“How do you exorcise the canon of classical music of misogyny?” asks narrator Laurie Anderson in Sisters with Transistors. “With two oscillators, a turntable and tape delay.”
Directed by Lisa Rovner, this archival documentary celebrates the women whose breakthroughs in early electronic music laid the foundations of modern styles – and whose work has been overlooked by many.
The film sets out to show how the tumultuous events of the 20th century shaped women and electronic music alike. Though Sisters with Transistors begins in the 1930s with Clara Rockmore, a virtuoso theremin performer, it takes wing when it reaches the second world war. Experimental musician Delia Derbyshire cited the air raid sirens during the bombing of Coventry, UK, in 1940 as the beginning of her obsession with abstract noises. From the carnage of the old world, a new, electrified sound was born, one that women would be key to defining.
Musicians like Éliane Radigue and Pauline Oliveros drew inspiration from all manner of machines, from droning aeroplanes to the crackling static of shortwave radios. The technologies underpinning the music itself were varied too – some artists used tape recorders and modulators to create strange and wondrous sounds. Bebe Barron and her husband Louis made music by overloading circuitry. In a glowing endorsement, writer Anais Nin described their work as sounding like “an electron that has stubbed its toes”.
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This new form of music found an appreciative audience through film and television, often thanks to the work of women behind the scenes. Composer Daphne Oram was instrumental in creating the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, an experimental sound effects unit that introduced new musical technologies to the masses.
“Without Daphne, it would never have started,” says alumnus Brian Hodgson, creator of the sound of the TARDIS in Doctor Who. The show’s iconic theme was realised at the workshop by Derbyshire, who, in a time before samplers and synthesizers, spent 40 days splicing sounds by hand to bring Ron Grainer’s composition to life.
Yet there were many obstacles on electronic music’s path to mainstream success. Take the Barrons’s soundtrack for sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet. It was the first entirely electronic score for a film, but it upset the Musicians’ Union, reportedly due to fears of machines taking performers’ jobs. Bebe and Louis’s work was ultimately billed as “electronic tonalities”, rather than music.
Sisters with Transistors argues that this debate over legitimate music – and who gets to perform it – was a large part of what drew women to electronic sound. “You didn’t have to be accepted by any of the male-dominated resources,” says composer Laurie Spiegel. In an essay for The New York Times, Oliveros wrote “no ‘great’ composer, especially a woman, has a chance to emerge in a society which believes that all ‘great’ music has been written by those long departed”.
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Despite how integral the film’s subjects were to the development of electronic music, their artistry is often sidelined in mainstream musical histories. The way in which Sisters with Transistors throws light on this injustice is made all the more fascinating by how it is balanced with time spent appreciating the artists’ music. Long, ethereal sequences are devoted simply to listening, with scenes tied loosely together by Anderson’s magnetic narration.
The one downside of this approach is that there is so much more that could be said about the women, not to mention the countless others whose contributions to electronic music would fill hours and hours of screen time. No single documentary could feature them all, of course, and Sisters With Transistors doesn’t try to be all encompassing. Yet some fascinating details about its subjects are absent: Derbyshire’s time in experimental band White Noise and Wendy Carlos’s soundtrack for the film Tron, for instance, were huge influences on many modern artists.
Experimental electronic music might not be everyone’s cup of tea. That said, I defy you to watch Sisters With Transistors without feeling transported to another time and place. Let the stories of these groundbreaking women and their work wash over you, and you will find yourself caught up in the current.
Sisters with Transistors will be available via a virtual cinema release from 23 April.