Posted by: kaleidophonic | January 30, 2012

Sympathetic Vibrations (Tales from the Road Pt. 2)

Whew! What an amazing weekend.

If you missed Tales from the Road Part 1, check it out here.

We left Thursday afternoon, four music/sound geeks packed in a car together for the next 6 hours. While the conversation started off on fairly mundane stuff about our everyday lives, once it got dark and we got tired of playing word-games the discussion turned towards our mutual (yet still fairly different) appreciation of music, sound, and noise.

Michael Palumbo, a former music promoter from Toronto, currently enrolled in the Electro-Acoustic Studies program at Concordia, never ceases to offer me new and interesting ways of understanding sound and noise, and our discussion of sympathetic vibrations seemed to me to provide a perfect metaphor for this road-trip experience:


sympathetic vibration (plural sympathetic vibrations)

– The vibration of a body, at its natural frequency, in response to that of a neighbouring one having that frequency; resonance.

– I.e. a vibration produced by one body sets off the vibration of neighbouring objects tuned to the same frequency. Think about striking a tuning fork next to a piano – the sound vibrations set off by the fork will make piano strings of the same frequency vibrate, with no physical intervention other than the soundwaves from the tuning fork.

By the end of our road trip Sunday night, we were all vibrating in sympathy with each other, all on the same wave lengths, a unique entity formed through our close proximity and shared experiences throughout the weekend.

As we hummed down the 401, our discussion took on a variety of themes, most related to our mutual appreciation for sound. With the gender balance of two women and two men in the car, one of the more interesting conversations revolved around speculation as to why women are underrepresented in the sound engineering profession (specifically) and the music industry (in general). Lately I’ve been pondering gender balance in the music industry, after reading a bit about how, historically, women who wished to studying classical music or professional music performance tended to be channelled towards “female-appropriate” areas such as vocals, piano, and strings. While this tendency is clearly changing (and changing rapidly), the fact remains that certain instruments, genres, or styles of performance are heavily slanted towards the male. I have experienced this first hand, as an elementary-school student who fought fairly hard to be granted the option of playing drums in the school music program – and then to be taken seriously as a drummer. A number of times I was recognized for my rhythmic talents – but sometimes this recognition included a qualifier: “She’s really good – for a girl.”

In the music industry women still tend to be channelled into “female-friendly” genres such as vocal jazz, folk-music, or singer-songwriter. Male-dominated genres such as rock or hip hop are still struggling to accomodate women – and part of the problem here is that the rock ‘posture’, and the ‘hip-hop’ attitude tend to be gendered male: aggressive, brazen, loud and proud. With women in our culture generally taught to be gentle, discreet and restrained, these are genres within which women must work extra hard to make their mark. I mean, when was the last time you heard of an all-girl metal band? Add to this the double burden of professional representation: female solo performers in the realm of popular music (until fairly recently) usually have had a much harder time in the industry, surrounding themselves with male figures such as managers who exert fierce control over the career choices that artist or performer makes. The professional music industry is still heavily balanced towards the male end of the spectrum. While performers such as Madonna or Lady Gaga can command high fees for their concerts, they are still a minority.

With all this historical context behind women’s presence in the professional music world, it should then be hardly surprising that not many young ladies consider sound-engineering as a career option. The engineering professions are still largely dominated by males, and sound-engineering is no exception. The highly technical skills required for mastery of production techniques are skills traditionally attractive to males. But women are just as capable of understanding and excelling at these skills as are men. Why the continued gender disparity? Why don’t women tinker with phase distortion pedals and sound-boards as much as their male counterparts do? The answer is probably pretty complex, but I would suggest that the historical factors are hugely important. Young girls don’t have many female role models in this area, and don’t see themselves behind the consoles at venues presenting live music. Instead, they see women vocalists fronting the band, strumming a guitar, or sitting behind a piano. If more women got involved in fiddling with noise-emitting gadgets, if more women installed themselves behind the drum kit, or were major players in engineering and sound recording, we might finally see many more young girls interested in pursuing careers in these areas.

It is perhaps ironic that while we were having this conversation, we were grooving to “Whokill”, the fantastic new record from tUnE-yArDs, aka. Merrill Garbus. Garbus is a former theatre student who began playing around with audio recording techniques when her parents bought her a Sony ICD-TK digital voice recorder and  Dell laptop. With help from the free audio-software program Audacity, she began recording melodies, sounds, and lyrics, layering samples on top of each other, building up a unique musical style of her own. “Whokill”, her second album, is a fantastic example of a modern female approach to sound & music.

I first heard tUnE-yArDs on CBC’s “Q” with Jian Gomeshi, and was astounded by the eclectic live performance of “Yes Yes You”, which you can watch here.  I highly recommend you check out the album, as well as this informative article from the New Yorker. To get a sense of tUnE-yArDs sound and style, check out this video for “Bizness”.


So much great music was heard during our trip, including the performance which was the raison-d’etre of our trip in the first place: Sacred Balance’s EP release party at El Mocambo. But this blog post is already running a little long, so I think I”ll leave it till tomorrow. In that next post I’ll give my review of Sacred Balance’s show, as well as more discussions from my road-trip, including a rant about the Juno Awards and a bit about my discussion with my cousin Christina, who is studying music at the University of Toronto.

Until then, stay tuned!



  1. […] Didn’t catch parts 1 & 2 of the epic road trip saga? Read them here and here. […]

  2. […] about electronic music, but way back when I’d offered some musings about woman and music, and why women don’t often think of recording engineering as a career choice, he was kind enough to point out that women actually played a significant role in this genre, and […]

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