MIFF69 – Sisters With Transistors (2020)

Out of all the offerings at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival, this is the one I’ve been anticipating for the longest time, ever since it was first announced as a work in progress roughly three years ago. My first viewing of Doctor Who (1963-89) as a very young child was a formative experience in many ways, but the most relevant one here is my personal musical sweet spot of 20th century analogue electronic music. Sisters with Transistors: Electronic Music’s Unsung Heroines (2020) charts the development of this musical form via the words and works of its most significant female contributors, some of whom may be passingly familiar to a general audience, but most of whom have only begun to be more widely celebrated since the dawning of the 21st century.

The documentary is narrated by the familiar tones of legendary avant-garde performer and composer Laurie Anderson, whose first single “O Superman” (1981) was championed by famous British DJ John Peel, reaching #2 in the UK charts. Although Anderson sets the scene, providing context for the journey the audience is about to begin, she’s not a major presence in the film. Director Laura Rovner has chosen instead to allow the women under consideration to speak for themselves where possible via a mixture of examples from their body of work, archival footage, recordings of old interviews and – for three of the four women still alive – newly filmed footage. Most of the contextual information about their work is provided by their colleagues or by modern female musicians discussing their personal influences, with Anderson’s narration making brief reappearances only when necessary to provide connective tissue.

The first woman to be featured is Clara Rockmore (1911-98), a concert violinist who became fascinated by Léon Theremin’s newly invented instrument the theremin, helping to refine its development and achieving fame as its preeminent performer. The BBC Radiophonic Workshop is next, represented by both Delia Derbyshire (1937-2001) – most famous for her realisation of the Doctor Who theme music and seen here demonstrating composition from painstakingly pieced together fragments of tape – and the less well known, but crucial, figure of Daphne Oram (1925-2003), co-founder of the Workshop. Although she is modest about the extent of her contribution, quoted only as saying that she “helped” to start it, their mutual colleague Brian Hodgson is more emphatic in his statement that it would never have come into being without her. Oram was also a pioneer in the graphic representation of sound, developing her own technique known as Oramics, allowing the composer to draw shapes directly onto film stock which would be fed into a machine and translated into sound. On the other side of the English Channel, Eliane Radigue (b. 1932) developed her talents in the musique concrète tradition, training with key figures Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry. Both Radigue and Derbyshire talk about the influence of World War II in forming the way they thought about music – Derbyshire’s love for abstract sound had its birth in the sound of the air raid sirens over London, while Radigue enjoyed listening to the sounds of planes travelling overhead, picking apart their different sounds and rearranging them inside her head to form her first compositions.

Over in America, Bebe Barron (1925-2008) and her husband Louis collaborated on soundtracks for avant-garde films, with Louis creating the raw sonic materials and Bebe turning them into coherent musical pieces – Louis talks about her astonishing ability to mentally retain the contents of hours of abstract recordings, using only her memory to identify the exact points on multiple tape reels containing the elements she wished to use. The two are best known in the mainstream for creating the astonishing soundtrack to Forbidden Planet (1956), although the musicians union kicked up a fuss and refused to allow them to be credited as composers – they were credited instead for “electronic tonalities” and it took another 20 years before their soundtrack achieved the respect it deserved. Pauline Oliveros (1932-2016) was a founding member of the San Francisco Tape Music Center under the leadership of the higher profile Morton Subotnick and was primarily focused on live performance. Maryanne Amacher (1938-2009), the one featured musician here whose name was unfamiliar to me, started off working with field recordings before developing compositions around the creation of psychoacoustic illusions and the exploration of scientific ideas. Transgender composer Wendy Carlos (b. 1939) became famous for her electronic arrangements of classical music, contributing to the scores of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Shining (1980). Suzanne Ciani (b. 1946) found her musical outlet in the world of advertising, where she found that her clients’ desire to be seen as “cutting edge” allowed her complete creative freedom to experiment with her equipment. The final musician to be featured is Laurie Spiegel (b. 1945), one of the first people to use computers as a compositional tool, drawing at first on her background in Appalachian folk music before creating the Music Mouse program for the Macintosh, which she has continued to update all the way through OS9. Rovner makes clever use of her editing team to link the visual aspect of this program back to Daphne Oram’s Oramics, reinforcing the connections between her various subjects before devoting the final 10 minutes to revisiting Spiegel, Ciani and Rodigue in 2018.

Although little is made of gender at first, it becomes more prominent the further forward we journey in time. Léon Theremin’s infatuation with Rockmore is mentioned in passing and can be clearly seen in contemporary footage, but from her perspective their relationship doesn’t appear to stretch beyond friendship and collegiality. Derbyshire talks about how lucky she was to be a woman from a working class background allowed to study Mathematics at university (although Hodgson is more forthright in his comments about her mathematical abilities). Radigue introduces the difficulty of being taken seriously in macho French society, with one of her co-workers under Schaeffer saying that it was good to have her there simply because she “smells good” (although for what it’s worth she does appear to have had Schaeffer’s respect). Oliveros is the first explicitly feminist performer, writing a piece for the New York Times on institutional misogyny and providing the wonderful quote: “How do you exorcise the canon of classical music of misogyny? With one oscillator, a turntable and tape delay.” The inclusion of Carlos may be controversial for TERFs, but it’s good to see her featured here – even if, for some odd reason, she’s the one featured artist not to be mentioned on the film’s promotional website. Ciani talks about how she couldn’t get a record deal because the labels weren’t interested in female performers who couldn’t sing, and points out that although she eventually became the first woman to provide a score for a Hollywood feature film – Lily Tomlin’s The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981) – it took another 14 years before the next solo female composer was hired. Spiegel ties the topic in a bow by addressing the reason it’s important for films like this to exist – when she was growing up, she had no idea it was possible for a woman to be a composer and her teachers actively discouraged her from becoming a musician. It wasn’t until she’d completed a degree in Social Sciences that she decided to return to her initial love and forged the career she hadn’t had the tools to imagine. Spiegel, Ciani and Radigue make it clear that women are still under-represented in the world of music composition today and clearly value the opportunity to act as role models for those yet to come.

Speaking of the visibility of women and their work, the IMDB entry for director Lisa Rovner is embarrassingly incomplete, listing only one other short film and one job as an assistant camera operator. I didn’t have to go past the first page of a Google search to find at least two other short films she’s directed, and her website makes it clear that she’s more prolific than that, although this film is indeed her sole feature-length work as director. Rovner has assembled a fine selection of interviewees, both male and female, variously credited as composers, musicologists, sound artists and musicians. I won’t provide an exhaustive list here, but among those not already mentioned above are Mandy Wigby, one of the four female synth players making up the band Sisters of Transistors (assembled by 808 State’s Graham Massey); Kim Gordon, bassist, guitarist, songwriter and vocalist for Sonic Youth; Holly Herndon, a significant electronic musician and sound artist who came to prominence in the last decade; Ramona Gonzalez, a singer-songwriter who performs as Nite Jewel; and Andy Votel of Finders Keepers Records, whose compilation Lixiviation (2011) showcasing Suzanne Ciani’s early work had a pivotal role in reviving her reputation as a key figure in the history of electronic music. It’s also important to note the contributions of Rovner’s editing team (Michael Aaglund, Mariko Pontpetit & Kara Blake) and sound designer (Martha Salogni) – more information on their careers can be found here.

Sisters with Transistors is essential viewing for anybody with an interest in the history of 20th century electronic music, but is also accessible to those with a more general interest in unsung female contributions to the arts.

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