TECHNE: Empowering women through music technology

Today is the final day of our fundraising drive. As you may have heard, we’re giving 10% of the money raised to a phenomenal organization: TECHNE.

So, what is TECHNE?

TECHNE is a national arts education organization with programming here in Chicago whose mission is to build inclusivity and close the gender gap within creative technology fields. Their primary programs introduce young women and girls to technology-focused art making, in context with musical improvisation, contemplative practice and social justice education.

The more we discover about this organization, the more impressed and inspired we are. So Doyle called up TECHNE co-founder Suzanne Thorpe to go deeper into what makes her initiative so extraordinary.

Doyle Armbrust: What was the genesis of TECHNE?

Suzanne Thorpe: Our origin story takes place at a show [TECHNE co-founder] Bonnie Jones was playing in Brooklyn about nine years ago. A mutual friend introduced us, and in that conversation we quickly divined our way to the question of why there are so few women in the creative improv scene. We talked about how we wished it was different and how we wished it had been different for us when we were younger.

Coincidentally, I had just won my first small grant to teach a workshop, and believing that two minds are often better than one, I invited Bonnie to join me. TECHNE grew out of that one conversation and that first tiny workshop.

DA: What you see as the primary barrier for girls and women getting into electronic music or creative improv

ST: I don’t think there’s a “primary” barrier. Part of it is the social narrative around where women and girls are allowed to have agency. There are huge numbers of educators and employers that have been trained to have this limiting point of view, and they are constantly reinforcing it, whether consciously or unconsciously.

Both Bonnie and I think there is a problem with the way that technology is taught. We’re not going into our workshops and just teaching the technology itself. We contextualize technologies in other activities like contemplative practice, musicking improvisation, craft making, and social justice education. We believe this moves the students to build their own relationships to the technology and then form their own narrative using that technology.

What we try to do is show that technology does not need to be separate from our lives – we can embed technology in the lives we already have.

DA: Do you see a parallel with efforts in the sciences or mathematics, to push back against that pervasive narrative of “girls don’t belong here,” or is there something unique to this musical approach?

ST: Musicking offers the ability to convey certain experiences and ideas while engaged with the technology. It offers the opportunity to engage with a different kind of knowing, and that type of knowing increases agency.

Suzanne guiding a young engineer

Suzanne guiding a young engineer

[Musicking] offers the opportunity to engage with a different kind of knowing, and that type of knowing increases agency.
— Suzanne Thorpe

DA: And I suppose once you’ve removed that particular barrier to entry, these young performer-composers then have the creative space to express about issues specific to women, if they choose to, in their music.

ST: But music isn’t just a form of expression, it is a way of knowing.

DA: Can you point to a moment when you saw the lightbulb flick on for the first time in one of your students

ST: Yes! Every participant, when they make their first contact mic. None of them arrive knowing what a contact mic is, but when they first plug it in and it works – they are so taken with their own accomplishment. In that moment they have made an imprint on themselves.

DA: When a young woman shows up at one of your workshops, how did they get there?

ST: You’re hitting on an important issue. Most women don’t intuit that this something they would enjoy. When we first started out, we collaborated with various arts organizations, and we’d maybe get four students to sign up for a workshop. So we decided to partner with organizations that already had their own students and were already working on issues of gender inequality in the realm of sound. So we started collaborating with Girls Rock camps around the country.

We’d pick a region of the country and for a month or so we’d go out for a month in the summer and hit as many Girls Rock camps as we could. By being mobile, we started reaching hundreds of girls. 

DA: Are there any other ways those of us inspired by your work can help TECHNE, in addition to making a tax-deductible donation?

ST: Specifically for our Chicago group, we are in need of soldering irons, soldering stations, breadboards, wire strippers, and wire cutters. But also, please help us spread the word!