What is your background?

I trained as a jeweller for 10 years (Gold and Silversmithing), working with metal and alchemy. I went to RMIT, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University, graduating with a BA (honours) in contemporary jewellery and sculpture (Stelarc was one of my teachers back then). Following on I did my masters in contemporary jewellery at Munich Art Academy, focussing more on conceptual fashionable costumes, performance art happenings and making illegal parties behind the art school called Seppi Bar, it’s actually here that Chicks on Speed (COS) first performed as a fake band.

What brought you to the field of music technology?

I don’t like to describe what I do as music technology, for me, that’s more the system behind the instruments. Developing bespoke materials to 3d print the prototype instruments, creating a live costuming on stage that could be actuated through gesture led my group Chicks on Speed (co-founded with Melissa Logan in 1997) to new interfaces for musical expression. When I started my PhD I suddenly realized this whole incredible world of people working with their digital DMI controller or connecting virtual with classical instruments.

What are your experiences being a woman in music technology?

I’m also in the music industry as I create electronic pop with COS. Many times we’d go to festivals and found ourselves as the only ‘token’ female group playing and this happened quite a lot, you can also hear it from other female artists. There’s a lot of reasons and research done on the subject, of how young males define the line-ups of the major music festivals. You have the bookers and the buyers, the buyers tended to book male acts, because a lot of them were male, well, many of them were actually female as well. A lot of these industry people in my experience just don’t ‘see’ women as having long term careers in music, there’s this blindness to woman artists, women musicians. It’s not just in music it’s very much so in the contemporary art world and it’s fantastic that you see so many young women today not taking it any more, saying it’s enough!

Did you have a role model or mentor?

Growing up in Australia, I lived in the outback countryside town Bowral, I didn’t really see much art or live music. I did hear a lot of incredible radio, I was really excited about the B52’s, Talking Heads and Devo at the time. Talking heads is close to performance art, so I think being exposed to these kinds of music from early age really informed my later artistic practice. Other role models included: Grace Jones and ORLAN, Laetitia Sonami, but I think role models also change with age. It wasn’t till art school that I was exposed to groups like The Slits, The Raincoats, Delta 5, Kleenex and Malaria!, all of them were huge influences on Chicks on Speed’s first albums.

Alexandra-Murray Leslie during her talk in the WoNoMute Seminar Series. Photo by Anna Xambó.
Alexandra-Murray Leslie during her talk in the WoNoMute Seminar Series. Photo by Anna Xambó.

Could you introduce more closely your piece of work/research?

My artistic research focusses on building a language of the feet in conjunction with NIME. I design and fabricate high heeled shoes that have integrated microcontrollers for Frequency Modulation Sound Synthesis. Over the last 5 years, I built 3 prototypes of musical instruments for the feet, each having a different physical aesthetic, sound palette. The physical material I use is just as important as the sound that it makes. The instrument never stands alone but is interconnected inside a larger ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ (all encompassing artwork). I see them as theatrical props to communicate meanings like socio-political concerns.

What motivated you to do this?

The Computer Enhanced Footwear came out of the desire to create a musical instrument for the feet, as most classical and digital musical instruments are designed for the hands. We speak about manipulation, but rarely do we speak about pedipulation.

It all started when COS needed an instrument on stage for our song We don’t play guitars. I was really against having a guitar on stage and Melissa wanted to play guitar, she actually became quite a virtuoso, I was forced to come up with another instrument. These experiences led me to demaking high heeled shoes.

What research methods did you use to conduct the study?

The methodology I use is practice based research based on Linda Candy and Ernest Edmonds. It’s based on designing an artefact and the process of iteration of that artefact; making the prototype, performing on stage. The methods also included user studies and getting feedback from other artists who worked with my instruments for qualitative research. I also use action research, a term coined by Kurt Lewin in 1944. Another methodology I heavily rely on is reflection in action and reflection of action by Donald Schön.

How does the system work?

For the shoes I mainly focussed on building one circuit-system together with Dr. Sam Ferguson. There’s an Arduino, minimu V5, with sensors; force sensitive resistor, accelerometer, giro and compass, plus lithium battery, XBee radio sender and receiver, all small enough to fit into the heel of a high heeled shoe. It sends the control data to the Max/MSP patch which is then routed to 4 different patches. Each shoe controls its own parameter of FM polyphonic sound synthesis and on each of those patches are effects including; pitch, reverb, delay, LFO and distortion. I have a series of pre-sets I use for performances and exact scenes. I really love performing with them, I did 300 shows over the last 5 years and I’m always discovering something new.

What advice would you give to women interested in pursuing a career in music technology?

Everyone has a different approach, it’s about defining, whether you want to go into sound engineering or do you want to be a composer, sound artist, performer, musical instrument designer? It’s working out ones individual entry point and then once you have a basic knowledge you can branch out. I’d advise young women to do engineering first for three years, get into signal processing and then go into an art music course, performance and composition.

Do you want to add anything else or have a comment?

Well, on the other hand, I said you need to study all this stuff, coming from Chicks on Speed – we never studied any music. I worked in a techno night club on the door and I just met a lot of DJ/producers and that’s where my career got kick started.