Sound experiment: In search of “feminine” musical instruments

“He [Alberto Savinio] broke the piano! Now that’s what I call a musician!”

– Guillaume Apollinaire

In “Gender Trouble,” Judith Butler argues that gender is brought into being through repeated acts; therefore it is performative rather than being intrinsic. “Feminine” musical instruments foster experimental body movement in the opposite sense of classical dance and music, challenging gender-definitive ways of moving the body. The music and sounds generated by these movements can be seen simply as reflections of the playfulness in design. On a more complex level, they serve as instruments that blur the binaries of the performer/spectator and the performer/composer as well as being more compatible with other “bodies” than the Man’s body. Note that we are using the word “feminine” in a Deleuzian sense of “becoming woman.”

Our musical instruments are an attempt at designing new musical instruments that are inclusive of all human bodies. Our choice of materials in building these instruments was inspired by the following concept: In a world where gender binaries cease to exist, objects, materials and rituals, which have been designed by humanity to be gender exclusive, become useless. Instead of using gender-specific items to highlight and mark the difference between the genders for their primary purpose, we chose to transform them into musical instruments. We used rings, beads, hair clips, and bells and women’s hair to represent items often associated with “femininity”. We thought it would be especially interesting to make music with the hair, as long hair is used to highlight “feminine” sexuality. In “Magic Hair” Edmund Leach argues that long hair expresses unrestrained sexuality and that removing, or cutting the hair expresses sexual restraint, as in celibacy or castration. By attaching musical instruments to the hair, it becomes another tool used to express emotion through sound.

In “Women Composers in the Digital Playground”, Andra McCartney writes: “Dualistic gender metaphors pervade the electroacoustic studio. When I compose with recorded or synthesized sound on the computer, I work with terminology that is already inscribed with gendered [and colonial] cultural values: I use a master controller keyboard and a slave module. I capture a region in a soundfile, bang a metro, strip a note, punch in a new sound, kill an unwanted track and mix down my resulting file to virgin tape.” The musical dimension is not an exception in terms of being gender neutral not only in terms of language and terminology but also in relations to design. The keyboard interface, for example, favors “strong” and “powerful” fingers. Another example is violin, for which the use of a “phallic” interface -the bow- must be used in order to create sound. Our idea is not to break the piano and the violin; they are already broken. See Nam June Paik’s “Klavier Integral”:

“One for Violin” reenacted by Mark Lorenz Kysela:

“Piano Piece #13” by George Maciunas:

Instead, we wanted to create new musical instruments, which could use things like the hair to create sound.

After building the DIY analogue instruments using available materials, we recorded the sounds by performing with these instruments. For this particular sound piece -inspired by “A la Recherce d’une Musique Feminine” article by Christoph Cox- we added some vocals, which include a traditional Middle Eastern ululation, a long, wavering, high-pitched vocal sound traditionally performed at weddings to express celebration and joy, and an Arabic wailing sound performed in times of mourning, specifically funerals. We thought it would be interesting to implore two sounds that sound similar in terms of pitch, but in fact are ways to express opposite emotions: joy and mourning. In “A la Recherce d’une Musique Feminine” Cox writes, “Drawing on the heterodox psychoanalytic framework that informs the writing of Cixous and Kristeva, Graham locates the feminine in a kind of return of the repressed: in a resurgence of the primary drives that have been foreclosed by entrance into symbolic language, the establishment of a stable ego and the regulation of sexual desire. Never integrated fully into the symbolic order, argue Cixous and Kristeva, women have been privileged access to these primary drives… this resurgence finds its musical manifestation in extreme expressions of the female voice: the hysterical pitch of Lydia Lunch, the indistinguishable bable of the Raincoats and the sibilant insertions of Kleenex.”

We also created DIY instruments that we hoped could transform the spectator into a creator when they able to create the instruments themselves, and then use them to perform. We would have liked to present some of the materials similar to those we used to create our instruments in class to our fellow classmates and ask them to configure the instruments themselves and then record the different sounds created. This would have represented a shift from passive spectator to active participant. Unfortunately, due to time constrains this was not an option at the present time, but something we plan to explore in the future. Imagine a “spectacle” where the audience creates music while dancing, wouldn’t it be great? Also, high-tech instruments can be designed using sensors and custom software. We got inspired by the artist Ernesto Klar’s “Relational Lights” installation.

For example, when the sound generating part of the code would be added, the piece would create sound depending on the flexibility of the body, instead of its strength or control ability.

Here is our sound experiment, a remix of pre-recorded ululation samples and DIY instruments.

Here you can see the instruments.

Also, here is the fun version!

-Laila Gohar and Piril Gunduz

Categories: Reflective Posts


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