Sisters with Transistors: A fascinating, riveting documentary
Matthew Turner | On 23, Apr 2021
Director: Lisa Rovner
Cast: Laurie Anderson, Suzanne Ciani, Delia Derbyshire, Éliane Radigue, Pauline Oliveros
“This is the story of women who hear sounds in their heads.” That’s the opening line of this passionate and riveting documentary, which profiles 10 unsung female pioneers of electronic music. Directed by Lisa Rovner and narrated by Laurie Anderson, the film uses archive footage and interviews to tell its story, with occasional voiceover contributions from music experts or people who knew the subjects well.
The film begins with Suzanne Ciani, playing a concert with electronic music in 1971 that still sounds ahead of its time, nearly 50 years later. Then there’s Clara Rockmore, a classical violinist who worked closely with the inventor of the theremin (Professor Leon Theremin) and soon became a virtuoso on the instrument, playing melodies and concertos.
Next up is Delia Derbyshire, who’s the subject of two films this year, appearing in both this and Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and Legendary Tapes, with the two films sharing several of the same clips. A legendary figure at the BBC’s Polyphonic Workshop, Derbyshire is justly famous for creating the Doctor Who theme tune, and the film credits her with changing the public perception of electronic music.
Derbyshire wasn’t the only female electronic music pioneer at the BBC – there was also Daphne Oram, who eventually set up her own independent studio for electronic music in the 1950s. There’s also Frenchwoman Eliane Radigue, who’s shown demonstrating the feedback technique (beloved of rock guitarists everywhere) and explaining that “it’s about finding the sweet spot between the microphone and the speaker”.
One particularly intriguing figure is Bebe Barron, who was given a tape recorder for a wedding present and set up her own recording studio in Greenwich Village, along with her husband Louis. In perhaps the film’s most delightful moment, Bebe explains how she and Louis worked on the music for Forbidden Planet, the first feature film to use an all-electronic score. Still clearly amused by her experience on the film, she talks about coming up with the music for the Id Monster and how the unforgettable dying sounds of the machine in the film were actually the circuits dying for real.
However, Barron’s story is also illustrative of the problems the women had in general with a male dominated, rather conservative industry. Apparently the Musicians Union in the US were so panicked at the idea of being replaced by machines that they demanded the Barron’s onscreen credit should read “Electronic Tonalities by” and not “Composers”.
As the women tell their stories, the same pattern emerges time and time again – they are rejected by the establishment and then go off and do their own thing anyway, with great success. Punch-the-air examples of this include Wendy Carlos, who broke the synthesiser through into the mainstream charts with electronic classical music album Switched on Bach, and Laurie Spiegel, who created her own electronic music computer program (Music Mouse) and gave the software away for free.
Needless to say, Rovner has assembled a decidedly unique soundtrack for the film, including work from each of the 10 women, as well as a great track from The Space Lady (Synthesise Me) that plays over the end credits.
In short, this is an illuminating and consistently fascinating documentary that will leave you hungry to know more about each of its inspirational subjects. Here’s hoping that enterprising screenwriters are currently writing them the mainstream biopics they richly deserve.