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Interview with ‘Electrogals: Gals Gone Wired’ conference founder Heather Perkins

Heather Perkins among her many instruments

This week a celebration of women in Electronic Music and Art, Electrogals: Gals Gone Wired has already begun. This long running concert series focused on bringing more attention to the scarcity of women in electronic music was started by Heather Perkins over 15 years ago while she studied electronic music at Mills College and is now a staple in the Portland electro scene. We were able to nab her from her busy conference schedule to answer some questions about the festival below. You can visit their website for info on all the participating performers and check out the full schedule in the events calendar.

qPDX: How and why did you get started with Electrogals? Do you have a mission statement or publicly stated goal?

Heather Perkins: Electrogals started in 1995 at Mills College, where I was studying Electronic Music. Although Mills is a women’s college, the grad program is co-ed, and I was surprised at how few women there were. The faculty – also mostly male – would even remark on the imbalance, and ask me for ideas on how to rectify it. And although the guys in our program were all pretty great one on one, in class there was still the pervasive culture where the guys did most of the talking and got most of the critique time for their work. So I put on a concert featuring all female composers. The title “Electrogals” was kind of a light-hearted way to seriously address the imbalance. We were active and presented our work as a group, instead of passively sitting there by ourselves and not being heard. It was also a great show, and a lot of fun.

So Electrogals exists as a forum and community for female electronic music composers. Our mission is to connect and promote female electronic music composers and performers and to create awareness of electronic and experimental music in the Northwest. Our focus is to strengthen the presence of women electronic music composers and performers by creating a structure and community to bring them together. Our annual showcases feature music and art by both seasoned artists and rising stars in a variety of electronic music genres, as well as events like workshops and classes designed to inspire more women – and men – to make their own music and art.

qPDX: Tell us about this year’s theme, Girls Gone Wired.

Tender Forever performs Friday

HP: Well, we needed a title for the festival – last year was “Call & Response.”  So this year it’s “Gals Gone Wired.” We thought it would be fun to make a play on that vile late night TV ad staple “Girls Gone Wild” – which I’m guessing is pretty universally hated by most thinking humans – and make it into something empowering and fun. Women going wild with technology! Plus, I like picturing a wild woman wielding a soldering iron. It was fun, and got our key concepts across – women using technology to tweak the status quo in a fun and positive way.

How long has the project been going and how has it changed since the beginning?

We started in 1995 with that Mills College concert, and have had shows here in Portland in 2004, 2008 and 2010. This is number five! Our previous four shows were all single-evening concerts, but we’ve always thought someday it would be great to have workshops, classes and other events, and also to invite some more fabulous women from out of town. This year we just totally went for it, with art installations, workshops, lectures, and two completely jam-packed evening concerts. We kind of went down our dream list, and everyone said yes! And we also had women approach us to play in the shows or give workshops, and Christi Denton, who has been in every show with me since 1995, curated our Listening Room with composers all over the world, so we have expanded our scope exponentially with this year’s Electrogals incarnation. And it’s really incredibly inspiring to see and hear it all come together.

Has changing technology had an effect on the conference?

Yes.  Technology is the river we all swim in, so it’s hard to pull out just one or two currents. For one thing, in 1995  we were all using Unix-based email programs on 1440 baud dial up, so the rapid evolution of Internet-based technologies over the past 16 years are the obvious choice. We can plan and implement the festival so much more easily now. And we can also make music in so many different ways! Faster and cheaper computers are excellent, as are the new pads and pods. They all make the computer-based music tools more accessible to more people at more disparate income levels. Cheaper data storage is nice – I think I paid a million dollars for a 40megabyte hard drive in 1996! It just goes on and on.

Why are women underrepresented in electronic art and music? Are queer women (and others) even more underrepresented?

I never did understand that. I think one of my standard soundbites is that there is nothing inherently manly about technology, or electronic music. And yet it’s been such a boy’s club, even more so than the worlds of more traditional rock, pop and what have you. We all think about it a lot.

Societal conditioning that women somehow can’t grasp technology seems to still persist, although it is complete and utter bullshit. When I teach, I’ve found women to be disproportionately shy about learning electronic music and computer stuff  – but once encouraged, they are off and running like any creative person. So I do think many of the factors are external, at least to begin with.

My own experience has been mixed. I have been doing electronic music since I was a teenager, and my male friends did not discourage me – in fact, they would actively encourage me, gladly showing me how to work a reel to reel, or create a patch on a synthesizer. So I experienced creative community early on, and my gender was not – or at least, not always – a factor.

That said, as a musician and budding technician, I encountered a lot of negativity too. Things like playing music with a bunch of guys, leading to the inevitable “Hey, you play pretty good for a girl!” – or browsing a music store for a mixer or other piece of gear, and being roundly ignored by the (male) sales staff. Or, even worse, eyeing a guitar or synthesizer and having the salesman come up and ask if I was looking for a gift for my boyfriend – galling for any gal, but especially ironic since I am a lesbian! This is rare now, and you even see women working in music stores these days, but still does happen.

La Pump performs Saturday

In the 90s, on (mostly male) digital audio listservs, I would sometimes tentatively call someone on their sexism (like the guy who wrote at length about why it was good to have female studio interns – don’t ask) and get instantly called out as a humorless feminist. (The latter may be true, but the former is definitely not!) Or when I would write in to a music magazine about sexist gear ads, which seemed to assume that only sex-obsessed heterosexual men would consider buying a piece of audio gear – and then only if a female model was draped over it – and get slammed in print for the same. I don’t carry a chip on my shoulder, but that kind of derivative stuff demeans both genders.

I actually think queer women may thrive even more in this genre, although I can’t prove it scientifically!  I know that for me doing geeky things like lugging tape decks around and geeking out on synthesizers and making my own music – despite frequent total discouragement – was just one more way that I didn’t fit in.  So in a way for me being queer was sort of helpful – all those ways that I didn’t fit the norm kind of strengthened my resolve. When someone would say “You can’t do that!” I had so much more practice saying “Oh, yeah? Just watch me, buddy!” I did a lot of stuff on my own. And I think that story is repeated in many ways for lots of other queer gals. There are a ton of amazing queer electronic music composers out there, and we see so many represented in our shows.

Do you feel like Portland is a good place to be a woman in electronic music? A queer in electronic music? A good place for electronic experimentation in general?

I think it is. I love Portland, it’s my hometown – and we have such a great creative community, super queer and queer friendly in my experience. Lots of geeks, lots of innovators, lots of people doing insane and beautiful things in all sorts of artistic realms. Lots of genre-mashing, which I love. I would like to be a small part in making this city a better place for female and queer electronic musicians, maybe even a mecca.

But for anyone with a tape recorder, a basement and a dream, pretty much any city can be a great place to make electronic music. And that points out one hurdle to overcome – we need to get out of our basements and band together! I do feel that it’s easy for creative people, especially electronic musicians, to just bask in the sounds and forget to collaborate, share skills, and build communities. And that’s why we’re here.

What varied kinds of art and music can we expect to see this week?

In the space during the week we have video installations, sound installations (our Listening Room consists of two antique hair-dryers fitted with sound systems.) We have classes on everything from Time-banking and community activism to how to make music on the iPad to working with effects in Ableton Live. Also a kick-ass lecture on Women in Electronic Music. Today I am going to be on the stage for three hours working on a song, and anyone who comes to the gallery during that time can watch and listen – and be in the song if they want!

And our evening concerts on the 14th and 15th will be insane. We have everything from more abstract “academic” electronic music to performance art to electro-pop. We have a pretty big umbrella this year. We invited Tender Forever, La Pump and Lovers. We have Marisa Anderson – an amazing solo electric guitarist. Gosh, so many amazing gals – Pamela Z, of course. Portable Morla, Bonnie Miksch, Briana Marela, Momilani Ramstrum, our own Christi Denton, Silk & Olive, Cheetah Finesse, Ilima Considine, Sylvia Hackathorn, Ayako Katoaka – who is appearing in video form – and me.

What artist(s) are you particularly excited about seeing this week? What workshops?

Honestly – and I am not saying this to be cute – I’m looking forward to every second of it. But I have to say, we were really excited to get Pamela Z! She’s very active and super busy, and doesn’t get up to Portland very often. So her saying yes was a huge thing for us.

What else would you like qPDX to know about the festival?

Well, I just hope people come and bask in the art and music made by these amazing women. I think that no matter what kind of music you like, or what you think you know about electronic music, you will be surprised and delighted – and hopefully inspired to do your own sonic explorations. That is really the goal here.

Also, we are actively seeking a female turntabilist for next year’s show – just putting that out there!

Tickets are here:
http://www.electrogals.org/tickets.php

And a full schedule of events is here:
http://www.electrogals.org/2011schedule.pdf

Lovers perform Saturday

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