A mission to normalize a stereotypically feminine color in a stereotypically male-dominated field to challenge exclusions and barriers for women in music technology, and more specifically, computer music.
WOMEN IN TECHNOLOGY
In Chapter 1 I detailed the female pioneers and practitioners of computer music. I praised the Columbia Center for Computer Music for finally recognizing the contributions of the women in their own organization throughout the mid-20th century to today. I shared demographic data and statistics for membership and participation in the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States that displayed the ongoing gender gap in computer music. And despite the efforts of the Institute of Composer Diversity, among others, the gender gap persists. I believe this is an issue of lack of support and available role models as well as the intrinsically male-centric language with which computer programming is taught and practiced.
To begin, I will shed light on the plethora of organizations for girls and women in computer programming and in commercial music and how despite the presence of women in the field of computer music, there is no such organized support.
There are many organizations around the world for girls and women learning to code and working in technology careers—specifically in more traditional computer science capacities. Girls Who Code is a global nonprofit organization “on a mission to close the gender gap in tech” through summer programs, clubs, college preparation, advocacy, and accessibility in computer science resources. In their core values, the Girls Who Code organization highlights the bravery, sisterhood, and activism of the girls they serve, promoting resilience, ambition, community, and leadership.
Similarly, Girls In Tech is a nonprofit organization with over 60,000 members in over 50 chapters around the world that seeks to support girls’ education in technology by providing community, support, and confidence. With powerful messaging to empower these girls, they write, “Tech needs you. Just as you are.”
While organizations like Girls Who Code and Girls In Tech help prepare the future generation of female tech industry leaders, organizations like Women Who Code seek to serve current women in technology careers. They “envision a world where women are proportionally represented as technical leaders, executives, founders, VCs, board members, and software engineers.”
Similarly software focused, the nonprofit organization Django Girls seeks to make technology more approachable by offering free programming workshops in the coding languages of Python and Django. In their recent impact report, the Django Girls Foundation reported 79% of Django Girls workshop participants are still learning programming after the workshop, with 21% now working in technology-related careers.
In addition to these female-empowering organizations geared towards computer programming and tech industry careers, there are several organizations whose mission it is to provide similar support for women in music technology in the field of commercial music, where the gender gap is even more severe. “Women make up only 5% of the professional workforce in audio and music production.”
SoundGirls is one such organization. As a networking-focused nonprofit organization, SoundGirls provides members with opportunities to meet, collaborate, and learn more about audio with a goal of “empowering the next generation of women in audio.” SoundGirls has a music industry podcast, online networking and technical resources, and even a free library. The SoundGirls Lending Library allows members to check out books on audio engineering, music business, women in the music industry, as well as the history and science of sound, mailed directly to them for free.
Another community-focused organization for women in music technology is Saffron. Saffron’s mission is to “deconstruct the patriarchal nature of music tech” and advance gender equality in the industry “by creating safe spaces for women and non-binary people to learn and build confidence.” Saffron focuses on helping women enter the technology sector of the music industry by providing training in digital audio production in DAWs, sound engineering, and DJing. Saffron also runs a record label and artist development program. Saffron’s mission is for women, empowered by their music technology skills and confidence, to “inhabit traditionally male-dominated music tech spaces and become visible role models.”
That is what my exhibit #pinkcode is all about—role models, specifically in the field of computer music. The following selection of Elizabeth Hinkle-Turner’s research and commentary on the difficulty for women composers in university settings to find support and role models expresses my own experience with uncanny truth.
“For the male composer the finding of role models and the establishment of a close mentor relationship is made easier by the large number of men active in the composition profession. This is most true at the college and university level where the majority of teachers are men. The young female composer, however, encounters much more difficulty in finding a mentor and friend in the academic and musical community. She is fortunate if even one member of the composition faculty is a woman, and close learning relationships with male composers are often still hampered by continued prejudice against women pursuing a composition career" (Hinkle-Turner).
I feel fortunate to have role models on faculty in the UNT Composition department including Sungji Hong, a woman composer who exemplifies excellence, and David Stout, a male composer who has never shown prejudice against me or my work and has encouraged my research and activism through the creation of this thesis. However, not all students are so lucky. In fact, at the time of Hinkle-Turner’s publication (2006), “the numbers of female students in university electronic music composition programs [had] actually decreased [...] and their female predecessors doubt[ed] their own influence as role models.”
One of the reasons Hinkle-Turner suggests as a cause for the severe gender gap in computer music education is the gendered language with which computer-related tasks and jargon is taught and used. Reviewer McBride on Hinkle-Turner’s closing chapter, “Where Are We Now?” summarizes Hinkle-Turner’s closing points and postulations by writing, “Computer language is aggressive and primarily associated with the male experience, e.g., one ‘kills’ or ‘aborts’ programs, and ‘hacks’ into systems. Many composers observed that their interest in technology lies in its creative potential and sonic possibilities. Women appear to be more interested in the end than the means—’girls with their tools’ as opposed to ‘boys with their toys.’” This correlation between male-centric language in computer music education and the lack of women enrolled in, as well as teaching, these programs is further substantiated by separate studies by Renton and Begona, published by the College Music Society.
A similar gender gap exists in the enrollment in the computer music course offerings in the UNT Composition department and its affiliated Center for Experimental Music and Intermedia (CEMI). CEMI provides resources and technology for student composers, especially those pursuing experimental and technology-forward artistic work. CEMI is presently, and historically, male-dominated. I am currently the only female CEMI staff member. In its available history of former staff listed on the Center’s website, CEMI has had only four other women on staff.
I experienced a similar gender disparity when I took Professor Jon Nelson’s computer music course specializing in the programming language Csound in the Spring of 2021, in which I was one of only two women. That is where my #pinkcode mission began to expand.
I have been known to design my graphic user interfaces within MaxMSP in various shades of pink and purples, merely out of my own aesthetic preference. (See above images.)
In the Csound course, I dove headfirst into fuschia. I felt an almost indignant responsibility to make it known that my code was valid, and moreover, that my gender was valid in this advanced computer music space. With my Master of Arts in Composition specialization in Computer Music, I consider it my responsibility to be a role model for the women and girls both within and outside of our program, present and future. So, by owning my femininity and using it as an empowering tool for visibility of women in these creative coding spaces, I made all of my Csound GUIs pink. (See above images.)
I am not the only computer music composer to utilize the feminine trope of the color pink to provide a space for women in technology. Tara Rodgers, electroacoustic composer, feminist, and educator, developed a website in 2000, pinknoises.com, “to promote women working in electronic music as DJs, re-mixers, composers, improvisers, instrument buildings, and installation and performance artists [...] with the intent of offering discussions about electronic music production methods, and to create an online community to discuss issues of music and gender” (Rodgers, PinkNoises). In 2010, Rodgers published Pink Noises: Women on Electronic Music and Sound—a collection of twenty-four interviews of women in electronic music—as an extension of pinknoises.com. While I had not been aware of Rodgers’s work prior to the naming of my #pinkcode project, I find it to be an interesting correlation between using the stereotype of pink being a feminine color to break down damaging stereotypes of computer music being a male-only arena.
Beyond its pink aesthetic, my Csound work, both in the class and thereafter, features sound synthesis and effects applications that are advanced creative and educational tools. I ensure that my GUI design features clear user feedback that gives the user confidence in the sound science they are both learning and creating. Providing both knowledge and confidence is a similar goal to those of the organizations like Girls Who Code and Saffron. The educational and user feedback components of my Csound interface makes the rather advanced sound science approachable, all the while being unabashedly pink. The pink aesthetic also works to demonstrate that “pretty” things and technical things can coexist, which is another embodiment of my goal to expand and recontextualize ideas of femininity to include strength and power in addition to beauty.
My existence, and my success, in the computer music space demonstrates that it is not only possible for women to exist here, but they should be supported here. I am but one woman, but the internet gives me access to the world. I tag all of my coding and GUI screenshots and demonstrations on my professional Instagram page with the hashtag #pinkcode, which I have chosen to title the Csound exhibit in my thesis showcase. Women in computer music do exist, from the pioneers—Daphne Oram, Delia Derbyshire, Laurie Spiegel, Jean Eichelberger Ivey, Emma Lou Diemer, Alice Shields, and Pril Smiley—to the contemporaries including Eve Beglarian, Elizabeth Hoffman, Elainie Lillios, Fernanda Navarro, and Sungji Hong. My mission through #pinkcode is to bring awareness and visibility to women’s contributions to computer music and creative coding. Furthermore, my goal as a computer music composer is to make these spaces more gender inclusive and accessible and to be a role model for the next generation of women composers.
My #pinkcode Exhibit
The code I am featuring in the #pinkcode exhibit in my thesis showcase is my interactive and educational tool for modulation synthesis. The application contains three methods of modulation synthesis for the user to explore: frequency modulation, amplitude modulation, and ring modulation.
From the main window, the user can click on the “Listen” button to play the welcome voice-over for the description and instructions for use of the application. I wrote and recorded each of the voice-over scripts myself into Pro Tools, where I edited and mastered them for use in the application. The welcome description reads as follows:
Hi, this is Aleyna Brown the coder and designer of this modulation synthesis learning module created in Csound. This application is designed as an interactive and educational tool for exploring three types of sound synthesis: Frequency Modulation, Amplitude Modulation, and Ring Modulation.
In these three types of synthesis techniques, we modulate one oscillator by the output of another oscillator, with different mechanisms for each condition of synthesis. We call the two signals involved the carrier and the modulator.
To begin, first choose the type of synthesis you want to explore using the dropdown menu on the right. Then, for that respective synth, choose the waveform types for your carrier and your modulator signals. The respective tables will display the shape of the waveform you choose. Play using the virtual keyboard on your screen, or using a MIDI keyboard connected to your computer. Feel free to experiment with different waveforms and hear how that changes the sound, and see how it changes the shape of the combined waveform in the live signal display of the synthesis you’ve created.
Feel free to adjust the envelope using the Attack, Decay, Sustain, and Release knobs for each oscillator. Also experiment with the Modulator controls for fixed cycles-per-second value, modulation index, and coarse and fine tunings to dive deeper into the mechanisms of these types of modulation synthesis.
Control your master volume with the slider to the right.
To learn more about each type of synthesis, click on the “Learn” button located at the top right of each synth module. This will open a new window where you can view signal diagrams and listen to me provide further explanation behind these types of synthesis.
There are also voice-over explanations for each type of synthesis technique. The explanations for frequency modulation, amplitude modulation, and ring modulation, respectively, are read as follows:
Frequency modulation synthesis is when the modulator signal is applied to the frequency of the carrier signal, resulting in sidebands of the plus and minus integer-multiples of the modulator frequency depending on the modulation index. The modulation index is determined by the deviation from the carrier frequency divided by the modulator frequency. Overall, this synthesis results in a kind of vibrato-effect.
Amplitude modulation synthesis is when the modulator signal is applied to the amplitude of the carrier signal, resulting in two sidebands of the sum and difference of the carrier and the modulator signals. The modulation index determines the strength of the sidebands, with the higher the mod index, the greater the deviation from the carrier amplitude, and stronger the sidebands. It’s important to note, this modulation is done using unipolar values, and the input signal is still present in the synthesized output. Overall, this synthesis results in a kind of tremolo-effect.
Ring modulation synthesis is when the carrier signal and modulator signal are multiplied and then canceled out, resulting in only the sidebands as the output signal. These sidebands contain spectral components of the carrier and modulator signals. As opposed to AM synthesis, ring modulation is done using bipolar values, and the input signal is no longer heard in the output. This gives it a more unpredictable effect, with interesting timbres the more you experiment with the coarse and fine tunings for each input signal.
Other examples of user feedback and educational tools while exploring the application include hover-over labels and pop-up windows with infographics. When the user hovers the cursor over various objects—control knobs, gain sliders, waveforms—a small description appears with a label of what the object is. When the user clicks on the “Learn More” buttons in the top right corner of each synthesis type module, a pop-up window opens with an infographic further explaining and visualizing the synthesis technique.