Review: Sisters With Transistors
2020 / 84 MIN / UK / Metrograph Pictures
DIRECTOR: LISA ROVNER
Thanks to EMPAC I had a chance to see this new film and a talk by the director Lisa Rovner and producer Marcus Werner Hed. This documentary chases the early history of electronic music and the women who were at the heart of it—though you wouldn’t know that from most music histories. features the work of visionary composer and Rensselaer professor Pauline Oliveros alongside Clara Rockmore, Daphne Oram, Bebe Barron, Wendy Carlos, Delia Derbyshire, EMPAC-alum Maryanne Amacher, Eliane Radigue, Suzanne Ciani, and Laurie Spiegel.
While it’s likely that you will know some of these artists, unless you’re a real electronic aficionado you’re unlikely to know them all. Even the ones I knew I didn’t always know all the things they were up to. I didn’t know about Barron’s recording of Anaïs Nin and her husband Hugo; I didn’t know the astounding amount of work Ciani did in advertising or how Spiegel created the Music Mouse for Apple computers. I did know about the Barrons being denied composer credit for the soundtrack to Forbidden Planet because the musicians union feared people being replaced by machines—instead of the reality that people found more ways to mess with machines and make fascinating sounds.
The approaches differ: some are more interested in the machines and the process, others in how the machines facilitate the sound. Oliveros of course started her Deep Listening practice with as much concern for healing as for music, embodying listening as a form of whole body meditation. It’s interesting that Radigue, too, was profoundly influenced by Buddhist teachings. So much for the ‘coldness’ of electronic music.
While any one of these women could be a whole documentary subject herself, this film offers an entrée to the wealth of women working in electronic composition and performance. You can find further diverse suggestions in this Reddit thread. It’s not all one might wish, but it’s a lot more than what we have, which is nothing much.
Best of all it’s energising, inspiring, full of wonderful sounds, and will make you itch to see what sounds you can make.
Sisters with Transistors is an essential primer for those interested in discovering this vital, oft-overlooked history but also offers plenty of pleasures for crate-digging experimental music obsessives who know the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s output like the back of their hand. Contemporary musicians, such as Holly Herndon and Kim Gordon, also offer insights into their forebears’ indelible music and their personal significance.
Watch the Sisters With Transistors teaser here: https://vimeo.com/471330312 The film opens April 23.