Sisters with Transistors review: Brilliant electronic music pioneers

“How do you exorcise the canon of classical music of misogyny?” asks narrator Laurie Anderson in Sisters with Transistors . “With two oscillators, a turntable and tape delay.”

Directed by Lisa Rovner, this archival documentary celebrates the ladies whose breakthroughs in early electronic music laid the foundations of modern styles – and whose work has been overlooked by many.

The film sets out showing the way the tumultuous events of the 20 th century shaped women and electronic music alike. Though Sisters with Transistors begins in the 1930s with Clara Rockmore, a virtuoso theremin performer, it takes wing when it reaches the next world war. Experimental musician Delia Derbyshire cited the air raid sirens through the bombing of Coventry, UK, in 1940 as the start of her obsession with abstract noises. From the carnage of the old world, a fresh, electrified sound was born, one that women would be key to defining.

Musicians like Éliane Radigue and Pauline Oliveros drew inspiration from all manner of machines, from droning aeroplanes to the crackling static of shortwave radios. The technologies underpinning the music itself were varied too – some artists used tape recorders and modulators to create strange and wondrous sounds. Bebe Barron and her husband Louis made music by overloading circuitry. In a glowing endorsement, writer Anais Nin described their are sounding like “an electron which has stubbed its toes”.

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This new sort of music found an appreciative audience through film and television, often because of the work of women behind the scenes. Composer Daphne Oram was instrumental in creating the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, an experimental sound files unit that introduced new musical technologies to the masses.

“Without Daphne, it would do not have started,” says alumnus Brian Hodgson, creator of the sound of the TARDIS in Doctor Who . The show’s iconic theme was realised at the workshop by Derbyshire, who, in a period before samplers and synthesizers, spent 40 days splicing sounds yourself to bring Ron Grainer’s composition to life.

Yet there have been many obstacles on electronic music’s path to mainstream success. Take the Barrons’s soundtrack for sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet.  It had been the first totally electronic score for a film, but it upset the Musicians’ Union, reportedly because of fears of machines taking performers’ jobs. Bebe and Louis’s work was finally billed as “electronic tonalities”, instead of music.

Sisters with Transistors argues that debate over legitimate music – and who reaches perform it – was a huge part of what drew women to electronic sound. “You didn’t must be accepted by the male-dominated resources,” says composer Laurie Spiegel. In an essay for The New York Times , Oliveros wrote “no ‘great’ composer, especially a female, includes a chance to emerge in a society which believes that ‘great’ music has been written by those long departed”.

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Despite how integral the film’s subjects were to the development of electronic music, their artistry can often be sidelined in mainstream musical histories. How Sisters with Transistors throws light upon this injustice is made all the more fascinating by how it is balanced with time spent appreciating the artists’ music. Long, ethereal sequences are devoted simply to listening, with scenes tied loosely together by Anderson’s magnetic narration.

The one downside of the approach is that there surely is so much more that may be said about the ladies, not forgetting the many others whose contributions to electronic music would fill countless hours of screen time. No documentary could feature them all, of course, and Sisters With Transistors doesn’t make an effort to be all encompassing. Yet some fascinating information regarding its subjects are absent: Derbyshire’s time in experimental band White Noise and Wendy Carlos’s soundtrack for the film Tron , for example, were huge influences on many modern artists.

Experimental electronic music may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Having said that, I defy you to watch Sisters With Transistors without feeling transported to some other time and place. Allow stories of the groundbreaking women and their work wash over you, and you may find yourself swept up in today’s.

Sisters with Transistors will be accessible via a virtual cinema release from 23 April.

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