Sisters With Transistors


Reviewed by: Jane Fae

Sisters With Transistors
"Stops you in your tracks and makes you look at things you thought you knew about through fresh eyes." | Photo: Courtesy of Doc/Fest

Name me some electronic musicians, composers. If, like me, you came up with Kraftwerk or Jean-Michel Jarre, you, too, may hang your head in shame. Yes, even if you then added as afterthought, Mike Oldfield or Laurie Anderson. Because noticing the one in four performers who happens to have made it in this field and is a woman is really not good enough. Especially when, it turns out, there are good reasons why electronic music is often the safest space in which women may express themselves.

Except I did not know that until I watched Sisters With Transistors. This is a documentary, directed by Lisa Rovner, that takes us on a journey through the world of electronic music and the women pioneers in this field.

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So “just” a film about women making music? No. Don’t get me wrong, the structure of the film, pulling together old newsreel and extracts from popular TV to illustrate the accomplishments of the women involved, does provide insight into a good half dozen exciting lives you may have known nothing about before.

One after another, they appear on screen, talking about the initiatives they had to take to pursue a love for a form of music that much of the establishment either derided or rejected. Like the time the US musicians’ union insisted that a film include a credit for electronic “tonalities”, as opposed to “music”, because they were afraid that allowing such noise to count as music would undermine their jobs.

But the key sentiment, to which the film returns again and again, is the political. “This is the story of women who hear sounds in their heads.”

Or as one remarks at the end: enabling her to hear the “music I have been dreaming of all along”.

More: “Women are naturally drawn to electronic music because they do not have to deal with male power structures”. Obvious, really. Obvious, yet not something you see until you see. And then you cannot unsee it.

There are names and pioneers here I’d never heard of - but now I want to know more about each. There’s Suzanne Ciani using a baseline in a 1971 performance that sounded not at all dissimilar to one that appears on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album two years later. Obviously a coincidence.

There’s Clara Rockmore, who went from classical violinist to virtuoso theremin player.

A posh BBC voiceover explains that the pioneer of the BBC electronic music studio was a woman, Daphne Oram. But later, when the BBC wanted to focus its radiophonics output on drama, she set up an independent, Daphne studio to focus on music. In the Fifties!

There’s Éliane Radigue, a French woman composing with different plane tones: that is, the sound of different planes flying through the air.

Delia Derbyshire, the woman who created the Dr Who theme, a task that back in the day, before sampling, took 40 days to make.

Pauline Oliveros, coming through, despite being woman, gay, and a proponent of avant-garde music

Maryanne Amacher, who worked at MIT, and was constantly looking for intersections of science, life and sound. Wendy Carlos, who broke the synthesiser through into the mainstream charts with Switched on Bach. Though as important as commercial success for her was the transgressive act of recontextualising western art tropes.

Each and every one a brilliant woman working to create new sounds and new technologies from nothing. But always the gender perspective shines through. In one wonderful clip, Ciani puts down a patronising (male) interviewer simply by leaning forward and starting to play her music. Ironic that her achievement was to silence a mansplainer. And she was, she explains, the first woman to score a major Hollywood feature in 1980 - and it would and 14 years before next. Elsewhere she explains how much it irked her that her local radio station is just a male parade.

And last but by no means least, Laurie Spiegel was told she could not do music, but still she wanted to take a stand against Fifties hypocrisy. So she went out and created her own software: an act, she claims, that embodied the very “idea of agency”.

“Interesting”, a male presenter comments, his voice dripping with disdain. But Laurie is clear: “Through technology the music in our head can finally be heard by others.”

It is films like this that make me love the privilege I have working as an occasional film reviewer. Because this is not the sort of film you will encounter everyday. Yet when you do, it stops you in your tracks and makes you look at things you thought you knew about through fresh eyes. And that can never be a bad thing.

Reviewed on: 17 Jun 2020
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Sisters With Transistors packshot
The story of electronic music's unsung heroines.

Director: Lisa Rovner

Year: 2020

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: UK


Doc/Fest 2020

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