French-American filmmaker Lisa Rovner turns up the volume on electronic music’s unknown heroes, bringing them bleeping and blurping into the ethereal, golden glow of recognition with her compact yet compelling new documentary, Sisters With Transistors.
Anchored by – and loosely structured around – the ongoing career and insights of American synth legend Suzanne Ciani, this brief but memorable journey sheds light on the lesser-known female pioneers of a still- misunderstood genre. Told through a series of short vignettes which each focus on a different musician, the film takes a long-overdue look at their pivotal contributions to not only the conception and creation of the hardware required, but the continued artistic evolution of electronic music as a whole.
From the start, Sisters with Transistors stresses the importance of feeling over virtuosity, of emotion over electrodes; one sequence sees mathematician-turned composer (of the iconic Doctor Who theme tune, no less) Delia Derbyshire hilariously, effortlessly composing a stone-cold banger during a technical demonstration. One minute, a lady who pronounces the word ‘here’ as ‘hyah’ is explaining frequency wave-forms, the next she’s improvising a thumping, paranoid beat that sounds like Tyres’ everyday raving scene from Spaced. The whole thing looks like a black and white BBC public information film about the perils of being absolutely cool as fuck.
Elsewhere, we are invited to marvel at the virtuoso concert violinist Clara Rockmore and her total command of the eerily beautiful theremin device, as well as the fierce but perpetually stoned-sounding intellect of Laurie Spiegel and her decision to invent a revolutionary DIY home computer/ electronic music studio and supply it to the masses. Also featured is the intensely experimental Maryanne Amacher, whose fascination with “the experience of hearing” and “the intersections between science, life and sound” drove her to ascertain the specific tonal qualities of entire cities and develop auditory distortion techniques to explore ever more eccentric, conceptual territories.
Rovner draws some interesting parallels between the gradual emancipation of working women in the post-war era, and the do-it-yourself exploration of electronic music to not only create art, but a whole new art form. These two ideas smartly parallel one another: recording studios and concert venues at the time simply couldn’t grasp the concept of a female musician who didn’t sing, much in the same way that classically trained musicians wouldn’t accept electronic compositions as music. While the twin themes of oppression and emancipation are present and unambiguous, its amusingly dispassionate exploration through off-hand dialogue, curmudgeonly old radio personalities and a condescending appearance by David Letterman means that it rarely feels heavy-handed.
Although the film is well-stocked with grandiose declarations of “dreams enabled by technology”, “Radical sounds” and “energy, speed and noise”, there is a crucial layer of almost child-like wonder and discovery that keeps it from disappearing up its own speaker cone. Ciani and Spiegel are passionate, relatable voices throughout, whose undimmed enthusiasm and curiosity demystifies the often peculiar genre and provides the film with some of its most revealing insights. There is also a clear focus on live performances and impromptu jams; at one point, Ciani speaks about the machines as warm, sensitive – almost alive – while looking like the Wizard of Oz cosplaying as Yoko Ono, and tweaking endlessly at three huge, open flight cases bedecked in a quite frankly upsetting number of knobs, buttons, dials and wires.
Setting aside the slightly clumsy title (some snappy alternatives, courtesy of Outtake Magazine, are here provided, free of charge: The Birds and the Beats, Theremin Wiles, Chicks with Decks), Lisa Rovner has created a smart, unexpectedly emotive jaunt through the brief history of electronic music. Whether Rovner will convince electro-sceptics is unclear, but Sisters With Transistors is a funny, moving look at artistry, agency, and audio engineering that never loses focus on the soul inside the machine.
Sisters With Transistors is available via Metrograph from April 23rd.