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Bettina Wackernagel & Heroines of Sound Festival

Updated: Dec 28, 2021

This interview is part of "Brevi Storie • The EMS Series", a podcast hosted by USMARADIO and dedicated to the past, present and future of Electronic Music Studios: are EMS still active? Who works there and how? The podcast series includes a collection of interviews, sounds and music to discover EMS’ legacies and new talents. Starting from January 2022, it will be accompanied by in-depth articles to be read on

This new series starts with 3 episodes named "From Belgrade to Berlin": in cooperation with Heroines of Sound Festival, the episodes are dedicated to Radio Belgrade's EMS and its Synthi 100: restored thanks to Svetlana Maraš, the musical device has been used by Midori Hirano for her latest composition commissioned by Heroines Of Sound

Directed by Bettina Wackernagel, Heroines of Sound is notably the most important initiative / festival dedicated to female electronic musicians, from the past and the present. The Festival format is not only a venue for concerts: it’s a music research platform and a network with many partners to empower the works of new talents.

Since 2014, the Berlin based festival has featured more than 260 top women artists from over 28 countries and presented showcases and cooperations with partner festivals and institutions in Poland, France, Denmark, Turkey, Italy, Austria, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Serbia and Mexiko. Due to Heroines of Sound partnership a higher quota of female artists in music programs is achieved.

Today the festival is esteemed for its pioneering work in presenting electronic music created by woman and has gained international recognition.

Bettina Wackernagel tells us the history and the future of Heroines of Sound in the episode number #3 of “From Belgrade to Berlin".

J. M. - When and how did you get the idea of ​​organizing a festival and events dedicated to women in electronic music?

B. W. - I studied opera music directing with a reference to contemporary music and a focus on contemporary and electronic system practices, but of course, I also attended all music colleges and composing lectures, whatever they were, I wanted to grab and get a deeper insight into the music. But these days – in the mid 80s – it was a situation where you learned very little about female composers… let’s say, maybe Nadia Boulanger, Clara Schumann, Pauline Oliveros… but that was mainly it.

I found myself in the mid 80s travelling to a festival in Berlin to know the music of Maryanne Amacher who was DAAD Artist in Residence at these days, and it was a great experience, I mean, she’s an extraordinary talented gifted composer, who did of course also sound installations and at the very early time also developed music for TV stations and had ground breaking ideas about music and timbre… It was a great experience to learn about her and also I had the coincidence that we could also talk a little bit. This would not have changed my mind but this made me think that there are also composers and that there are also some women directors. I was in several artistic residencies in the US and I worked there at the opera; but I also visited the NYU studios and the CNMAT in Berkeley and there were also so many electronic pioneers that have been working… At the NYU Studios there was Maggi Payne, there was Alice Shields who also directed the Studio in a certain time but was definitely for a very long time also one of the four main instructors of electronic music… Then, there was Laurie Spiegel, Suzanne Ciani, and many more I must admit at that time I had not heard before.

The same as with Ruth Anderson who was at Hunter College and she indeed inaugurated the first electronic music studios at Hunter College, I think it was in the ’68 or at least in the early 70s… and indeed one of the first in the US to be founded and directed by a woman.

So this was really a very stunning experience and I was amazed about the artistic careers of these composers because they did not follow one studio dogma but they tried out very many different things: they worked with visual arts, with films, they designed sound devices, or created music software – like Laurie Spiegel, and they did breaving pursued their own path. Soon or later, they all left the big studios and set up their home studios doing music compositions and their own artistic career, but still mixing between commercial and artistic outputs, also to make a living, of course. But I think that also, due to this mixture, they really created what we would suppose to be the sound of electronic music. Maybe much more and in a much wider sense, because composers worked with very different strengths… they also created pop music, they invented visual synthesizers – like Daphne Oram – so they really covered a very wide range of electronic devices, music compositions, and let’s say, they trade the sound of electronic music and this was something really intriguing for me. And then, the next step was a question: why are there no female electronic composers, why would we have never heard of them?

J. M. - And how did the Heroines of Sound adventure begin?

B. W. - I founded the festival in 2014 , but of course didn’t do this all on my own. At the beginning there were very many people who also provided vital inputs and discussions: there was a group from the Berlin Society of New Music, there have been musicologists, my co-curator Sabine Sanio who is also a theorist for new music, but also Mo Loschelder who is a music agent… At the very early stage, it was an exchange in a group and in the very early past we also decided the festival was only a two days event about music, but we also wanted to have this historical perspective…We wanted to showcase early pioneers of electronic music next to current electronic musicians also working in the field of purely electronic music, sound art, sound installations, works for ensemble, instruments and electronic devices… And each year we also have different focuses. At those times in Germany the female pioneers had not been known to a very wider extence.

J. M. - Heroines of sound festival also commissions pieces of new music. This year it presented Midori Hirano’s Forest and Tides and her Distant Symphony; can you tell us something more about HOS commission activity?

B. W. - Our idea is to show early and current musicians and to increase the perception of their music, because we consider that is important that good pieces of music are performed more often. And then, as part of that, last year we have been lucky to have some finances – but we have also to apply for these finances – to commission artists with new works. So this is something like a mixture; for instance, in this year with Midori Hirano within our program, we commissioned her for two pieces and we are very lucky also and thankful for it… but we of course worked for that. The synthesizer ensemble who premiered her piece also replayed it and this piece is now in their repertoire; since the premiere in July, it has been replayed already for 3 times. I think that the main step is that it is not only for once: the general appreciation for music of these composers gets a much wider recognition.

J. M. - How do you select your guest artists?

B. W. - Basically we do quite a wide research about something but of course, it is not only a decision of me or the board of the curators… We also talk with the musicians or with the ensembles to see if they want to support somebody or to see to what extent they are also open to study and perform new music from composers we are selected. And then there are, of course, artists who apply.

Beyond its own Festival operation, the format is a network with a very variety of partners. The network is indeed a powerful tool we need now and also for the future. To initiate events it means discussions and to spread a debate with international activists network: for instance, we did the 20th years anniversary for Female:Pressure in Berlin, but we also cooperate with the music software company Ableton, with universities in Graz, music Conservatory, for the Institute for Media Archeology in Austria, and with diverse artists groups, festival and activists.

See, the overall aim of our initiative is to strengthen the presence of female artists in the music industry, constantly increasing the participation of musical production and art invitations and finally closing the gap to gender equality.

Elsa M’bala: ‘I am’, Performance at Heroines of Sound Festival, 2019 // Photo by Udo Siegfriedt

J. M. - What do you think about gender issues in the music industry?

B. W. - Nowadays the idea of composing as a masculine domain is no longer valid. However, gender equality in the music industry is still a very weak issue, especially for women composers, non-binary composers, queer composers… for anybody who falls outside the traditional scope of instumental music access to conference, concerts and festival is still very difficult. Indeed, in electronic music nowadays the reflection about the prevailing gender relationships have just become. The theory of the asexual sound in electronic music remained indeed a theory. And the society role of stereotypes are enduringly powerful. Moreover, it is a fact that recognition, opportunity in the art establishment in the 21st century are still very unequally distributed between the sexes. It’s not at all a secret. But rather the status quo, our seemingly answers or discussions quotes so far updated have changed nothing. Percentage of female artists in music business counts rises around 10%. For example in Germany 30% of the composition students are female and 9% of the composition professors are female. That’s it.

Talent is not distributed by gender. This is where Heroines Of Sound enters: since 2014, the festival has been presenting early and present electronic sounds each year with countless works by pioneers to prove the often forgotten and underestimated quality range of female composing in the field of electronic music, making it visible and audible.

J. M. - Can you reveal to us some previews about the next Festival edition?

B. W. - The upcoming next edition of Heroines Of Sound Festival will see multifaceted heroines of electronic and instrumental sounds, concerts, performances, sound and video art. A special focus is dedicated on the early electronic music scene in Canada featuring female protagonists like Norma Beecroft, Ann Southam, as well as the German born Hildegard Westerkamp who emigrated in ‘68 to Canada and nowadays is known as one of the protagonists of sound ecology and soundscapes. I mean, apart from Hildegard Westerkamp in Germany, the early electronic music of Canada is not known in the German speaking countries at all. Furthermore, we think it’s also very interesting because these artists, like Norma Beecroft for instance, had a very significantly shaped electronic music and established Canada on the world map of music. Beside her career as a composer, Norma Beecroft was also highly active as a radio moderator, TV producer and really promoted Canadian music. Her activities were in Canada, US, Latin America, South America… but so far, the German part of Europe has not reached it. Moreover, we are very glad that Annesley Black, a Canadian born composer who is resident in Germany, has joined us as guest curator. Annesley Black born in 1979 and she first started with jazz music, studying then electronic music and is nowadays in Germany a renowned composer and indeed the youngest member of the prestigious Academy for the Arts, selected in the music section. Furthermore, we do have a special program for Minimoog; this started more as an idea and question: why the Minimoog, so omnipresent in pop and jazz music and whatever… but not at all in contemporary music? We thought: we have to change this.

Dorit Chrysler

And so we started with some commissions to Dorit Chrysler and Svetlana Maras – among the others – to have the Minimoog more also in a podium of contemporary electronic music. Furthermore, we are very glad we shared this program with our partner Klang Festival in Copenhagen, which is indeed the most prestigious and the biggest festival in Denmark for contemporary and actual music.

J. M. - With Heroines of Sound you are facing a double challenge: the festival not only educates people to listen to music often considered difficult to understand, but in addition it also offers an ethical, and social education that seeks to dismantle old stereotypes about women and marginalized categories. How do you manage to approach your audience? Who are the people who usually attend the festival and the collateral events that you propose during the year?

B. W. - This one of the very good things about Berlin is our audience. Berlin has a very open audience: the people are interested in very different mixes of electronic and contemporary music and our audience is highly mixed and not at all only typical new music audiences. The people come more from pop context or jazz context; they get to know and get interested into composed music and the other way around. They can decide what they do like or what they don’t like. Because it’s true that many composers – and this is especially true to the current scene of female queer non binary composers – they don’t play any longer very much in this sorted classic genre, or in academic music. They playfully cross-border between performances or sound art or composed music… and in fact this is also something that they have in common with the early electronic pioneers.

Follow Heroines of Sound:


Do not miss episode #1 and #3 of Brevi Storie • EMS Series "From Belgrade to Berlin":

Ep. # 1 Svetlana Maras, Radio Belgrade & the EMS Synthi 100

Ep. # 2 The Music of Midori Hirano

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