The history and origins of electronic music receive a badly needed correction in Sisters with Transistors (2020), a new documentary feature directed by Lisa Rovner.
Of course the mainstream history of electronic music’s pioneers is dominated by men. All mainstream histories seem dominated by men. Through archival footage, and past and present interviews, Rovner effectively builds a new narrative beyond the establishment to illuminate the lives and careers of several key women from the USA, the UK, and France.
It is clear from the outset what the film is, and what it is not. There is no attempt to significantly contextualise the featured women within a predominantly male world. While that may disappoint some, it enables Rovner to explore her subjects both directly and thoroughly. It may disappoint viewers seeking a more general documentary, but it also allows it to absolutely excel at what it is aiming to do. Ten women are included, in a loose historical order: Clara Rockmore, Delia Derbyshire, Daphne Oram, Eliane Radigue, Bebe Barron, Pauline Oliveros, Maryanne Amacher, Wendy Carlos, Suzanne Ciani, and Laurie Spiegel. In a canny piece of casting, the film is narrated by Laurie Anderson – a hugely talented figure in avant-garde and electronic music herself.
There are some rather familiar themes evident, in which women’s art and creativity is dismissed by the establishment. To work at the noted BBC Radiophonics Workshop, Daphne Oram was forced to abandon an offer from the Royal Academy of Music. Bebe Barron and husband Louis’s score to Forbidden Planet so flustered the musician’s union that they were forced to be credited for ‘electronic tonalities’. Suzanne Ciani regularly faced prejudice in bringing all of her synthesisers and tape recorders into a studio, only to be asked what she was going to sing.
At the same time there is an extraordinary thrill seeing these talented artists express themselves in such inventive, radical, and progressive ways. It is also fascinating to see what inspired them to create electronic music in the first place.
If there is a drawback, it is that there is a missed opportunity to demonstrate how this early experimentation with the electronic form led to the popularly accepted electronica that is celebrated today. For example, musician Aphex Twin has spoken in the past of Delia Derbyshire’s influence upon electronic dance music – while there is some valuable participation here from the likes of Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, a firmer link from past to present would have cemented this historical documentary and enhanced the representation of its subjects.
This is a wonderfully assembled narrative of archival footage, fresh interviews, and decades’ worth of groundbreaking electronic music. Lisa Rovner has cleverly kept every represented voice out of sight, dedicated the entire visual experience to her subjects. It is a history lesson, a celebration, and an experience that is equal parts educational and inspiring.
Sisters with Transistors is available to rent online across Australia now via MIFF Play. Tickets are limited.