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7 Visionary Women Who Paved The Way For Electronic Music Part 2

Click here to read Part 1.


Wendy Carlos

In 1953, Wendy Carlos won a scholarship at the Westinghouse Science Fair (now the Intel STS) for building her own computer. She was 14 years old.

She met Robert Moog ten years later, at the 1963 AES Convention, and quickly became a supporter of his work. She even suggested improvements to his synthesiser (such as touch-sensitive keys for better dynamic control).

We know Wendy best, however, for producing the first all-synth interpretation of classical music: an album of J.S. Bach pieces performed on a Moog synthesiser. Switched-On Bach both soured the palates of classical purists and captured the public’s imagination. As well as nudging electronic sound into the mainstream (winning three Grammys), the profits allowed her and Rachel Elkind to renovate a space in New York into a home and a recording studio.

Her scores appeared in films too, famously in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and The Shining:


laurie spiegel

Laurie Spiegel’s groundbreaking work with computers in the 70’s and 80’s underpins the practice of many of today's bedroom producers. A curious and resourceful youngster, Laurie made her own early musical experiences; she taught herself the mandolin, guitar, and banjo by ear as a child, and music theory at 20.

After earning her Social Sciences degree in 1967, Spiegel stayed in Oxford and commuted to London to study guitar, theory and composition. She later moved to New York and went on to study composition at the Juilliard School, before moving to Brooklyn College to complete her MA in Music Composition.

With her graphical version of GROOVE (named VAMPIRE), Spiegel's aim was to synchronise the “composed functions of time,” both aural and visual. Instead of producing images to go with prewritten music, as had been done before, the system played sound and image off each other.

“I'd always had a little bit of synaesthesia and would often see colors and textures and shapes in some part of my visual imagination when listening to music. So I was looking for a system that could communicate and share those sensations, using the exact same data to generate the sound and the visuals."

Her most withstanding piece of computer software, "Music Mouse”, first emerged in 1986. It automates some aspects of the musical process (like tempo, vibrato, and volume), allowing the user to focus on improvisation and composition. Some of her works composed using the programme include ‘Cavis Muris’ (1986), ‘Three Sonic Spaces’ (1989) and ’Sound Zones’ (1990).

In fact, you can download the software yourself here.

Watch a demonstration of Music Mouse below:

Or you can watch Laurie play the Alles synth:


louis bebe barron

Bebe Barron’s work (with her husband Louis) defines one of the most essential tape music movements in history. A fresh-faced John Cage even produced his first work with magnetic tape (‘Williams Mix’) in their studio, under Bebe’s guiding encouragement. The Barron’s practice of layering manipulated sounds from several different tape machines can be seen today in the multi-tracking practices so fundamental to our recording studios.

Credited with writing the first electronic music for magnetic tape, the couple scored and engineered the world’s first all-electronic film score, for one of science fiction’s most highly regarded films, Forbidden Planet.

In an interview with Jane Brockman, Bebe beamed:

“The preview showing was one of our great experiences because they played the music directly off the magnetic tapes. They had synced up the projector and tape and they gave it so much volume it was embarrassing. It was so effective — they played it stereophonically, which they never did in those days. Then there was the landing of the space ship. That was one of the best cues in the picture — and the audience broke into spontaneous applause.”

Watch the Forbidden Planet: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1956):


jessica ryan

An expert in circuitry, Jessica Rylan engineers and builds modular synthesisers to produce a diversity of sounds. Her synth-creations (see Personal Synth and Natural Synth) took inspiration from 1980s guitar pedals as well as 1960s and 1970s modular synthesisers.

Jessica uses her synthesisers in performances at installations, galleries and music venues, and sells them through her business Flower Electronics. She believes that making your own equipment or sourcing non-mainstream gear creates a more intimate connection to music, and describes her products as ones which “emphasise creativity, utility, durability, and freedom.”

Rylan credits her interest in schematics, circuit-building and electronics to her grandfather.

“[When I was five or six] we made a radio one time, a crystal radio, just the diode, no battery. He hooked this wire to a wire pipe in the ground, and then you’d listen with the earphone…”
~ (from Pink Noises: Women on Electronic Music and Sound, by Tara Rogers)

Check out this interview with Rylan about her products, sound and design:


carla scaletti

Carla Scaletti works as a lecturer at the CCMIX in Paris and is the co-founder of the Symbolic Sound Corporation (SSC).

Kyma, the SSC’s flagship invention, sees recognition for its revolutionary audio manipulation features and user-friendly application. Used by sound designers worldwide, it features in film soundtracks including Wall-E, Finding Nemo, War of the Worlds and Star Wars.

Synth pioneer Bob Moog spoke about Kyma in a report for Keyboard Magazine in 1987:

One new language that acknowledges no distinction between sound synthesis and composition is Kyma, a music composition language for the Macintosh that views all elements in a piece of music, from the structure of a single sound to the structure of the entire composition, as objects to be composed."
~ (from Platypus, Granules, Kyma, Daton, & the DSP56001 in Your Future, by Robert Moog)

Below you can see Carla Scaletti showing the uses of Kyma. Listen to how the software moulds and alters sound (here with the use of Wii remotes):


johanna beyer

Born in Leipzig, Germany, most of Beyer’s learning and work came in the years following her emigration to the United States in 1923. A humble and passionate artist, she studied at the Mannes College of Music, receiving two degrees by 1928. She developed her skills in percussion (said to be her most fervent passion) at Henry Cowell’s percussion class at the New School for Social Research.

She was involved with the modernist and ultramodernist composers active in New York in the 1930s, a group which included electronic music pioneer John Cage. Cage himself performed two movements of her ’Three Movements for Percussion’ in his tours around the North-West during the late 1930s.

In 1936, her diverse range of skills came together in the ballet-play 'The Modern Composer'. She not only directed the project, but also wrote the lyrics, composed the music (performing its piano part) and choreographed, designed and created the costumes and the promotional material.

Her most famous work, composed in 1938, is the forward-thinking ‘Music of the Spheres’, written as part of a satirical opera entitled Status Quo. The frequency-shifting minimalist score is commonly thought to be the first of its kind written by a woman, though it was overlooked during Beyer’s lifetime.

Experimenting with the Ondes Martenot (an instrument which emerged just a decade earlier), ‘Music Of The Spheres’ was a compositional innovation. It showcased trembling, other-worldly sounds similar to those produced by a Theremin, with eerie oscillations, rolling drones, and wave-like chromatic harmonies (with an inspired triangle accompaniment!)

Johanna M. Beyer - Music Of The Spheres [1938]:


doris norton

Back in the days when Apple Inc. was a mere seed, the company saw increasing potential in the marriage between computers and music. Spotting Norton’s inspirational vision to combine man, music and machine, Apple (along with Roland instruments) sponsored her debut album 'UnderGround'. This proved to be a catalyst for the career of one of the most important innovators of techno and electronic music.

Her subsequent releases (see: 'Parapsycho', 'Raptus', 'Nortoncomputerforpeace', 'Personal Computer', and 'Artificial Intelligence') saw Norton carving her name deeper into the field of technological and compositional fusion. In 1986, she became a consultant for IBM Computer Music, producing two records for the company: ’Automatic Feeling’ and ’The Double Side of Science’.

She began her musical journey on synthesisers such as Roland System 700, Roland System 100M and Minimoog, and credits her interest in early electronic music to innate curiosities about anthropology, biology, biochemistry and maths. Doris has explained the motivations behind her work, stating:

“In the beginning my main questions were [about] how music has control over biological equipment and [over] matter itself; how [the] brain receives, stores and processes music information and so on. My first solo albums were inspired by research I made on heart-rate sound, brainstorming and electroshock signals, psychic energy and mental phenomena . . . ”
~ (from Psychedelic Baby)

Listen to Doris Norton - 'Personal Computer':

This is Part 2 of a series on pioneering electronic musicians. You can read Part 1 here.

Contact the author

@esperscout and @fig_by_four