When it comes to history, there have always been multiple versions. There is the widely accepted mainstream version passed down through media, textbooks, and repetition. Then, standing in the shadow of the conventional narrative, is what historian Howard Zinn dubbed “the people’s history.”
It is here in this shadow where the stories and contributions of those affected by systematic racism, misogyny, prejudice, and the patriarchy are often left to languish. Although, more and more of these stories are being brought into the light thanks to the hard work and dedication of passionate individuals. One such story is Sisters with Transistors, the new documentary from writer and director Lisa Rovner that shines a light on some of electronic music’s earliest female pioneers.
Despite countless women composers and talented performers existing throughout time, their notoriety, names, and contributions have always had to fight against ingrained societal stigmas for proper recognition. However, the women who have helped engineer and pioneer the genre of electronic music have long felt the extra sting of constructed gender roles and stereotypes held against them. Largely due to its technical nature and hardware-based mode of operation, electronic music has been widely thought of as a nearly exclusively male dominated field.
While several documentaries have been released in recent years focusing on female electronic artists like Suzanne Ciani and Delia Derbyshire, Rovner’s extensive, decades-spanning introduction is a welcome, beautiful sight to behold and in a class all its own.
For starters, the documentary is narrated by none other than Laurie Anderson. An avant-garde composer and musician herself, Anderson’s presence throughout the film adds a tangible weight to the story she is stitching together. Intertwined with archival footage, period audio, and newly recorded interviews with artists like Holly Herndon, Kim Gordon, Nadia Botello, and more, Anderson beautifully contextualizes the world in which many of the women highlighted existed.
Although Anderson’s warm and comforting voice is always pleasant when it arrives, the majority of the film unfolds allowing the women to speak for themselves. Executed through traditional dialogue and dozens of composition snippets, Rovner allows the true experts to tell their tale—the women themselves.
Working in chronological fashion, Sisters with Transistors begins with Clara Rockmore. The professional violinist turned theremin prodigy revolutionised the instrument in the 1930s with her technical and precise approach. Then, it shifts towards Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire. Both incredibly influential, these two brilliant women transformed the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and what it was capable of.
Oram not only shattered glass ceilings with her crucial role as one of the co-founders of the Workshop itself, she invented a whole new tool for composing electronic music called the Oramics Machine. In the 1960s, Derbyshire also became a revolutionary in her own right when her electronic theme for the Doctor Who television series was sent out across British airwaves. For the first real time, electronic music became a mainstream presence that was not only accepted, but embraced.
Continuing on throughout the years, the film marches on while highlighting French composer Éliane Radigue, American composers Bebe Barron, Pauline Oliveros, Maryanne Amacher, Laurie Spiegel, Suzanne Ciani, and—very briefly—Wendy Carlos. Rovner has since spoken on Carlos’ minimal screen time saying the choice was made for no other reason than Carlos simply declining to participate. However, Ciani’s scathing statement on the retroactive nature of Carlos’ hugely popular 1968 album Switched on Bach hints at further reasons.
While each and every one of these women deserve their own individual documentaries, a very special reverberation occurs when all are presented together in one package. Despite the separation of years, continents, approach, and motivation, this group of women become united by a thread other than gender. At one point in the film, Pauline Oliveros says “How do you exorcise the canon of classical music of misogyny?” These women and their combined musical output definitively answer that question.
This group of composers, and all those women out there like them, stand as living examples of sonic rebellion that fly in the face of ingrained societal gender roles. Related, but not singularly tied to the shifting political sentiments and fluctuating artistic trends that were also at play, these women all utilized their music and engineering abilities to defiantly scream out into the void. Further elaborating on this idea within the film, musician Ramona Gonzalez (aka Nite Jewel) says, “What relates all of these women is this DIY thing. And DIY is interesting because it doesn’t mean you’ve explicitly, voluntarily chosen to do it yourself. It’s that there are certain barriers in place that don’t allow you to do anything.”
By allowing their voices and individual personalities to shine through unfiltered and conservatively using Anderson’s narration to fill in the gaps, Rovner lovingly allows this idea to organically develop and rise to the surface. By placing trust in the intelligence of her audience, this approach to Sisters with Transistor’s presentation is not only refreshing, but brilliant.
Incredibly enlightening and passionately crafted, Sisters with Transistors acts as a direct response to the patriarchal structure that has long held these women and their stories in the shadows of mainstream consciousness. Wonderfully highlighting the intersection of music, science, feminism, and social values, Sisters with Transistors is an empowering revelation that effectively expands the spectrum of electronic music history. But just like Éliane Radigue says, “If you don’t listen attentively, openly, then you risk missing it completely.”