Sisters With Transistors (dir. Lisa Rovner)

“If you don’t listen attentively, openly, then you risk missing it completely.” – Eliane Radigue

Sisters With Transistors is a powerful exercise in redressing history. Subtitled “Electronic music’s unsung heroines”, the film does for the history of electronic music what Hidden Figures did for the space race, namely drawing out the role of women in a development that is seen, all too often, as exclusively male-dominated.

The film offers vivid character portraits of ten musicians, composers, deep listeners and instrument builders – Delia Derbyshire, Daphne Oram, Suzanne Ciani, Eliane Radigue, Clara Rockmore, Maryanne Amacher, Wendy Carlos, Bebe Barron, Pauline Oliveros and Laurie Spiegel. Ten more different individuals you could not find, yet they are united by a common interest in going beyond the traditional sounds and timbres that they had grown up with, and pushing the potentialities of diverse electronic sounds. We see Derbyshire demonstrating the practical use of oscillators and tape splicing; we see Rockmore’s claw-like hand coaxing beatific, classical melodies from a theremin; we see Oram feeding painted slides into her Oramics machine to create fluid, sweeping sounds; we see Carlos painstakingly re-creating Bach’s intricate melodies, arpeggios and harmonies on a massive Moog system; we see Ciani mesmerising and confusing a gallery audience with her Buchla demonstration, and, later, prompting laughter from a bemused David Letterman with a howling, droning electronic tone during his prime time show; we see Spiegel demonstrating her innovative Music Mouse interface and feeding pigeons near her home in TriBeCa.

We hear the catalysts for each of these sonic revolutionaries entering the electronic music field. For Oram and Derbyshire it was the engineering opportunities arising in the wake of World War Two, where the absence of men during wartime suddenly permitted women to enter what had been a hitherto male profession. For Berkeley’s Ciani it was the anything-goes spirit of adventure that followed the Summer Of Love, her instrument of choice – the Buchla system – having previously found a use in Ken Kesey’s acid experiments. From each of the musicians we hear the same idea of being liberated from traditional music’s strictures and rules and sounds, about being switched on by alien sounds and seeing how their different colour palettes could take music in utterly new directions.

We find ourselves somewhere between the art establishment and popular culture throughout Sisters With Transistors. Ciani’s pivotal, but very often overlooked, commercial work for advertising is given prominence, while a narrator of a clip from a New York Sam Goody store drops the breathtaking fact that Carlos’s first Switched On Bach album was selling more copies than The Beatles. Patch cables abound, there are enough Arps and Moogs to satiate the most ardent synth enthusiast and the sonic backdrop is a treasure trove of discovery – from Oliveros’s meditative Deep Listening and Radigue’s Adnos II to Amacher blasting Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore with an unholy barrage of noise that has him putting his fingers in his ears at one point. Leon Theremin and Bob Moog put in cameo appearances, but their role is very much as supporting cast members – both may have created pioneering instruments, sounds and systems, but it’s what you did with them that really counted. We hear something similar about Louis Barron – he may have been in charge of the soldering iron in his partnership with his wife, but it was Bebe that gave his creations emotion.

Narrated by Laurie Anderson, herself stranded somewhere between the arts and the charts, Sisters With Transistors is a revealing, important, overdue and engaging film that offers a timely dismantling of the myth of the synthesiser boys club. Beautifully compiled and researched, Rovner’s film is also among the most accessible of the growing number of films attempting to chart electronic music’s storied history.

Sisters With Transistors is available for screening now. Go to sisterswithtransistors.com for details.

Words: Mat Smith

(c) 2021 Further.