Where voices warp and swell

From the time we’re born, the first six months of our development are primal. Chora, according to Julia Kristeva, is this pre-lingual stage, dominated by a chaotic mix of perceptions, feelings and needs—no doubt, vocalized and sonic.

The state of being present in this body, with this voice, is chronicled in song, noise and oration by the women in Adèle Olivia Gladwell’s Catamania, her mid-’90s study of the dissonance of female pleasure and dissent. ‘Catamenia,’ one letter shifted, means ‘monthly,’ also ‘menses.’ ‘Catatonia, from the Greek, connotes ‘downward’ + ‘tone’ (think muted, without voice, even a pathological echolalia, an attempt to repeatedly call out).

Gladwell’s study sniffs out so-called states of female hysteria as a half-way fight within oneself that vibrates between repression and self-expression.

Adèle Olivia Gladwell on her 1995 cover photo, Catamania

“We shall not just hear through our ears but through our skin and stomach.”

Gladwell upsets the already established notions of the female voice-body synchronization. Screamers and vocalizers—of the written word and song—such as Diamanda Galás, Nina Simone, Kate Bush and Kathy Acker, focus her attention. Anatomies of female subjectivity, precise listening and the audacity to speak aloud re-embody the disempowered.

Brash and loud, these women arouse others to sing wholly present with voices gorgeously unconventional.

Song carves out a safe space. Song helps me to remember to breathe. Song can take my rage and my sorrow and transform it into something I can swallow. And song can infect.Gelsey Bell         [LISTEN]]

Sonic artists today traverse the kinetic, tactile and vocal precipices of song. Gelsey Bell and Sky High Diamonds sing impassioned, embodied compositions. Kala Pierson and Kathy Kennedy are like circuits, physical transmitters of sorts, gathering strength in collaboration. A song rims the edges of violence. Vocalists hum and muse on the mundane; some perform in unannounced ‘theaters’; they extend shrilled vocal techniques to embody mourning.

Gladwell suggests that sounds like these illustrate the selves in a maelstrom of vibrations, which are in continued flux and movement, never static. The twist and warp of a story can resonate as something else in song, in screams. A cathartic skewering disturbs the audio and linguistic signifiers, agitating the fixtures of patriarchal oral expression.

For me there is nothing more therapeutic than singing the word “fuck” when the intention behind this onomatopoeic word is as clear and precise as this track presents.Sky High Diamonds        [LISTEN]

Ten tumultuous days … or, a year of the Foul Mouth

Gladwell’s immersion into female vocalizing illuminates the earliest recorded voices of soul-singing, of lone siren wails, the ‘helpless’ scream of the disenfranchised, and the electric voice of the post-modern oratoress.

Who has the power? Who sings capably? Who is fiercer?

A Director of Communications steps into his office, and spends a little more than a week lewdly cursing—in public—before he is ‘let go’; the foul-mouthing sets a tone. Expletives are a symptom of linguistic impoverishment—some say its enrichment. It no longer matters how we speak to one another. The current U.S. president is rude in his language (a mirror for his obscene personal and political actions). He drops linguistic bombs as if they were adverbs awaiting more nuanced meaning.

Stella Marrs – growling cat image, often with morphed text added by Jessica Bennett.

The conundrum is not whether certain words should be unspeakable. Our contemporary linguistic era is merely a reflection of taste: many now savor the jolt of a swear word, a reflection of changed expectations of behavior or gender roles (even a once decorous-lipped old woman, now curses her way through dementia, a social filter washed away).

However, only the strong-arm men in power thrusting scatological words also get to persist in wielding control in extortionist ways. And just because they’re polite and diplomatic doesn’t mean they aren’t making massive policy changes that have a deleterious impact on the disenfranchised around the globe.

Vocalized art by women pummels us, exchanging a sense of powerlessness with the livid feelings of rage, anger, sadness, fear, and then, potential satisfaction. An artist can choose to limit words and instead, scream (like Yoko Ono once did, at the wind).

Ululation and embodied mourning have been primarily women’s work across many cultures and eras. Combining Sukato’s [Su Kat] vocalized screams with recorded speaking voices from Middle Eastern people led to a sense that she and I were not only ‘witnessing’ and mourning but also illuminating a space where Western ears could spend time absorbing the … the humanity. —Kala Pierson          [LISTEN]


Kim Boekbinder’s rallying song and animation coalesced the rage even before the Pussy-Grabber-in-Chief took office last year. Recently, across social media, rising #MeToo hashtags offer victim-witnesses a loud chorus of refuge to beat back the rage after revelations of one more sexual-violator’s crimes (now it’s Hollywood’s political reality, exposed). Women’s detailed testimonies of sexual harassment and assault mirror immeasurable sadness at the frequency of newly shared violations.

Many kinds of voices are maintaining ‘presence’ in this landscape of not just vocalized profanity, but real experience where women’s bodies, voices, words and songs continue to be overpowered.

The personal experience of disempowerment in some of these songstresses’ work resonates loudly the lack of separation for artists to sing about egregious violations. (Call it ‘fucked-up,’ to lavish a moniker upon unwanted, unasked-for engagement.) Disturbing are the experiences by artists who face challenges—still—working in female-negative creative environments (whether facing push-back to sing in unexpected places or simply calling out aggressors in electronic music communities).

Step out of your body and into your voice

Play these songs when you need an echolocation to blip yourself to empowerment. Allow them to assuage and compel you towards a sonic body full of pulsation and the chora we all might vaguely remember. Let these marginal murmurs vibrate the present moment where the ‘Me Too’ echoes across the noise, distraction and real consequences of the truly obscene. Put the radio to your ear.

We identified sites of patriarchy around the city, and visited them with my low-watt radio transmitter and a boombox for each singer. Our aim was to infuse these rigid spaces with an organic, female sonic presence, and yet we managed to enrage officials at each site.Kathy Kennedy     [LISTEN]

Kim Sawchuck writes in the early 1990s, an essay in Radio Rethink, that blends these ideas about sonic media and vocalization when she reminds us that the plundering radio-centric pirate, like Donna Haraway’s feminist cyborg of the same era, emerged as one of the illegitimate offspring of a culture of information, communications and capital, where information ‘is’ capital.

There are resonances today to the power and presence of sung and vocalized art on the air—‘air’ being a Sound Cloud feed, a series of CD tracks to download, a performance of singers on sudden stages, a radio space (pirated or lo-powered).

—Joan Schuman, Earlid, fall 2017

Pussy Grabs Back became a rallying cry after Trump’s toxic vocalizing was leaked.

female:pressure is an international network of over 1700 female artists from 66 countries in the wider fields of electronic music & arts and exists since 1998.

Since 2015, Many, Many Women is an index of nearly 1200 composers, improvisers and sonic artists.

Audible Women is an online directory for women who make some kind of art that can be listened to.