Sisters with Transistors06/05/2022
Combining a wealth of archive material with hypnotic soundscapes and magnetic voiceovers, Lisa Rovner’s documentary film SISTERS WITH TRANSISTORS tells the story of some of the key women who embraced and innovated with 20th century audio technology, helping to create the genre of electronica and laying the foundations for how we produce and listen to contemporary music.
The film’s earliest study starts in the 1930s with virtuoso theremin player Clara Rockmore, a musician who evolved from a classical background and dedicated herself to giving credibility to a new and at the time, perplexing invention. As the second world war happens, we see the influence this has on both women and music alike. Delia Derbyshire, who arranged the iconic Doctor Who theme, cites the sounds of air raid sirens during the bombing of her home town Coventry as the first in a lifelong fascination with abstract sounds. Her creation of one of the most widely known TV songs to this day was only made possible by the work of Daphne Orem, an instrumental figure in the creation of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, an experimental sound effects unit that provided a greater understanding and popularity of experimental music through its use in film and television. We also learn about lesser known artists including Éliane Radigue and Maryanne Amacher, who both focused their work on electroacoustic methods of composition.
As the film moves forward in time, colours begin to flourish and technology evolves, leading to the more familiar synthesisers and computers that we know today. We’re introduced to groundbreaking artist Wendy Carlos, who helped pioneer the Moog Synthesiser and created the soundtracks to cult films including A Clockwork Orange, The Shining and Tron. Computer expert Laurie Spiegel uses the early Macintosh to demonstrate Music Mouse, a software she created with built in knowledge of chords and scales, allowing users to create music in ways never seen before. Utilising these methods of creating sound still had its challenges - composers Bebe and Louis Barron’s electronic score to the film Forbidden Planet had to be described as ‘tonalities’, the result of a backlash from a musicians union who refused to allow their work to be described as music. Suzanne Ciani faced relentless rejection in attempts to secure a record deal, owing to stereotypical expectations of roles for women in the music industry. Another of the film’s featured artists Pauline Oliveros, who founded the San Francisco Tape Music Centre, poignantly fought back against this prejudice in her 1970 New York Times article ‘And Don’t Call Them ‘Lady’ Composers’.
The film's central message is of technology as a liberator, a tool of self expression that gave women power in an industry and world that felt designed to work against them. In its important, albeit limited account of the subject, it asks provocative questions and offers an insight into how our understanding of the genre can be rectified. As narrator Laurie Anderson poses: “how do you exorcise the canon of classical music of misogyny? With two oscillators, a turntable and tape delay.”
To offer a comprehensive account of the women involved in electronic music’s beginnings would require vast amounts of screentime, something this film does not have. At times it fails to include pertinent details to expand on character building, and it does present a singular, western perspective. But if we’re to examine this part of history through a feminist lens, its important to recognise the genre as a deeply diverse art form, and share the stories of all of those involved as well as recognise the barriers they faced beyond gender alone.
For further resources and other important individuals to explore, see the links below:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wIq_WR8cl1E&t=115s Wendy Carlos | Women in Electronic Music
https://dwellerforever.blog/Dweller - Electronic Music Blog Centreing Black Perspectives
Underplayed - Documentaryhttps://www.electronicbeats.net/documentary-underplayed-sexism-in-dance-music/