Sound Experiments: Manchester’s Women & Non-Binaries

Feature by Rachel Margetts | 17 Oct 2016

Witchy noise echoes across buckled redbrick walls; Water are playing at Salford’s Islington Mill as part of an all-women line-up including Bruxa I Cosa and Yr lovely dead moon. Every time we’ve seen Water perform, the set-up has been different. But recently they’ve been gravitating towards a contorted version of a traditional rock band; bass, drums, keys and electronics. As Lou Woodcock, artist and band member explains, “We want to subvert everything a rock band is. Basically western, patriarchal music.” 

Through ritualistic performance, Water engage in a process of deconstruction through Dionysian submergence. “A destruction with love,” says Woodcock. “Disco isn’t dead,” wails bandmate Emma Thompson as alternating drum machines and choral vocal harmonies soar up in a joyful cacophony. Not entirely serious but too encompassing to be silly; this is inclusive music. Here in Manchester, an inclusive, community-orientated scene lies just below the surface.

With spaces such as The Penthouse, Fat Out’s Burrow, Hotspur Press, Fuel and more recently Idle Chatter, Manchester’s experimental music scene is a hidden gem. Yet despite the limitless possibilities within this field, divisions in gender still exist. 


In the UK most free improv/avant garde/jazz nights are still dominated by men. In terms of nights hosting purely electronic music, fair gender representation is often even worse. On one hand, free improv scenes can be super inclusive for the ‘non-musician’. For example, when a group are playing a bucket of water and a contact mic, the division between trained musician and the amateur dissolves. On the other hand, the modernist roots of free improv often ground the practice in machoism; older male performers still benefitting from romantic notions of the artist and purist beliefs in avant garde ‘expression’. But the question needs to be asked, for whom is that purist expression reserved?

Manchester-based experimental musician Greta Buitkutė explains the experience: “Being a solo female working with technology in experimental ways, you get a lot more negative responses than if you are working collectively with other women.” And surely enough, behind the macho hype and cheesy graphic design of male-dominated music events, Manchester’s women and non-binaries are teaming up. Here they are pushing new forms of experimentation; integrating noise, performance art and community practice.

So where did this all begin? Kelly Jane Jones, musician and member of new collective space Idle Chatter, tells of her first experiences of Manchester’s experimental scene. She talks of house gigs in Levenshulme in 2004, and of an abundance of chaotic, outsider noise and performance art. This DIY ethos to sound-making bred performance collectives such as the all-female get-up Womb, once hilariously believed by an audience member to be “a lesbian witch cult who make music with meat.” Kicking out hour-long sprawling noise jams and, at its biggest, boasting 15 members, Womb was formed in a spirit of inclusivity and space owning.

Womb later spawned bands such as Water, ILL and involved figures such as artist Rosanne Robertson. Performance collective Volkov Commanders formed a few years later; an act blending sound, costume and performance in flash street performances and space takeovers. Artist and Volkov member Alliyah Hussain tells me how they took to sound creation to build a more immersive experience. She argues that by engaging with sound, Volkov were able to engage an audience in interaction, creating an inclusive (but simultaneously disorientating) experience.

This interdisciplinary approach to sound-making has allowed women and non-binary artists to work outside traditional musical frameworks, in the process forming alternative spaces of reception. For example, the emergence of spaces such as The Penthouse and earlier Islington Mill, brought Manchester central spaces for sound-based events outside of a commercial setting. Rosanne Robertson co-founded The Penthouse, along with Debbie Sharp, and tells us about the Northern Quarter-based studio’s relationship to Manchester’s scenes: “The Penthouse is about tackling the model of art as luxury commodity and more about the necessity to find space.” 

In terms of her own practice, Robertson describes her move towards sound through a desire to open up to a more sensory approach to art – “the act of listening, of absorbing vibrations and being bodily.” Her work explores the relationship between the material and the psychological through sounding objects and actions, and she describes one important aspect of her practice as the “shared body of the artist and the audience.” 

In her work, the process of sharing immediate bodily experience creates a radical new space for reinterpretation of sound. The unconventional corridor setting of The Penthouse has provided the perfect setting for this kind of intimate experience; specifically in hosting the sound art event Noise Above Noise, which has seen captivating performances from the likes of Kate Armatiage and Rachael Finney.

Ill, photo: Elinor Jones

Noise is a pretty standard affair in Manchester history; protest, politics, prison riots. Much of its musical roots lie in a political resistance; the legacy of punk paving an attitude for acid house and the free party scene. Harri Shanahan, film-maker and member of experimental post-punk band ILL (who bear the undeniable influence of Manchester’s punk attitude), reckons “we live in a similar environment to the 1980s”, referencing a collapsing welfare state and job security at an all time low. ILL’s comedic satire of the impossible 'work model' and their sonic nods to early 80s post-punk explore this familiar struggle. 

Whereas it’s important to not tarnish these scenes with explicit politicism in content, Shanahan sums it up pretty aptly: “The way that we are always othered as musicians mean that it becomes a political act just to be ourselves. The personal is political and that still stands.”

This is true too in the radical, confessional lyrics of Lauren Bolger (front person of noise-punk band Locean). In blurring the lines between her own experiences and fiction, Bolger affirms identity as something which can’t be put into a box. Woodcock also discusses of the importance of wider, intersectional identity politics in sound making; specifically the importance of a queerness in her work. Manchester’s queer scene definitely has a vital part to play in this story: The Queer Art Show, Bollocks and Tranarchy are just a few queer nights that have provided a home for women and non-binaries to formulate collective expression and solidarity.

Reclaiming territory and relating to space is an essential strand of these scenes. Musician and Idle Chatter member Vitalija Glovackytė embodies this ethos – in a philosophy of creative recycling, she composes and builds instruments using disused industrial debris. She tells me that Manchester’s abundance of space and vibrant music scene makes this kind of work a possibility. Although Manchester is clearly experiencing an influx of profit-orientated art spaces, the scale of disused buildings in Manchester mean that new spaces of resistance are constantly being formed. As Hussain explains, “Space is still accessible in Manchester. There are more residential opportunities than London for example and, therefore, projects don't have to be finalised and sold.”

This is an attitude of continuous and cyclical creation. An emphasis on process and relations as opposed to product. In this vein, Jones discusses Idle Chatter and its ethos to future the “strange, undefinable boundaries between performance art, sound art and sonic arts”. She describes Idle Chatter as a community space where people can feel nurtured and, most importantly, “listened to”. She talks of utilising collectivity to work beyond the gender restrictions of improv. “I’ve always deliberately experimented with the hierarchy of programming acts,” she says. “This kind of music holds such potential for such experimentation.” 

Back at the Water gig at Islington Mill; as the set ascends into noisy chaos and ritualistic chanting, suddenly half the audience storm the stage, picking up instruments as they go. The show explodes into a roar. This isn’t something you see often. The binaries within traditional performance structures have been broken down and it feels that this is a welcome break. This is a scene for anyone interested in experimenting, not only with sound in a purist form, but sound in context. Sound with a dialogue, a history and a growing movement.