowed to publish an uncensored view on the festival as well as incorporating my ongoing research on the subject. My stay and daily expenses were paid for by myself.

This text has been updated on October 16th, 2019. female:pressure started collecting data in 2013 and a sentence about the admission procedure for the Berlin arts grants has been added.

Ruth Timmermans
zo 13 okt 2019

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