Sirens/Cyborgs: Sound Technologies and the Musical Body

– full text available through Columbia Academic Commons ©2016 –


This dissertation investigates the political stakes of women’s work with sound technologies engaging the body since the 1970s by drawing on frameworks and methodologies from music history, sound studies, feminist theory, performance studies, critical theory, and the history of technology. Although the body has been one of the principal subjects of new musicology since the early 1990s, its role in electronic music is still frequently shortchanged. I argue that the way we hear electro-bodily music has been shaped by extra-musical, often male-controlled contexts. I offer a critique of the gendered and racialized foundations of terminology such as “extended,” “mediated,” and “dis/embodied,” which follows these repertories. In the work of American composers Joan La Barbara, Laurie Anderson, Wendy Carlos, Laetitia Sonami, and Pamela Z, I trace performative interventions in technoscientific paradigms of the late twentieth century.

The voice is perceived as the locus of the musical body and has long been feminized in musical discourse. The first three chapters explore how this discourse is challenged by compositions featuring the processed, broadcast, and synthesized voices of women. I focus on how these works stretch the limits of traditional vocal epistemology and, in turn, engage the bodies of listeners. In the final chapter on musical performance with gesture control, I question the characterization of hand/arm gesture as a “natural” musical interface and return to the voice, now sampled and mapped onto movement. Drawing on Cyborg feminist frameworks which privilege hybridity and multiplicity, I show that the above composers audit the dominant technoscientific imaginary by constructing musical bodies that are never essentially manifested nor completely erased.

Chapter Abstracts

Chapter 1: Joan La Barbara’s Cyborg Manifesto This chapter lays the theoretical background for the dissertation, surveying perspectives on women’s performance with sound technologies and scholars’ overwhelming focus on women’s vocal performance in electronic music. I posit the changing morphology of the ancient Siren as injurious to historical attitudes to women’s vocality, and the emergence of audibly technologized Cyborg voices as coming to the Siren’s epistemological rescue. In my understanding, not only electroacoustic voices but also acoustic extended techniques constitute Cyborg vocality, in spite of the cleaving of the two in scholarship, press, and practice. I demonstrate how the work of Joan La Barbara and Pamela Z, classically trained vocalists who employ classical, extended, and processed techniques, reconciles the feminist efforts to ‘give women a voice’ and at the same time deessentialize vocality.

Chapter 2: Voicemail and Anti-Mediation in the Music of Laurie Anderson Conversations about Laurie Anderson’s work with technology have been dominated by her long-time use of a pitch-shifting vocal filter. My inquiry newly situates the voice as one discrete aspect of Anderson’s broader interest in technologized aurality. Specifically, Anderson thematizes non-reciprocal listening regimes produced by sound technologies such as the answering machine, broadcast media, the intercom, telepresence, and others. I show that Anderson frequently deconstructs the aural dimension of states of exception and emergency, which blur the multiple meanings of ‘listening’ as auditory process, attention, and obedience.

Chapter 3: Queering Disembodiment: Vocal Synthesis, Wendy Carlos, and Stanley Kubrick Artificial voices are persistently heard as disembodied, a gendered category of vocality. I understand disembodiment as a fiction that stands in for the technological, bodily, and social processes that make up sounding and listening. This chapter interprets creative interventions in the gendered narrative of disembodiment by Wendy Carlos, focusing on her March from a Clockwork Orange (1971) and Stanley Kubrick in his imitation of the vocoder for the voice of HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). I position Carlos’ synthesized version of the Ode to Joy as queer re-reading of the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Chapter 4: Denaturalizing Musical Gesture: Laetitia Sonami and Pamela Z This chapter reviews early uses of gesture control in musical performance focusing on performance with kinetic and biofeedback sensor systems worn on the hand and wrist by Michel Waisvisz, Atau Tanaka, and especially Laetitia Sonami and Pamela Z. Situating composers’ interest in gesture control in juxtaposition to the button-heavy instruments of the 1980s, I interpret Sonami’s negotiations of the gestural paradigms of video gaming and sign language translation using data gloves, and Z’s use of biofeedback with regards to its medical uses. My analysis spotlights the gendered descriptions of gesture control in scholarly and popular literature as ‘natural’ and ‘embodied’ on the one hand, and ‘prosthetic’ and ‘technological’ on the other. I argue that the tension between gendered meanings in performances with gesture control is a source of musical and theatrical, sonic and scenic drama. In particular, the experimental impulse to foreground timbral elements productively deconditions the posthuman musical body.