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'Not the fish bowl, but the sea'

A short oral history of female collectives in music

As part of BBC Radio 3's celebration of International Women's Day, Late Junction investigates the idea of the female musical collective, in its various guises, structures, and revolutionary ideologies.

A special collaboration session was assembled at Maida Vale studios in late February, featuring members of notable performance collectives, past and present. The line-up for this one-off ensemble featured:
Maggie Nichols, co-founder of the pioneering Feminist Improvising Group (FIG) in 1977.
Verity Susman, who was in experimental-alt-rock band Electrelane between 1998 and 2007.
Amble Skuse, a current member of the multi-location Orchestra For Females And Laptops, aka OFFAL.

Meeting for the first time, this historic trio improvised and recorded music together, before sitting down for this discussion on the notions, emotions, and politics around the female collective.

Amble Skuse, Maggie Nichols and Verity Susman

Maggie Nichols: It all started with the Women's Liberation Movement. Before then I’d sung with some great men and also had bad experiences. How Feminist Improvising Group came about was that there was a Music For Socialism event and I saw that Carol Grimes was the only woman on the whole programme. I said to the organisers, “It would be really nice if there were some more women.” They said, “Well, would you like to get a band together?”

There was a Renaissance, a flowering, and more and more women came in
Maggie Nichols

I didn't really know any female musicians except for Lindsay Cooper, so we got this group together. We were going to call it the Women's Improvising Group because the thought of feminism was a bit Socialist Realism/Stalinism where you're thinking, “What's a socialist note? What's a feminist note?” However, when we got the publicity back the organiser had called us Feminist Improvising Group. None of us thought to say that's not what we wanted. That's where the theatrical element came from because in order to bring in actual feminism we needed to use dialogue, spectacle, and other things. The first gig in 1977 was almost like punk.

Verity Susman: I don’t think we thought in the beginning about being an all-female band. The band came out of a friendship group, so it was just very natural. We were all friends and we were all women. It would have been strange if we had thought, "we’d better get a man in".

I don’t know what music we would have made if we were men. I think we always thought of ourselves as musicians first and women second. However, because we were an anomaly in the late-nineties alternative rock scene we started in, people did ask about it all the time. Sometimes it was frustrating, but at the same time it was important to talk about being women in music because there was a lot of sexism in the industry at the time. There probably still is. So we wanted to talk about it. It's a bit of a double-edged sword.

Amble Skuse: When I started studying in the Hague a couple of years ago I was gobsmacked at the attitudes towards gender because I felt like we'd moved way beyond that. I had lecturers saying to me, "If there were any women in sound we would teach you about them." I think the other thing that really shocked me was their attitude of, "Well, if women don't apply for the course then it's not our problem." There wasn't anyone taking responsibility for researching how to get more women into sound, how to retain them, and how to change the way things are done so that it suits women more. If you're not taking responsibility for that, then you can't expect the next generation of young guys to understand either, because they're coming out of what is a very high quality educational course. If you don't have women composers on the bill, how are young men supposed to know?

I got hold of the book Pink Noises by Tara Rodgers for my own benefit, and I put up a Facebook post saying, "I would like to talk about female composers… would anybody like to come?" I had responses from young guys saying, "It's not really relevant to me though, is it?" I was so utterly shocked. It's like expecting to start a conversation in one place and then realising you have to go back 20 years and start there instead.

That's how I got involved in OFFAL, reaching out online for support. It's a collective of women from all over the world. Women in Mexico, Brazil, Germany, the United States, Canada. We play online together. Whenever we do a gig, as long as there's somebody in the room to set it up, we all stream in from around the world. We have an email group, and it's a very egalitarian and collective decision about whether we do things and how we do them.

Maggie Nichols: I started off being quite abused by some musicians on the scene before I graduated to becoming ‘one of the boys’, and then of course I found women to play with, which was amazing. There are certainly more women on the improvised music scene now, but I am shocked that there seems to be this backlash, Amble. I think it is a backlash, because there was a Renaissance, a flowering, and more and more women came in. You do need female tutors for that because people underestimate how insecure we can feel. We've been so socialised and marginalised that there is a whole issue around confidence.

You know, I have had wonderful male musical comrades too. You can follow the abusers or you can follow the mentors, and luckily I've had male mentors that have really helped me musically. Those are the ones I want to remember. The ones that try to hurt me or casually abuse me sexually, they're not who I want to model myself on.

The trio performing together at Maida Vale studios

Amble Skuse: There are some men who want to help but they are still often underestimating what you know and can do as a woman working in sound. Like you were saying Maggie, you had to 'graduate' into 'one of the boys', as if being a boy is somehow above being a girl.

There's this little fish bowl, and the people in that fish bowl think they're stopping us from getting in. But what they don’t realise is that we're swimming in the sea
Amble Skuse

The way I like to think of it is that there's this little fish bowl, and the people in that fish bowl think they're stopping us from getting in. But what they don’t realise is that we're swimming in the sea and meeting all these amazing people doing wonderful things, and they're trapped in their little fish bowl. We actually don't want to be in your fish bowl. Eventually we want to smash your fish bowl so we can all swim together.

Maggie Nichols: In the days before women's liberation all the doctors were men, writers were men, musicians were men. I honestly thought that women must be different biologically, that we couldn't play instruments. I just assumed that men played and women sang. Obviously I didn't know about classical music as there were female musicians there. Although, even then I remember some of the women in the Musicians' Union fought to have classical auditions behind screens because women were not getting hired.

It was revolutionary for me to work with women. Even something as simple as one FIG gig where we were all sitting together naked in a sauna thinking, "I couldn't do this with a bunch of blokes". There was an ease of familiarity. Obviously all identity is different, so there were challenges and issues, but there was something about shared experience that could not be negated.

I wouldn't be who I am if it hadn't been for women's liberation. Whatever the flaws, whatever the issue: it changed me. I was desperate for male approval before that. I had no idea what it was like to really draw strength from other women. We didn't respect each other because we hadn't learned how to.

The beautiful thing is that I'm still in loads of women-only groups, but we don’t see ourselves as women-only, we have got to the point where we're musicians first. But in those days it was an issue because women were so thin on the ground.

Amble Skuse: When you're working in tech and you're the only woman in the room, other people treat you differently. There's an awkward chasm just because my body is a different shape. When you work with women, that goes straight out the window and you can just do what you do. It's almost like you're running a race, but with the weights taken off your ankles. If it's just a bunch of women, you don't have the things that normally hold you back.

Verity Susman: Not having that self-consciousness of being the only woman in the room. Yeah - that's good. I heard a female comedian on the radio and she was talking about TV panel shows where there is usually just one woman. She said that for the blokes it's like going down the pub with their mates and for the women it's like having a job interview. In an all-female musical group you don't have any of that, you're just with your friends.

Electrelane would always rehearse in a circle. It did feel strange when we started playing gigs and had to fan out into a line. We didn't want one person at the front and others deep behind. We tried to retain that circle feeling.

I think that there are more female sound engineers around now, and that makes a difference, because when you go into a venue as a young band you can feel under a microscope.

Amble Skuse: Tech goes down all the time. Your laptop can crash or a cable doesn't work. If that happens in a gig, somehow that seems amplified if you’re a woman. It's a signifier that you don’t know what you’re doing. The potential to be judged is higher because some people are waiting for that bit of evidence that you shouldn’t be there or that you need help.

There’s also differences between how women and men communicate, and the need for hierarchy. In male situations there can be this kind of situation where people are looking to see who is top dog and where you sit in the hierarchy. They're waiting for you to show some submissive behaviour, and then that puts you at the bottom of the food chain. Whereas, I think women will be submissive to each other in order to make others feel confident. You can show that vulnerability with other women, it's a way of bonding.

As a culture we are very focused on the more macho end of things, like: bigger, better, faster, more! But, why is bigger good? Why is faster good? What about slower? What about vulnerable? What about broken? What about small, gentle details? I think a lot of the beauty of working with women is that we can move along that scale and not feel like we're going in the wrong direction.

Maggie Nichols: It's not that we're all sweet, little, passive beings, but we can see the power in gentleness. That's one of the things women have given to the music scene. They've shown the power of vulnerability, and I think men have benefited from that. A lot of men don't want to work exclusively with men anymore, because they just love being more representative of the human race with different genders, different races. That diversity gives music its beauty. As you say, Amble: not the fish bowl, but the sea. Yeah.

Listen to the collaboration on Late Junction, Thursday 8 March at 11pm and then online.

More International Women's Day features on Radio 3