‘Sisters With Transistors’: A Brief History of Electronic Music’s Unsung Pioneers
Electronic music — or, as we think of it today, most popular music — is so taken for granted that it’s easy to forget its original pioneers were iconoclasts of their time. Lisa Rovner’s new documentary Sisters With Transistors, about the women who expanded the technological and artistic possibilities of the form during the 20th century, presents those forebears with grace, accessibility, and a touch of the avant-garde.
Beginning with Clara Rockmore, the violin prodigy who dazzled audiences in the 1920s with her theremin (an electronic instrument played via hand movements through the air, rather than direct touch), Sisters With Transistors winds through the work of largely European and American composers and musicians, presenting each woman individually in short segments with narration by famed sound artist Laurie Anderson. Its most charming archival interviews are with Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire, two post-war British innovators whose careers flourished through the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in the Sixties. (Derbyshire’s most famous composition is the Doctor Who theme song.)
Later, during the counterculture revolution, Pauline Oliveros is shown codifying the concepts of “deep listening” and “sonic awareness” through her psychedelia-influenced performances and theoretical writings. The film also features several eras of Suzanne Ciani, who created music for desktop software and television commercials in the Eighties but was unable to secure a record deal due to the preconceptions that followed her as a female musician. At one point, Ciani describes walking into the studio and a male engineer asking her, “Where do you want the mic?” — he had assumed she was a singer, and not a keyboardist who worked with a complex electronic synthesizer.
Sisters With Transistors treats both its subjects and audience with care and intelligence, and its form takes cues from the very genre that it centers on. For the majority of the documentary, we see only archival footage and no talking heads; we hear Anderson’s smooth narrating timbre together with the voices of the musicians themselves, speaking either in voiceover or in archival audio, over a musical score that is often lifted directly from their mid-century discographies. Like the music itself, the tone is thought-provoking and occasionally eerie, an immersive experience that never tips over into pretension.
Still, don’t expect a sweeping history of electronic music, or even a comprehensive accounting of women’s contributions within it, from this 80-minute doc. Sisters With Transistors lacks interviews with musicians of color, not to mention any reference to the black and queer-driven electronic dance scenes that emerged as contemporaries to some of its subjects. It also contains a bafflingly short section on Wendy Carlos, the only trans woman featured and probably the most recognizable musician in the film, both for her landmark 1968 album Switched-On Bach and for her work as a film composer for A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, and Tron. The film acknowledges Carlos’ commercial success and her shepherding of electronic music to the mainstream, before Ciani is heard describing Carlos’ work as “retroactive” in terms of public perception of the synthesizer. Rovner has since addressed criticism of the segment, stating that “it was not at all in any way meant to be like an attack,” and that its brevity was due to Carlos declining to participate in the doc; Rovner’s other living subjects, including Ciani, Laurie Spiegel, and Éliane Radigue, all appear in present-day interviews towards the end of the film.
While it is gratifying to hear each woman speak on her art in her own terms, the documentary’s most illuminating moments are those that demonstrate how each musician’s work has been received by others over the years. Take the hilarious footage of Maryanne Amacher bashing a keyboard in the studio while Thurston Moore sheepishly covers his ears; his band Sonic Youth would go on to collaborate with Amacher, but that didn’t mean they found her music any less provocative or challenging. Or see Ciani’s appearance on David Letterman’s show, where she works the audience’s gimmicky view of her to her favor, forcing the host to listen to a drawn-out, whimsical oscillation that lasts so long it turns awkward. Letterman, impressed and a little bemused, has no words. He lets Ciani and her music do the talking.