Balancing Act

BALANCING ACT is a ritual, a spell, a mantra, an experience, a collective endeavor, a remembrance act for female names which have been ‘noised’ out of musical history, disappearing into the background. Noise, our voices become noise, our names become noise, inaudible, unheard, filtered out.

BALANCING ACT is a live processing piece performed by Amble Skuse and laptop. It takes the names of over 1500 female composers names and layers them into white noise. It brings those names to the concert hall, presents them though the computer’s interface, and asks us to honour those names which have been ignored, removed, or forgotten. I attempt to speak as many of those names as possible over the computer’s generated sound. An EEG headset (electroencephalogram) measures my stress levels and uses this data to control the balance of the track and the microphone.

Conceptual Framework

The piece was developed as a response to the under representation of women composers both in musical educational institutions and the concert hall as described by Mohr-Pietsch. In response to these unspoken names and unheard works, BALANCING ACT seeks to raise the issue of the gender-washing of composition history.

I use the voice to reference the ritual power of speech, and link to the powerful archetypes of the wise woman, the healer and the witch. The speaking of these names restructures reality and creates an intervention to bend the universe to their will.

In the piece, the computer speaks the names. As the computer speaks it, it must be true. This aspect of the piece refers to the phenomenon of women who are not believed until their position is confirmed by a man (or in this case, by a computer).

The Piece

I created a list of names of all the female composers I could find from online sources. These names were sorted alphabetically by first name (referencing Lucy Stone and the problem of patrilineal surnames). I then used my computer’s speech application to read out the names and routed the audio into my DAW.

I layered these voices to disturb the experience of listening. I doubled up the layering process, to reference ‘memory’ in terms of digital storage and capacity; 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, etc. As each layer is created the names become more indistinct, it becomes more difficult to pick out the meaning of each layer, and the words being spoken. Our cognitive processing is pushed to listen to all these names until we are no longer able to pick out the words.

During the performance, the list of names is shown on a screen. As the names pass I try to read as many names as possible into the microphone. As a composer with M.E. (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, also know as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) I am interested in the limitations of the human, of durational performance, of endurance.

The effort of speaking over the computer not only references my experience of having M.E. (references the exhaustion of trying to keep up with a schedule which is not designed for human activity). It is also the effort of women to counteract the gender-washing of the music industry.

The dynamics of the computer’s part of the piece vary throughout the piece. This varies the possibility of the human live voice being heard over the backing track. The balancing of the two tracks is controlled by a max patch and the readings from an EEG headset I am wearing. Although the headset controls the faders, the data received by the headset is dependent on my emotional state.

The EEG headset has 7 sensors, 5 EEG sensors and 2 accelerometers. The EEG sensors detect electrical activity in the brain. I route the data to Max using UDP. I use the most dynamic of the sensors, and feed it into the patch. My patch reduces the low level background ‘noise’ and then splits the data into two groups. Data which results from being being stimulated or stressed (which presents as a higher figure output, between 600 and 800) and data which comes through when my mind is calmer (which presents as slightly lower numbers, between 400 and 600). I split these two states into two groups, above 600 and below 600. This ‘smoothed’ data then gives a reasonable picture of whether my mind is calm, or stressed. These two states control the faders of the two different tracks. The balance of the tracks means that the calmer I become, the easier it is to speak over the computer.

This performance choice references the ‘tone policing’ of women. According to Bailey Poland, the act of criticizing the tone of the delivery of a complainant diffuses the message. This silences legitimate complaint by demanding that it is delivered within a certain set of emotional parameters.

During each performance, I ask all the female composers and music makers in the audience to email me their name, and everyone in the room to email the name of a female composer or music maker who has inspired them. Using a simple code, the laptop then automatically parses the e mails into a .txt file and adds those names to the piece in real time. In this way the piece grows with every performance and becomes a living archive which says “She WAS here”.

The input from audiences offers an alternative way of collaborating that does not rely on hierarchical ‘gatekeeping’ patriarchal structures. This collaborative structure is more akin to anarchism based on non-hierarchical free associations. As the audience contribute the names, I do not impose my idea about the value of a composer’s work, what genre we consider to be ‘real composition’ or the race, religion, sexuality, disability, first language, or gender identification of the composers. For me this is important in order to counteract a modernist or hierarchical approach to who becomes remembered.

The reading of the work falls somewhere between electronic music and performance art. Whilst the first of these art forms has a long held problematic relationship to women, performance art has spent decades exploring identity politics, contextual performances, gender, feminism, intersectionality and anarchism.

The full text of the paper can be read in the Array special edited by Shelly Knotts and Patricia Alessandrini (p.79).