Review: Sisters with Transistors (2020)
“There is something psychological that happens when you can see yourself in the people who are being celebrated.” - Holly Herndon, Composer
Sisters with Transistors is a fascinating documentary which celebrates the revolutionary women of electronic music. Director Lisa Rovner takes us on a journey through time and sonic landscapes to make it clear just how ingenious and courageous these DIY scientists of sound were.
The film begins by considering women’s relationship with communication in a broader sense, reminding us that there has been (and still is in many parts of the world), a history of women being silenced. But transistors, circuit boards and synthesisers allowed women to make some noise! Machines gave women a means of liberation because they could create and compose everything themselves without having to worry about any of the male dominated radio stations, record companies or other organisations. The turn of the 20th century and modernity, however, meant that the world had been electrified and all these new sounds were for the taking.
Electronic music is discussed with such passion throughout the film that you can’t help but be engrossed in the discoveries that each musician and composer had. In every clip of footage or interview with one of the women you can hear how they think completely outside of the realms of what we consider music, composition and how sound is made and manipulated. They share the inspiration for their creations and these range from extraordinary experiences like hearing air raid sirens during The Blitz, the sound of planes taking off and of voices being modulated by car engines. They took unprecedented risks like setting up their own studio (Daphne Oram), turning down reputable jobs so that they could work with machines, and sharing software so that others could create their own soundscapes (Laurie Speigel). They talk of machines being alive, the architecture of tone, being in the middle of moving sounds and the ’beauty coming from the circuits’ – the endless love they have for their art and craft is incredibly infectious.
It’s not just enjoyable to watch, but informative too - whether it is Clara Rockmore demonstrating how she plays a theremin, Daphne Oram explaining how she created incidental music for a television play with tape recorders, or Delia Derbyshire (composer of the Dr Who theme) explaining the anatomy of sound waves and how each tone can be shaped to become more interesting to listen to. She makes the manual layering of sounds seem so straight forward, but it is far from rudimentary despite the early technology. All of these women and those that followed them were setting the groundwork for all electronic music that we know and love today.
A plethora of techniques, processes and thoughts are shown during the documentary’s runtime – hand-winding tapes, drawing sound and patching cords on a synthesiser being just some of the ways in which the women experimented to create music. Though this is all incredibly fascinating, so is the response from people in the business at the time, who, at first, even denied their work the classification of being called music. France considered it ‘diabolical’ at the time, and the Musicians’ Union were so threatened by Louis and Bebe Barron’s score for science fiction film Forbidden Planet (the first film with an all-electronic score) that it was credited as ‘Electronic Tonalities’ instead. Imagine Trent Reznor, Cliff Martinez or Vangelis not being credited as composers for their work on The Social Network, Drive or Blade Runner… it’s unthinkable today and they have women like Bebe to thank for the eventual acceptance and celebration of electronic music.
Clearly, women were pioneers in the rise of electronic music for incidental music, film scores and advertising. They used technology to give them a louder voice even when there were no role models for female composers. The case is powerfully made by Suzanne Ciana and others that women in the field are deserving of far more visibility. Indeed, women only comprised 7% of composers working on the top 250 grossing films of 2021 (Source) so the anecdotal experience we hear is supported by recent research too. In short: dismantle the boys club and hire more women!
It really would be a travesty for women to be forgotten from this slice of musical history, which, as Maryann Amacher puts it, unites the intersections of science, life and sound. So, the next time you’re listening to a soundtrack or dance music, remember that it wouldn’t be quite the same without the sisters with transistors: Clara Rockmore, Daphne Oram, Bebe Barron, Pauline Oliveros, Delia Derbyshire, Maryanne Amacher, Eliane Radigue, Suzanne Ciani, and Laurie Spiegel.
Verdict: A well-paced and sonically-packed celebration of the composers who set the foundations for much of the electronic music that we know and love today. Say their names louder for the people in the back.
Big screen appeal? 🎬🎬🎬
Accolade eligibility? 💡💡💡💡
This review is part of a series for International Women's Day 2022 based around the theme of #BreakTheBias and #BreakTheBiasWithFilm. Sisters With Transistors is a perfect example of a film that highlights gender inequality within two spheres: the music industry and the film industry. Despite women being at the forefront of electronic music from the beginning, it is still considered a male field today. The film tells the largely unheard story of some of the pioneering composers and encourages viewers to remember and celebrate them. Check out the trailer for the film below - though watching the film is recommended for the full experience - it really is fascinating!