Building Curriculum Diversity: Pink Noises

Tara Rodgers chats with Anne Lanzilotti about electronic music, gear, gender, and the ways in which music is a starting point for exploring questions of belonging and nonbelonging, of identity and difference.

Written By

Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti

There has been a lot of talk in the past year about the need for greater gender and racial diversity in programming from large performance organizations. While some change can come from these institutions, there are integral changes that individuals can make by choosing to perform, program, or teach music that upholds these values of diversity. In the case of curriculum, we need to integrate works so that the content actually includes the depth of creativity that so many books/courses leave out by ignoring the contributions of women/nonbinary and people of color. For this series on building curriculum diversity, I interviewed various scholars, performers, and educators who have been creating wonderful resources that highlight these often ignored communities.

Tara Rodgers is a performer, composer, and scholar based in D.C. Her book Pink Noises: Women on Electronic Music and Sound is a collection of interviews with some of the greatest minds in electronic music today. She generously agreed to an in-depth interview over email that is reproduced below.

Anne Lanzilotti: What is your first memory of creating electronic music?

Tara Rodgers: It was during college, when I was playing in a ’70s funk cover band and got my first synthesizer, a used Roland HS-60 (like the Juno 106). I learned how to program it by studying the sounds of the songs we were playing in the band–by Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, and more. At the same time, I was going out dancing in clubs and hearing the connections—musically, technologically, historically—between funk and early ’90s house music. It took a few more years before I began to formally produce electronic music, but this was when I began to pay attention to connections between music technologies and sonic aesthetics, and sensed that making electronic music was a path to go along.

But several years before, when I was about 12, I spent many months figuring out how to program popular songs in the BASIC language. This was in the mid-1980s; my father was a high school administrator and a computer enthusiast, and he had access to an Apple computer at work that he would sometimes bring home for us to use. This was very different from other ways of making music that I was familiar with at the time. It was more like an odd science project or like solving a puzzle to get the syntax right so songs would run without the code breaking. So I don’t remember it as “making electronic music,” even though it was… In retrospect, it must have laid a foundation for the composing I would do with SuperCollider a couple decades later.

AL: You say in the introduction to your book, “Sounds are points of departure to realms of personal history, cultural memory, and political struggle.” Could you elaborate on how your own music relates to these topics?

TR: I will try! One of my research interests has always been: where does musical and audio-technical knowledge come from? There’s a side of it that can be a mystery, especially for those of us born with an ability to pick up any instrument and play or sing. Where does that come from? I don’t know, but I like the story that one of my great uncles, whom I never met, could also pick up an instrument and play… And another story, about the time a woman overheard me playing piano at a flea market, looked very startled, and said, “It is like you have lived before!!” I share these anecdotes to say I’m a believer that making music is at least in part about possible pasts that are not entirely knowable to us. Like we harbor some ancestral sonic spirits—residual habits or joys or traumas or encounters from generations past—that manifest as the music now.

On a more concrete level, I grew up immersed in jazz music, learning to play piano by ear. Jazz recordings were my primary texts for learning music. For example, my ways of thinking about note density and placement are indebted to duets between Count Basie and Oscar Peterson—a study in contrasts. My ways of thinking about tempo and pacing and pause are deeply indebted to Shirley Horn. And I’m sure that exposure to the solo jazz piano historical trajectory in particular—Fats Waller, Bobby Henderson, Art Tatum, Dave McKenna—taught me how to listen for different instrumental parts emanating from a single performer, something that I now recognize as totally kindred with aspects of arranging and producing electronic music. My family was supportive of my musical curiosity but never directive about it. There was a piano and a stereo and recordings to listen to at home, and some time and encouragement to do that. All of these things were foundational for me, and a real privilege.

These ways in which music is a starting point for exploring questions or disjunctures of belonging and nonbelonging, of identity and difference—these have definitely fueled certain political priorities in my research and teaching.

Inside of that I think there were always at least a couple disjunctures for me around music and identity. One, as a woman for whom identification with masculinities is in some ways important to who I am, playing instruments and working with audio technologies was one realm of life where I could feel at ease being who I am—other realms of life weren’t always so straightforward, especially growing up. But, at the same time, you’re still dealing with a culture in which women are not always taken seriously as instrumentalists and technologists, which can be frustrating and limiting at times. And two, as a white person growing up in a predominantly white rural/suburban area in the 1970s and ‘80s, through my father’s musical interests and social networks, jazz was without question the musical canon in our household. At some point I became aware that I was working within Black musical traditions that have particular histories and politics that are not mine to claim, and started that never ending process of figuring out ways to learn from this music and its history and honor it, while also being positioned differently in relation to that history as a white practitioner. So, these ways in which music is a starting point for exploring questions or disjunctures of belonging and nonbelonging, of identity and difference—these have definitely fueled certain political priorities in my research and teaching, and probably also shaped my personal and political commitments over time in other ways.

AL: If you were to introduce someone to your music, what would you share with them and why?

TR: I’m almost ready to share new projects! But until then I’d share a few older recordings that represent different ways that I work…

Butterfly Effects—a generative multichannel composition in SuperCollider, inspired by ecosystem and behavioral dynamics of migrating butterflies. Also this was the first time I worked with randomized, shifting overtone structures—an element I’ve used a lot since, also in electroacoustic and techno compositions.

The Ocean State album—say Woonsocket Pocket and Ocean State—for the piano playing and the production.

And Slow December Beat 2 and Windup Groove on the Analog Tara mixtape, which has excerpts of MIDI grooves from over the years.

AL: Would you share which gear/setup you’re currently using?

TR: Sure. I’m currently working on some techno and atmospheric electronic music. For this, I use an analog MIDI setup. This includes a Vermona DRM mk III drum machine, Oberheim Matrix 1000 and Dave Smith Mopho synths, and an MPC500 for sequencing. Another (non-MIDI) instrument I especially love is the Flower Electronics Jealous Heart noise synth, designed by Jessica Rylan. The range of noises it produces is amazing and beautiful.

Jealous Heart noise synth designed by Jessica Rylan

Flower Electronics’s Jealous Heart noise synth designed by Jessica Rylan

My typical process is to work up drafts in the hardware realm, then record loops and mix and remix in ProTools and Ableton Live. I like using analog sound sources augmented by the detailed editing and effects processing that open up in the digital realm. I use Live when I perform.

Lately I’ve been interested in the visceral qualities of electronic sound and am working to compose atmospheres that can be felt, where a certain quality of feeling is hopefully compelling to listeners in the moment and maybe memorable after. I’m thinking about the politics of electronic music that has no words—and that one way this music is political is in its profound capacities to engender feeling, in that feelings can be resources for healing and/or root generators of consciousness and action. So basically I want the sound to be as stunning as possible from the moment it floods the playback system! One doesn’t need particular gear, or expensive gear, to do this—but for me it’s been a useful technical challenge to integrate more pro audio devices into my workflow when I can afford it. A few years ago I added a 500-series channel strip (preamps, compressor, EQ) and a couple different DI boxes to my workflow. I’ve become a fan of modules by Rupert Neve Devices, Radial Engineering, and Kush Audio in particular. I’m always working to get better at mixing and producing and it has been exciting to work with these tools.

AL: What do you love about electronic music?

TR: I love that electronic music foregrounds the relationships of bodies and technologies; that it is often hard to locate where the boundaries are between these elements, and on what side of those boundaries musical agency is happening at any given moment; and that the emerging sounds come from that interplay, often in unexpected ways.

I also love the variety. There are countless and emerging genres. Artists often make their own instruments or unique combinations of instruments. And it is possible for one person to play several electronic instruments simultaneously, and make so much sound in the studio or in performance, and then do something completely different the next time. There is a freedom and flexibility there. I think this helps make electronic music a more capacious field overall—open to a wide range of practitioners—because one doesn’t necessarily have to reckon with the full weight of historical baggage that has attached itself to aesthetics and performance traditions in musical fields that are more entrenched.

AL: Why did you start

TR: I was learning how to record electronic music in a home studio in the late ‘90s and finding that the spaces for learning about this, both online and offline, were pretty heavily male-dominated and also not often welcoming for beginners. It was the early days of the internet, in that there weren’t yet the range of social networking options that are in place now; so starting a website to find, promote, and network with other women in the field made sense.

AL: Why is it important to include women in curriculums or histories of electronic music? Why is it important that women’s contributions are visible?

It’s important for curricula and histories to reflect what has actually been done in the field.

TR: Well, it’s important for curricula and histories to reflect what has actually been done in the field—and if they don’t, to explicitly state that they are partial. Too often we see “History of…” survey courses presented as universal when they only cover a select set of white men, for no clear reason other than an implicit bias.

Also, in fields like music composition and music technology in the U.S. at least, where non-male and non-white practitioners have been and still are marginalized in many music departments, it matters that students who embody these forms of difference in these spaces or who are interested in doing work on these issues actually see themselves and their interests reflected in curricula and histories available to them. There’s a politics of representation there, I think, that contributes to shaping the field moving forward. Curricula and syllabi and histories need to be living and dynamic forces for change that reflect what we want the field to be now and in the future, not ossified relics of somebody’s idealized notion of a problematic past…

AL: What are some resources that you use for discovering new artists?

TR: I tend to listen deeply more than broadly… so I’m likely to be stuck on a handful of albums or tracks, listening to them intently for years! But I do gather references to new music I want to check out, and a few times a year I will binge-listen to new things. I rely on friends and social media connections for recommendations. I am lucky to have access to a wealth of collective knowledge there. I like to know what other musicians are listening to especially… We can be a bit crazy in the intense relationships we have to music—a different sort of relationship to music than casual listeners or even music journalists have—so I seek out those recommendations in particular.

AL: Who inspires you?

TR: Pauline Oliveros and Daphne Oram, as women who were composers and philosophers of sound. Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich, for their incisive and fearless analyses of arts, identity, and politics.
Maggi Payne is a big inspiration; she was one of my teachers, and she sets such a high bar for attention to detail when working creatively with sound. I am always working toward that.

I also admire artists who work at a high level across multiple realms: Terri Lyne Carrington—as a drummer, producer, songwriter, teacher, and leader of collaborative projects that foreground women musicians; and Carrie Brownstein, as a guitarist, writer, cultural critic and more.

And I am inspired by those super singular artists who pursue their creative visions relentlessly, regardless of what everyone else around them may be doing at the time. Pauline certainly fits this description. Also Miles Davis. Joni Mitchell. Prince. Missy Elliot. Björk. Solange…