Walking down an alley in Seattle’s International District, Megan Mitchell ’12 heard something that made her stop in her tracks.
It was an air conditioner. Scratch that: several air conditioners. Megan had been strolling through the neighborhood, searching for unusual noises to record and eventually incorporate into the DJ sets she’d been doing at underground parties around Seattle. When she heard the air-conditioning units—each of them whirring and droning at its own frequency, the machinery chorus bouncing off the walls around her—she knew she had found something worthy of preservation. She aimed the mic and hit Record.
Ever since her days at KUPS, the campus radio station at Puget Sound, Megan has been directing attention to the obscure and undersung. As a musician recording under the name Cruel Diagonals, she recently released a critically acclaimed album, Disambiguation, that synthesizes the intimacy of her clarion voice with a haunting sense of space, incorporating sounds gathered from abandoned and overlooked sites throughout the Pacific Northwest. As an archivist trained in information science, she spearheads a sprawling online directory, Many Many Women, which compiles information on women and nonbinary people who make electronic, avant-garde, and experimental music—genres in which the rosters of festivals and record labels are overwhelmingly male, even though the field of practitioners is considerably more diverse. And as a media equity advocate, she challenges librarians to think expansively about how to bring an inclusive ethic to the way they collect, classify, and disseminate information. In her day job as a digital asset curator at the academic publisher SAGE, too, she is exploring ways of using metadata to keep better track of how diverse a database’s or library’s collections really are.
In other words, Megan has built three groundbreaking careers in less than a decade. In all of her endeavors, she channels her passion for paying close attention to what other people overlook, and she works to expand the range of the sounds we hear and the data we see. The spring of 2018 found her touring her latest album and presenting lectures on inclusive archival practices at the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle. All this while still settling into her first steady postgrad job, at SAGE, in Los Angeles, and learning what possibilities that position presents her for living out her ideal role of archivist as activist for inclusion.
From recording noise for music tracks to diversifying library archives, Megan Mitchell works to expand the range of the sounds we hear and the data we see.
The road to this point for Megan hasn’t been a direct one. She first arrived at Puget Sound in 2008 with solid plans: She would major in music, perform in musicals and operas on campus, and train for a life on the classical circuit or theatrical stage. But as soon as she got to campus, she started rethinking her path.
“I had kind of gotten pushed in that direction” of being a professional singer, she says, “by my voice teacher and from the community I was in. And then I got to school and was like, ‘I kind of hate this.’” She tried to stay the course, but some part of her had other ideas. “I recall auditioning for, and being accepted into, a musical production of Anything Goes, and just not showing up to the first rehearsal. I realized then that I was forcing something that didn’t make sense to me any longer.”
It wasn’t just musical theater that felt wrong. She had long been dogged by a sense that she didn’t fit in anywhere, and that feeling persisted at Puget Sound. “It was definitely a very wholesome, Pacific Northwest, nature, mountain-y, exploration kind of vibe,” she recalls.
Megan wasn’t opposed to the nature vibe, but she wasn’t that type herself. “I’m definitely a city girl. I remember there was a fashion blogger around campus who was always trying to take my picture because I was always dressed to the nines for some reason. I was wearing lipstick; I would wear heels and stuff. He was like, ‘Nobody else dresses like you here.’ I always had a different thing going on.”
It was when she got involved with KUPS that she finally found her home: a place where being different meant she had something unique to offer. She had toured the studio—which was tucked away in the basement of the student center—on a campus visit the previous year, and she’d been impressed with what struck her then as its professionalism. “But of course,” she jokes, “once I was involved with the station, I realized all college radio is just a scrappy punk endeavor.”
The KUPS studio was a ramshackle love song to music in all its guises. In the booth where DJs held court, the walls were lined with CDs organized by genre and roughly alphabetized. “There were semifunctioning turntables,” she recalls, plus “CD players, a somewhat reliable mixing board, a couple of microphones, and the automation computer we lovingly called Zarvox—named, I think, after the software.”
Starting out as DJ and assistant music director, Megan quickly ascended to music director, a post she held for three years, revamping the station’s community and inspiring a whole new generation of college radio DJs to engage in deep listening. “KUPS was really the anchor for me,” she says.
That first year, her own radio show aired in the wee hours of the morning, a typical slot for a college DJ just starting out. She loved doing her show, but the station’s programming as a whole created that old, familiar feeling of being out of step with her peers. The overall musical identity was “really safe, really bland indie rock, like plaid white-dude guitar.” She was certain KUPS could do a better job of offering something different to Tacoma listeners while also being a vehicle for Puget Sound students to get exposed to new and unfamiliar music.
She started doing this with her own show, focusing on a different genre or group of genres every semester: “One semester was very heavily focused on post-punk, coldwave, minimal wave, and no wave,” she remembers, “whereas another was almost entirely focused on Krautrock and psych rock.” When she became the station’s music director as a sophomore, she had the chance to implement some of her ideas more broadly. She thought to herself, “I’m going to start choosing material that’s more edgy and experimental and that pushes the envelope a little bit more.”
Students carry the torch of DJs past in the KUPS studio.
While making the station’s rotation list more diverse, Megan also focused on exposing DJs to a broader array of music. She introduced an educational music series called “Know Your Roots,” about the roots of alternative rock, and she required all the DJs to participate. She hosted listening parties where DJs would listen to the new music that was coming into the station and talk about it together, rather than every DJ just coming in for their one show and rarely seeing their station compatriots. “I was trying to foster this community,” she recalls—in addition to providing a musical education.
She had finally found a place on campus where she not only wasn’t beyond the pale but was actually respected, and where she could use what set her apart to change an institution and affect other people’s lives. “I had a lot of younger students look up to me as a mentor,” she says proudly. “I ended up bringing up a new generation, and fostering this different music culture.”
When she graduated in 2012, Megan moved to Seattle and spent a few years organizing and DJing at immersive multimedia underground parties. She got herself a portable digital sound recorder and began to make field recordings in and around Seattle. She worked these into her DJ sets sometimes, though she still wasn’t producing or performing her own material.
Her post-college years followed “kind of a confusing trajectory,” she says, “putting together a lot of puzzle pieces,” but the more she collected sound, the more the pieces were starting to fit together. She loved thinking about vast quantities of information, figuring out how to organize it, analyzing how different organizational schemas could shape and bias the way information is seen and stored and valued. That was what she had done at KUPS, like when she’d changed the way rotation tracks were chosen in order to make room for a greater variety of music. Realizing that information science would be a way for her to advance inclusion on a larger scale, she enrolled at the University of Washington to get a master’s degree in library and information science.
While in graduate school, Megan decided it was time for her to start making music of her own again. Appropriately enough, she began with a library. In this case, it was the library of sounds she had been gathering. On her early collecting excursions, she’d recorded the droning of those air conditioners in the International District, along with some insect noises in a quarry by an abandoned concrete crusher factory in Concrete, Wash., up near Mount Baker.
“The initial impetus for me to collect field recordings,” she says, “was [that] it just allows you to generate a sound library that’s different from anybody else’s.”
Shortly after starting grad school, Megan began to put some things from this library together, and ended up with a handful of experimental tracks that she uploaded to the music-sharing site SoundCloud.
The response was immediate and positive. She received notes of encouragement and praise from local musicians whose performances she attended and whose tracks she played in her DJ sets: underground luminaries such as Norm Chambers (aka Panabrite) and Steve Peters, and DJs such as CCL and Sharlese Metcalf. “These were people who were staples of the Seattle experimental music community, many of whom have been at their craft for a decade or longer,” Megan says. “Having this sense of validation from people who had been making music and putting out records on respectable labels was definitely an ego boost.”
In July 2018, Megan released her full-length album Disambiguation, which was well received. Pitchfork gave it a respectable rating of 7.4, writing approvingly that on the album, “all the sonic obscurity becomes a tool with which to express emotion and build ambience, instead of a cloak to hide behind. Rather than pushing you away, her subtle music beckons you to come closer. Naturally, there is some loneliness and even desolation emanating from her restrained approach, but there’s also a lot of empathy. The feeling of solitude she creates is honest in a way that can make you feel less alone.”
Vice’s music section, “Noisey,” was even more laudatory, calling Disambiguation a “captivatingly eerie wash of experimental electronic music” and noting that Megan “has a crystalline voice that wouldn’t sound out of place at a midnight mass.”
Yet she couldn’t take the victory lap she deserved right when the album came out, because that very same summer, after living with her parents in Oakland and applying for “no joke, 150 jobs” while working on short-term archiving projects with medical libraries and art collectors, she finally got the call she’d been waiting for, from the academic publisher SAGE. She had two weeks to move to Los Angeles; there was no time to tour a new album.
Instead of traveling to play shows, Megan found ways to connect with listeners through social media. Most strikingly, a 38-second video she posted on Twitter last September was viewed over 100,000 times. In the video, she’s shown smashing rocks with a sledgehammer in a graffiti-covered concrete tunnel in the Angeles National Forest north of L.A. Again and again, she hauls the heavy hammer over her head and brings it down with purpose. Each rock makes a slightly different sound when the hammer collides with it, and the echoing resonance, with its shifting overtones, is intense.
Meanwhile, Megan found a way to combine her archival and creative practice with her long-standing feminist commitments. Steve Peters, who had become a mentor for Megan in the experimental music scene, was running an online index called Many Many Women that listed women who make electronic, avant-garde, and experimental music. “He started asking people for submissions via Facebook,” Megan recalls, “and I kind of popped up and started showing immediate enthusiasm, submitting a ton of entries. I’d already been interested in the intersections of feminism and experimental music, so I was becoming aware of a number of artists myself.”
When Steve asked Megan if she’d like to take over Many Many Women, she leapt at the chance. In her graduate studies, she was becoming interested in the way seemingly neutral things, like ways of organizing information, could reinforce gender and racial biases—or, alternatively, challenge them. This wasn’t just a theoretical issue for her: She’d often go to a performance or a festival with an all-male lineup, only to hear that the promoters simply didn’t know any women to book and didn’t know how to find them. She saw Many Many Women as an opportunity to change that. While keeping the index’s original name, she expanded its purview to include musicians from many points along the gender spectrum. The goal was to collect information about people who’d been underrepresented in a musical milieu—transgender and nonbinary artists as well as women—and to make that information available to festival promoters, record labels, and interested listeners.
Megan, who records music under the name Cruel Diagonals, plays a set at MUTEK San Francisco last spring.
This recasting of the project’s scope, while in some ways subtle, epitomizes Megan’s detail-oriented attention to classification, representation, and the ways language can shape reality. And her travels in the field of library science have shown her that these activities can reinforce existing patterns of bias and exclusion—or change them for the better. At a conference of music librarians, for instance, she saw somebody present an analysis of the most popularly performed pieces of contemporary and classical music at festivals in Southern California. The presenter proposed that libraries should acquire more materials connected to these composers who were already being performed most frequently.
“The issue with this rationale,” Megan explained in a presentation of her own that she gave this spring, “was that this list of composers was almost exclusively white and male”—and that libraries would only be reinforcing this imbalance if they let their collections decisions be guided by people’s existing preferences. “This got me fired up, and I voiced this concern to my colleagues. It was met with a general air of discomfort and dismissiveness.”
Megan started wondering: What if libraries—and similar institutions, such as databases and publishers—could actually play a role in bringing more diverse materials to people’s attention? She had been able to transform KUPS in just a few years from a purveyor of predictable music to something that pushed the envelope and made lesser-known materials available. Could libraries undergo a similar change?
It had been easy enough to become music director at KUPS and change what got played on the air, but Megan is a long way from setting collection development policy at even a single academic library. So she has begun to give talks and push her colleagues to rethink their roles and responsibilities. In a talk in Seattle last year, she encouraged people in library and information sciences to recognize their role “as curators, storytellers, and shapers of what is admitted to the historical canon as ‘fact,’” and thus “to actively seek marginalized and underrepresented artists for inclusion in curated music collections” and to “explicitly outline means of achieving a more equitable balance of voices.”
In order to achieve this, she says, libraries and databases can do a better job of including materials generated outside the peer-reviewed academic system—materials from social justice organizations, citizen media, oral histories, and popular and online cultures, which often incorporate diverse viewpoints. In her position at SAGE, where she’s responsible for organizing and making accessible a vast collection of digital videos, she’s working on embedding demographic information into the metadata for her materials, so that, for instance, it would be simple for a library to gauge the diversity of its holdings.
Megan is still trying to figure out how to make all the pieces fit. But one thing she’s realized is that she doesn’t have to have everything figured out in order to make an impact. She just has to be herself. “My sense of isolation, of paving the way in the in-between space, is a common denominator in the music and the art that I work in,” she says.
It shapes the echoing clarity, the meditative spaciousness, that people have found so moving in Megan’s music. It also fuels the ethical commitment of her archival advocacy.
“Sometimes it’s very lonely, and it’s a very vulnerable place to be,” she admits. “But it’s something that I attempt to channel and use for good.”
By Sara Marcus Photos by Sy Bean Published July 31, 2019