Sisters with Transistors (2020)

  • Documentary, Music
  • 1h 26m

Think of early electronic music and you’ll likely see men pushing buttons, knobs, and boundaries. While electronic music is often perceived as a boys club, the truth is from the very beginning women have been integral in inventing the devices, techniques and tropes that would define the shape of sound for years to come.  

The history of women has been a history of silence. Recent protests calling for greater recognition of women’s achievements have swept across politics, business, even Hollywood. The world of music is no exception.

As one of the film’s subjects, Laurie Spiegel explains: “We women were especially drawn to electronic music when the possibility of a woman composing was in itself controversial. Electronics let us make music that could be heard by others without having to be taken seriously by the male dominated Establishment.”

With the wider social, political and cultural context of the 20th century as our backdrop, this all archival documentary reveals a unique emancipation struggle, restoring the central role of women in the history of music. 

With Laurie Anderson as our narrator, we’ll embark on a fascinating journey through the evolution of electronic music. We’ll learn how new devices opened music to the entire field of sound, how electronic music not only changed the modes of production but in its wide-ranging effects also transformed the very terms of musical thought.

The story begins in 1929 New York with Clara Rockmore wowing classical music audiences by producing sounds from thin air with her theremin, a new electronic instrument. Clara’s worldwide performances helped to establish electronic and experimental music as a viable form in the public imagination. Cutting between never-before-seen black and white home movies of Clara in 1930s NY and images of Clara from the ’70s in her Upper West Side apartment, she reflects: “I had to make — and then meet — my own standards; I had to win the public over into thinking of the theremin as a real, artistic medium.”

With the wartime needs for improved means of communication came the invention of the magnetic tape recorder. It was suddenly possible to record and manipulate sounds in ways that were unimaginable before. Tape became more than just a means for recording and playing back music, it became an essential tool for composition. In 1950s Greenwich Village, we’ll discover how the first entirely electronic film score was composed by Bebe Barron and her husband Louis in 1956 for the MGM movie ‘Forbidden Planet’, made entirely from treated bleeps, blurps, whirs, whines, throbs, hums, and screeches generated by their own electronic circuits, recorded on tape. As Bebe recounts in a radio interview: “Vacuum tubes were our main components. There were also resistors, capacitors, inductors and semiconductors… We invented our own instruments since there weren’t any to buy.”

In post World War II Europe, where large numbers of women were recruited into jobs vacated by men who had gone to fight in the war, we’ll meet the first generation of women working in radio – Daphne Oram (UK), Eliane Radigue (FR), and Delia Derbyshire (UK) – whose unique experimentations with tape would later be felt in the early sound experiments of Les Paul, the studio manipulations of Beatles producer George Martin, the concrete pranks of Frank Zappa, the sampling and turntablism of hip-hop DJs from Grandmaster Flash to Q-Bert.

Outside the bounds of famous institutions like the BBC, iconoclastic composers were building their own instruments made from army surplus stores. We’ll meet one such composer, Pauline Oliveros, whose story will take us to San Francisco in the ’60s – the epicentre of experimental music “where synthesiser and tape loops met light shows and LSD”. But even in counter cultural environments like the San Francisco Tape Music Center, electronic music could be seen as a male pursuit. As Pauline remarks, “Men have a way of bonding around technology. There seemed to be an invisible barrier tied to a way of treating women as helpless or hapless beings.”

While some experimental artists were exploring the outer limits of sonic perception, others were bringing electronic music into the mainstream. In 1968, Wendy Carlos scored a hit record with ‘Switched-On Bach’, a collection of Bach pieces played on a Moog synthesiser, making Carlos a superstar and the synthesiser a thing of wonder. We’ll meet electronic wizard Suzanne Ciani as she recounts working with a Buchla synthesiser to compose scores for television commercials for corporations such as Atari and Coca-Cola as well as soundtracks for classic Hollywood films ‘The Incredible Shrinking Woman’ and ‘The Stepford Wives.’ In our interview with Suzanne she says “I couldn’t get a record deal, because the record companies were not interested in a woman who did not sing. Advertising wanted to be on the edge, they were looking for something different. I had total freedom. Nobody could tell me what to do, they didn’t know what I did.” We’ll conclude with Laurie Spiegel, whose prescient computer program Music Mouse from 1986, among the earliest music software available to regular consumers, underpins the practice of most of today’s bedroom producers. As she explains: “I got involved with computers in music out of frustration of other ways of doing music and also because of the incredible potential they had for combining the best of all worlds: the memory, the logic, and the complete freedom to define any kind of world you wanted.”

Near the end of the film, we meet the women in the present for the first time: new original footage of Suzanne, now 74, jamming on her Buchla in Bolinas, California, Laurie, now 75, on the streets of lower Manhattan feeding a kit of birds at dusk and Eliane, now 88, rehearsing with musicians in her Parisian apartment. Over new images of this first wave of pioneers, we’ll hear from the younger generation of contemporary female musicians, how finding out about these women impacted them, nurtured them.  The film ends with a call to arms, to listen deeply, inclusively, and to continue to challenge the silence with beautiful noise. Birds in the sky, flying high.

Country

United Kingdom