Roomtone: An Interview With Felicity Ford

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Sound artist Felicity Ford discusses midwives, gendered soundscapes and feminist approaches to sound art

By Ralph Whitehead

 

It takes eighteen weeks of pregnancy for foetal hearing to develop. Six weeks later, the embryo becomes more sensitive, able to respond to external noise and recognise voice.

Sound is intrinsic to our being; it is closer to our conception than sight, smell, taste, and touch. Croydon-based sound artist Felicity Ford captures this warm atmosphere in her intimate re-scoring of the BFI and Wellcome Library’s film Bathing & Dressing, Parts 1 & 2. She layers delicate piano, the voices of mothers, and their children over recordings of objects emblematic of the pre-NHS background, such as enamel basins and hard soaps, expressing the rich domestic texture of midwives working in 1930s. “I washed a little cuddly toy in time with the footage to get that authentic sound,” she tells me excitedly. “[There’s] something about being physically and materially in touch with the textures that work to place them, and that’s what I wanted to put in the film.”

Ford is the creator of Knitsonik – a project combining sound art with everyday materials, such as wool and wallpaper. Her soundtrack for Bathing & Dressing marks the first time she has composed specifically for film. Ford continues Knitsonik’s concerns, the relationships between echoic and haptic memory, amplifying this connection to a particular reference in time. “It’s really moving,” she continues, “to discover most of the midwives in this era never had children of their own, were unable to make that balance, unable to access support to have a family and a career. But they enjoyed the social pay off of having this very important role.”

“I’ve had very positive feedback on [the] project,” she concludes. “People always talk about their own experiences immediately of having babies, things they’ve remembered from their experiences of being in hospital. It’s good for opening discourse, legitimising it as an important area of social history.”

Ford turns discussion towards the problems associated with presenting her work and teaching workshops at industry conferences, such as the British Forum for Ethnomusicology and Off The Page. Whilst she is content with the outcome of the piece, Ford is increasingly frustrated when attention frequently moves away from her works’ intentions towards its technical specifications. “People will only talk to me if I’ve got massive kit. They want to talk about ‘what kind of microphone are you using?’ The first layer of criticism, when discussing a sound piece, will be, ‘Well, it’d be better if you had it in surround sound’, or ‘It’d be better if you’d used a Genelec’, or ‘Oh, it’d be better if you…’”

Julia Eckhardt and Leen De Graeve surveyed 155 musicians and sound artists in 2016, asking whether their practice is “characterised or perceived as gendered.” 75% acknowledged gender as having an influence on their art, with a similar proportion admitting receiving negative remarks related to gender. “When it comes to technical questions,” said one participant, “Many [men] are hesitant in letting me do things or [explaining] how things work.” Comments such as these are symptomatic of a gendered approach to sound, denoting inexperience not necessarily in practice, but in attitudes towards and relationships with non-male artists. Out of 15 talks, presentations and panel discussions during Off The Page, only six contained women speakers.  “There’s an assumption I don’t know anything about technology,” says Ford, “because my technology looks different to their technology. There are other layers at which a piece operates.”

Organisations such as Women’s Audio Mission and Soundgirls.org are challenging negative gender discrimination. Courses and programs aimed specifically at young women and non-male artists address concerns voiced by participants in the survey. But positive discrimination contains its own problems, least of which is the impossibility to determine equal suitability for the same position. Moreover, one participant in the survey added such a quota system could be patronising in of itself; “if I were a woman I’d have thought I’d like to be judged purely on my art, not on my gender.” Whilst positive discrimination can still be considered the best way to straighten an unbalanced situation without clear solution, Ford claims the easiest way to address current circumstance would be for “the gatekeepers of academia to do more to give women access to that world. If you’re not in an institution and someone’s not going to pay your travel and you’re not getting paid to speak, the academia-led nature of sound as it is, it comes down to being aware of what you’re doing with your privilege, finding ways to bring more women into those contexts.”

Although Ford skirts around involvement with Women’s Audio Mission, she feels concentrating on her own work, to elevate and embrace contexts she believes are undervalued, is a legitimate challenge to sexism in sound. Here, a choice arises as a better means to set a precedent for women in sound: between concentrating on your own work, and supporting others. “Looking at [performance artist] Christina Kubisch,” says Ford, “Who’s made an extraordinary, groundbreaking body of work. I think on one level women need to make the work they want to make, and pursue it aggressively, make it happen and grow audiences for it and get funding. I think there’s also a level in which, with stuff like the Women’s March, it’s important to come together and find ways to support each other.”

Like the midwives in Bathing & Dressing, non-male sound artists can find solidarity in community to overcome industry sexism. “I have a collaborator,” Ford tells me. “When we go out as a duo, in any urban space, we can do whatever we want; we can record escalators; we can record the floor; we can contact microphone the wall and we’ve got each other’s backs. Neither of us feels as safe going out recording by ourselves. I’ve got this idea that there could be something very interesting to do with teaching women sonic practices to reclaim urban space.”

 

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