Dentro de cada hombre sintético hay una mujer electrónica
is my new column for Madrid music magazine Playground. It's about transvestism in pop music. Here's the English version.Inside every synthetic man there's an electronic woman
The woman on the lefthand side of the picture above does not exist. She's called Ursula Bogner -- I mean, she's NOT called Ursula Bogner -- and we know she doesn't exist because Wikipedia doesn't have a page about her. Not in German, not in English, not in any language.
What's that? Lots of people exist who don't have Wikipedia pages? All right, let's get more specific. This image purports to be a photograph of a pioneering electronica artist who was born in 1946 and died in 1994 at the age of 48. The label Faitiche (pronounced like "fetish"), run by loop-finding jazz-glitch pioneer Jan Jelinek
(above, right), has released what purports to be a compilation of Ursula Bogner's radiophonic experiments between 1968 and 1988. You can listen to the album in its entirety -- and read the entertaining press release -- here
Now, I'd hardly be the first person to say that this attractively eccentric music doesn't sound so much like a series of visionary, prophetic premonitions of 21st century quirky minimalist microsound as, well, the actual thing, composed and released recently by a contemporary Berlin-based electronica artist -- Jan Jelinek, say -- with a funny, playful press release. And I wouldn't be the first to speculate that the "woman" in the photograph is in fact Jelinek himself in drag.
Nevertheless, one of my favourite sayings is "Every lie creates a parallel world; the world in which it is true". So I'm interested in the parallel world in which Ursula Bogner really is credible, and really exists.
It doesn't require such a stretch of the imagination; after all, record labels have done a roaring trade over the last decade in exotic electronica compilations, many of them by "overlooked" women composers. The fictional Ursula Bogner takes her place alongside real historical electronic music composers like Delia Derbyshire, Daphne Oram, Clara Rockmore, Elaine Radigue, Else Marie Pade, Maddalena Fagandini, Glynis Jones, Pauline Oliveros and Baetriz Ferreyra.
Derbyshire (left) and Oram (right) worked for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in the 1950s and 1960s, using tape editing, filtration and synthesis to make evocative sounds for drama and documentary pieces on the radio. Derbyshire's most famous -- and startlingly futuristic -- piece was the theme music for children's sci-fi series Dr Who, which pre-dates Kraftwerk by over a decade. Rockmore was a skilled player of the theremin in the 1930s, soon after the gestural, "singing" instrument was invented. Oliveros is a composer of abstract electro-acoustic soundscapes.
If Ursula Bogner can plausibly and comfortably fit into this line of electronic women musicians, her creator (Jelinek, Mrs Bogner's Dr Frankenstein) can also join another, equally plausible, tradition: the set of male artists with a female alter ego.
Here, admittedly, we find more precedents in the world of the visual arts. The french grandfather of conceptual art, Marcel Duchamp, had a female alter ego called Rrose Selavy (below, left). The British potter Grayson Perry dresses up regularly as Claire, a little girl in a party frock (right).
There are ambiguous gender-straddlers in the music world too, of course: Terre Thaemlitz, Genesis P-Orridge and Pete Burns have all transformed themselves into women or had surgery to make their bodies more feminine.
Music artists who work in the genre known as "clicks and cuts" may have a special interest in changing their gender. After all, if you're editing synthetic music every day -- open, change, save file -- why not apply the same principles of flux and fluidity, activism and artificiality to your body, your gender? Why not experiment on yourself the way you experiment on your music?
If no sound is "natural" for the electronic musician, why should there be anything natural or predestined about the body you happen to have been born into, or the gender assigned to it at birth? Why not click and cut your own flesh, and edit your own identity? Why not synthesize and syntheticize?
And, while you're at it, you might like to do what Jan Jelinek has done with Ursula Bogner: send your atavar back in time to perform a little cosmetic surgery on history, just to see how it looks.
(Original Spanish version here