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Finding the Female Users: A Feminist Historiography of the Fairlight CMI

Harkins, Paul; Blackburn, Manuella

Authors

Manuella Blackburn



Abstract

The story of the Fairlight CMI, a digital synthesizer that was designed in Sydney, Australia in the mid-to-late 1970s, is dominated by a few high-profile male users: Peter Gabriel, Herbie Hancock, and Stevie Wonder. In both academic and popular histories of the instrument, Kate Bush is often the token female user. In this paper, we shift our focus away from this well-known history and ask: who are the users that have been left out of this story? Where are the female users who may have been inspired by Kate Bush but who are not part of this familiar and limited narrative? Was there a lack of female users of the Fairlight CMI, or do accounts of this time overlook their activity and contributions in favour of male counterparts? Were there female producers and musicians who wanted to use the CMI but did not have access or the financial ability to do so? Using ideas and concepts from the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS) and the focus on users in the work of scholars like Trevor Pinch, Nelly Oudshoorn, and Steve Woolgar, we also ask if the designers of the the Fairlight CMI configured the instrument in such a way as to prioritise male over female users.

We will report back on initial groundwork conducted to identify female users of the Fairlight CMI. Our line of questioning and early day discoveries forms the first step of a larger project to develop a research network exploring women users, contributors and creators who can challenge the received narrative around the Fairlight CMI. Inspired by the work of feminist historians of music technologies like Tara Rodgers who writes that ‘women are always rendered out of place as subjects and agents of electronic music history and culture’, we aim to show how women may have been left out of the story as subjects and agents in the history of early digital technologies like the Fairlight CMI. We identify female users from the worlds of experimental music such as Roxanne Turcotte and Beverly Grigsby, the words of sound engineering like Jeri Palumbo and Susan Rogers, and the worlds of popular music like Julia Downes and Kim Wilde and ask why their stories have not yet been told. Uncovering new voices to tell stories is important now, not only to capture oral histories from those who are still able to contribute to these discussions, but also to write more nuanced histories.

In this paper, we also reflect on recent compositional activity that has drawn on the Fairlight CMI’s sound library, as demonstrated in Blackburn’s Farewell Fairlight (2021). This process raises questions about women contributors to this eclectic and iconic sample collection that was used widely in the production of popular music in the 1980s. There has been much scholarly focus on the ORCH2 sound, that was sampled from Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird’ and used most famously in ‘Planet Rock’ by Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force. We are keen, however, to investigate the origins of other library sounds and highlight the role of women who contributed to the Fairlight CMI’s adoption by users and its subsequent iconic status. For example, we know of Sarah Cohen’s breathy vocal addition to the library with the widely used SARARR sample. We want to ask where these sounds came from and in what ways are they still being used to shape the sounds of contemporary music. By doing so, we will rethink the history of technology-based music and explore how women have been overlooked in the writing of history about the designers and users of digital technologies.

Presentation Conference Type Conference Paper (unpublished)
Conference Name Rethinking the History of Technology-based Music
Start Date Jun 9, 2022
End Date Jun 11, 2022
Deposit Date Jun 20, 2022
Public URL http://researchrepository.napier.ac.uk/Output/2880519