The Hand Listens

She Recalibrates (Pauline Oliveros), 2018
Aura Satz, She Recalibrates (Pauline Oliveros), 2018

This short essay was published in the publication accompanying Aura Satz’s recent exhibition in the Fridman Gallery in NYC (November 2018). The images are taken from the Gallery’s site.



She Recalibrates, Aura Satz’s new series of drawings are portraits fashioned from details. Most derive from publicity for electronic music presenting a composer at work in a studio surrounded by banks of dials, switches, tape reels and faders. Satz’s gallery of immortelles features Delia Derbyshire, Daphne Oram, Laurie Spiegel, Pauline Oliveros, Éliane Radigue, Maryanne Amacher, Suzanne Ciani, Wendy Carlos, Beatriz Ferreyra, Else Marie Pade, Micheline Coulombe Saint-Marcoux and Tara Rodger. Some were ‘pioneers’ of electronic music from its early days in the 1950s and 1960s, and others are still active today. All are women.

Satz’s portraits include many women who enjoyed little public acclaim, even within the rather recondite field of electronic music. Only occasionally did they occupy centre stage (Wendy Carlos attracting the brightest lights). Their recordings were only rarely issued at the time of their creation. A 1970 ‘Electronic Panorama’ of new music from around the world was issued on the Philips Label: not one woman featured among the 26 contributors to the four LP box set. And yet, as Christoph Cox notes, women ‘have been much more than a token presence within the experimental tradition and have produced work as significant as that of their male counterparts.’[1] In a one sense, Satz’s She Recalibrates forms part of a larger recuperation of these women and their work in recent years. But this drawing cycle asks more of its viewers than simply to pay homage.

Satz’s drawings are presented behind magnifying lenticular sheets and in precise circular frames. The optical effect of the grooves on the transparent disks is an invitation to the viewer to move to the find the point at which the image resolves (not unlike the pleasure of turning a CD in the hand to see diffractive patterns on its surface). In effect, the viewer has to tune in to the visual signal of Satz’s circular dials. The drawings record a repertoire of gestures involved in the work of the composer in the studio: the turn of a dial to change the frequency of a pulse; the careful splicing and editing of magnetic tape to combine sound clips; or the depression of keys on a keyboard to effect tempered pitches. Working the instruments of the studio, the hands also signal close listening. Hands and ears sculpt disembodied sounds – either generated entirely electronically or abstracted from concrete sources – to form acousmatic compositions. Working as a producer and composer of soundtracks for Danish Radio from the mid 1950s, Else Marie Pade returned to the studio ‘after hours’ to work on her own compositions. They include early experiments like ‘Seven Circles’ (1959) in which a serial pattern of notes is shifted, accelerated and layered over seven cycles according to a careful set of calculations. Its score is an exercise in geometry and tabulation. Pade relished the ‘microscopical precision’ afforded by the studio’s instruments: ‘The possibility to achieve the exact pitches you want to manipulate, so that they match fully with your own perception of pitch. The sounds that I’m looking for can have an airy character, but still be very concrete.’[2] Others stressed the improvisation which was required in the early years of electronic music. Éliane Radigue worked as a voluntary assistant for Pierre Henry in Paris at the end of 1960s. In return, Henry gave her two first generation tape recorders which, though limited, were ‘tough enough to support feedback experiments’. Radigue set up a small home studio, working intensively with tape techniques of speed manipulation, overlaying and feedback. ’Sometimes,’ she recalls, ‘it was enough to touch one of the recording or playback potentiometers to develop a sound. In this way, I discovered the pleasure of a work made with the tip of the fingers.’[3]

By centring in on the hands, She Recalibrates allows for a kind of pulling back too. Where else have we seen these hands? Where are these gestures also made? The image of the hand operating the console was one of the key signifiers of the information revolution of the second half of the twentieth century. It was the harbinger of both dreamworld and catastrophe: push button technologies promised ‘miracle kitchens’ and, at the same time, Cold War command and control centres threatened planetary annihilation. In the ‘third industrial revolution’, the dial inferred new relationships between people and machines based on automation and cybernetic regulation. The role of the human in future manufacturing, agricultural and transport systems was to become that of an overseer in a clean, frictionless world. This promise was also underscored by existential anxiety: the image of the fallible human being replaced by new forms of automata was the subject of doomy prophecies in the 1950s and 1960s. In his essay ‘Some Moral and Technical Consequences of Automation’, Norbert Wiener, for instance, reflected on the threat to humanity posed by cybernetic machines: ‘It is quite in the cards that learning machines will be used to program the pushing of the button in a new pushbutton war’.[4] In this scenario, a thinking machine commands the console; in other words, it commands itself.

The potencies of utopia and disaster were also invoked in discussions of new electronic music. In 1970, French writer and composer Maurice Fleuret, described the turn of the dial in euphoric – even cosmic – terms in publicity for the ‘Electronic Panorama’ box set:


Time and space shrink. Tokyo can hear what is happening at any instant in Paris. Turn a knob and you can be at the ends of the earth, or even on the moon. …  The walls dissolve, the ceiling vanishes, and we are released on the flying carpet of the sound-dream; all kinds of geographic, historical, and acoustic perspectives are open to us. Fiction outstrips reality at the gallop. The eye listens, the ear sees: a new sense is given us.[5]


Electronic music would not only expand human capacities, it was, it seems, even capable of recalibrating the senses.

Writing two years later, British composer Daphne Oram was more circumspect, warning of a ‘world where freehand, empirical, human control is withdrawn and everyone (and everything) is submitted to total permutated “logical” control by computers. It appears an arid, cold, inhuman world to me and not what I would choose; but others may prefer it and certainly in the 1950s it looked as if the world was heading in that direction.’[6] She welcomed the spread of aleatoric techniques in the composition of music in the years since, whether the ‘spin of the coin’ or ‘the random number table housed in the computer’. Such techniques would ‘keep much of the responsibility out of the freehand human control but escape the regimentation of total serialisation’. They would ensure ‘a feeling of individuality which is not arrogant, not conceited, but is based on inner conviction and faith, based on what lies beyond.’[7]

Oram, like other composers and musicians portrayed by Satz, pulled away from the carefully controlled world of precise instruments towards New Age thinking – to what lies beyond. Else Marie Pade imagined ‘that the stars and the moon and the sky uttered sounds and those turned into electronic music’.[8] American musician and composer Pauline Oliveros, celebrated for her ‘sonic meditations’ (group listening exercises) and ‘telepathic improvisation’ techniques, began her work in electronic music. Her sense of the beyond began there. Experimenting with signal generators working beyond the range of human hearing to create electronic music from ghostly combination tones in the mid 1960s, Oliveros was accused of ‘black art’: the director of the studio where she was working unplugged her amplifiers.[9]  Perhaps the director found something unnerving in the composition. Certainly, Oliveros’ recordings from the mid 1960s – often created live in the studio – have qualities which challenge description. Music critic Frances Morgan writes: ‘Sometimes when I listen to Oliveros’s early electronic works, I think about how I can only explain certain audio phenomena or functions on a synthesizer by gesture – by demonstrating on a machine or, in the absence of something with dials and knobs, by waving my hands around, drawing shapes in the air.’[10]

For many of these composers, electronic music seems to have been less a way of producing calculated sonic effects than a kind of unstable threshold between worlds. Oliveros, Radigue or Oram at the console call to mind German sociologist Georg Simmel’s brilliant essay ‘The Handle’ (‘Der Henkel’, 1911).[11] Reflecting on those things like vessels which invite holding, he came to the conclusion that for all their purposefulness, these ‘interfaces’ act as a kind of portal between worlds of utility and fantasy, and between ordinary material and ineffable immateriality. Simmel was drawn to organic forms, imagining the ceramic stem of a handle as a kind of extrusion of nature and of the body. Potentiometers and mixers – clad in plastic and accompanied by gauges and numeric scales – don’t lend themselves to this order of naturalism. Nevertheless, for Oram at least, they opened up a kind of posthuman imaginary: ‘We might now perhaps wonder further – wonder whether the human body is one vast “tuned circuit” embodying within it all these millions of smaller tuned circuits. (Maybe the spinal column is the coiled wire; maybe the brain … (the frontal lobes?) … and the solar plexus (with the sexual organs?), are the plates of the capacitor?)’.[12]  Rather than being simply instruments managing electric and sonic flows, perhaps the studio dials and switches – which have drawn Satz’s attention – might be understood as valves for the body too. Composer Annea Lockwood said something similar when she wrote these words to Oliveros: ‘Seems possible to me that however intensively we compose with them and process them, sounds process us much more deeply. And so far I know so little of the changes which go on when sound goes through me.’[13] These composers embraced the kind of disordering – of music, of themselves, of spaces, and of the social world – which these electronic thresholds invited. These effects were not merely accidental or impetuous. After all, she recalibrates.


[1] Christoph Cox, ‘A La Recherche d’une Musique Feminine’ in Her Noise, ed. Anne Hilde Neset and Lina Dzuverovic-Russell (London: Forma, 2005), pp. 7–13.

[2] Pade interviewed in the Ja Ja Ja (4 November 2014) – accessed August 2018.

[3] Radigue interviewed in ‘A Portrait of Éliane Radigue’ (2009) issued on DVD by Institut für Medienarchäologie, Hainburg, Austria.

[4] Norbert Wiener, ‘Some Moral and Technical Consequences of Automation’ in Science, vol. 131, no. 3410 (6 May 1960), p. 1356.

[5] Maurice Fleuret’s sleeve notes fort he ‘Electronic Panorama’ 4 LP box set, issued by Philips, 1970.

[6] Daphne Oram, An Individual Note of Music, Sound and Electricity (London: Gaillard, 1970) p. 58.

[7] Ibid

[8] Sleeve notes on ‘Else Marie Pade. Electronic Works 1958-1995’, CD, Important Records, 2014.

[9] Pauline Oliveros, ‘Some Sound Observations’ in Software for People. Collected Writings 1963-1980 (Baltimore MD: Smith Publications, 1979) pp. 26-7.

[10] Frances Morgan, ‘Diffuse, open and non-judgmental: Frances Morgan on Pauline Oliveros’s early electronic music’ in The Wire (December 2016) – accessed September 2018.

[11] Georg Simmel, ‘The Handle’ (1910) in The Hudson Review Vol. 11, No. 3 (Autumn 1958), pp. 371-385.

[12] Oram, An Individual Note of Music, p. 121.

[13] Annea Lockwood letter to Pauline Oliveros (9 May 1970) in Martha Mockus, Sounding Out: Pauline Oliveros and Lesbian Musicality (London: Routledge, 2011), p. 57.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s