Sisters with Transistors Explores the Avant-Garde History of Women Electronic Musicians

Sisters with Transistors Explores the Avant-Garde History of Women Electronic Musicians
Photo:Courtesy of Suzanne Ciani

If the words “electronic music” conjure up images of bro EDM artists wearing cartoonish headpieces at music festivals, I implore you to watch Sisters with Transistors, a new documentary that explores a collection of women pioneers in the genre who expanded the possibilities of what music can be.

Currently streaming through the online platform of New York City theater Metrograph, Sisters with Transistors documents the beginnings of electronic music in the work of women artists from the 1920s to the 1980s who were drawn to the medium for its avant-garde unpredictability and futurism. There’s Delia Derbyshire, who worked at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and created the spooky original Dr. Who theme song, which for years was uncredited to her. And artists like Pauline Oliveros, who cultivated “sonic awareness” in her meditative compositions that often featured improvisation or manipulated instruments. Suzanne Ciani’s eclectic synth music soundtracked pinball machines and advertisements in the 1980s, yet she had trouble finding a record deal because men didn’t know what to do with her.

Director Lisa Rovner takes a winding, found-footage approach to the documentary, giving each of the women a chapter that feels sort of like a mini-doc itself. There are no talking heads, rather more often the artists speak for themselves in voice-overs or previously recorded interviews, ruminating about their work and philosophy. The result is a documentary that feels immersive, just like the work of Oliveros who demanded deep listening from their audiences.

The documentary will likely delight anyone already well aware of these women and their work, but surely educate those unaware of electronic music’s roots in equipment like the Theremin and massive modular synths. Rovner spoke to Jezebel about what drew her to this subject, the limits of the archive, and the idea that this is just a history of electronic music, not the history.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

JEZEBEL: What was your relationship with these women and their music before starting this project?

LISA ROVNER: I had heard of Delia Darbyshire and I had owned an album by Éliane Radigue, but I had no idea who they really were as people, as women, as composers. And I had really no idea that they were amongst the greatest pioneers of modern sound. So I discovered this timeline of female pioneers and then kind of started looking into it and was just immediately compelled to break the silence that surrounded their stories. These were women with agency. They were stories of personal liberation, of persistence, something that as a female filmmaker, I could really relate to.

A lot of the footage in the film is of women explaining in news programs how their synths or equipment work to a broader audience. How important was it for you to portray the technical side of what these women were doing?

I was just amazed to see them. I had no idea how early electronic music was made, to be honest, so it was just incredible to discover. I mean electronic to me, music to me, was more about rave and the kind of experiences I had on the dance floor, which were also my emancipation story. I really felt very free dancing to electronic music. But I didn’t realize that electronic music not only changed the modes of production but also transformed the very definition of music. This is what’s so fascinating about this, the research that I did and the subject itself, it’s much bigger than just a picture or a portrait of a group of women, it’s really the history to everything that we hear today.

The documentary begins with a line about women’s history being a story of silence, and much of the artists in the film, Pauline Oliveros in particular, are very concerned with deep listening. How did that history of silence affect these women’s work?

The magic of these electronic instruments is that they enabled women to make music that could be heard by others without having to be taken seriously by the male dominated establishment.

Laurie Spiegel explains it really well in the film, that women were especially drawn to electronic music when the possibility of a woman composing was in itself controversial. The magic of these electronic instruments is that they enabled women to make music that could be heard by others without having to be taken seriously by the male-dominated establishment. Suzanne Ciani says in the film, you could do it all yourself, you were the composer, the performer, you could present music directly to your audience. I think that’s the key to why all of these women were so drawn to working with electronics. And then, of course, you really get the sense that they were all fascinated by the sounds because these were new sounds.

The thing that’s so fascinating to me is the fact that these women were recorded at the time. Not very many people were being filmed and interviewed at that time. What’s so fascinating to me, is like this history of women as a history of silence, and I thought about it so much and [it’s] because history was written by men. I also think it’s so much to do with this oversimplification in the way that we tell stories and what I think is a learned longing for a generally white male hero. Daphne Oram has this great quote, but it’s like why are we so obsessed with trying to give credit to one person? We just love this idea of the genius, of the hero. And that’s why I decided in this film to really feature multiple heroines whose stories are told subjectively, not from a historical perspective, not from the expert.

Obviously I’m a first-time filmmaker, so I couldn’t get everyone I wanted in the film. It wasn’t easy. I got so many no’s. And it was so funny because when I was making the film, everybody was like, oh, I want to hear what Aphex Twin has to say or I want to hear, you know, it was all basically famous men. It just felt like people were just not getting it. I was told so many times, oh, no one’s going to be interested in the subject so much, it’s too niche. Like, what the fuck is niche? Really discovering these women was revolutionary for me and for my process.

It’s fascinating to me that people would say this was a niche subject because as much as you do say that these women’s histories are sort of widely unknown, there has been a resurgence and a refocus on many of these artists. Laurie Spiegel and Suzanne Ciani’s work has been recently reissued, there was a biography of Wendy Carlos out last year. I know what you found in the archive dictated who ended up in the movie, but what were the challenges in relying on what was available?

People don’t really understand because they’re like, oh I’ve seen that clip on Youtube. Okay, you’ve seen one 30-second clip on youtube. To find all that stuff it took years. It literally took years and it was not an easy thing. And I have to stress again, this is so important, that this is not the definitive history of electronic music, this is a history. This is the beginning of an unearthing and I am sure that we are going to find so many more women and also hopefully women of color. This is something that I know is a big issue for a lot of people, why aren’t you representing women of color? Well, I definitely would have if I had been able to find the archive, but it doesn’t mean it’s not out there. It’s just as an independent filmmaker, I didn’t have an unlimited amount of budget. It’s the beginning of a story, not the final or definitive version of it.

And you also interviewed some of the artists featured like Spiegel and Ciani for this. How were those experiences?

Oh, it was nerve-wracking. I was so intimidated. But they were both so generous and warm and just fascinating. I’m not a musician, but I definitely feel really connected to who they are, what they did and their struggle. It feels all too similar in a way. What I loved about meeting these women is that they just felt so modern. They felt like contemporaries, basically.

Maybe that speaks to the music these women were making in the past, making such futuristic music in the 1970s, and then the culture kind of catches up to you and you’ve been there all along.

Suzanne talks about that. I did a panel recently and she was like, it’s just so amazing, I finally found my audience. It definitely was at that time quite a niche thing to be making this kind of what I call “difficult music.” There’s great footage of [Laurie Anderson] in [the film] Home of the Brave where she’s like, well, get ready for some difficult music. It’s difficult music and it’s conceptual music. It’s music that makes you think, which for me personally is what everything should do.

That quote from Ciani in the documentary when she says she couldn’t get a record deal because men weren’t interested in women who couldn’t sing really embodies what’s valued and what’s seen as palatable to mainstream audiences.

I was talking to Rayna [Russom] who is the lead [synth player] of LCD Soundsystem and she had this very interesting point about how people really struggle to call it music because it didn’t fit on the record. You couldn’t commercialize it. It’s so brave to be making that kind of music. But then again, like what Sara Davachi says in the film about Suzanne, she fucking made it. She made a living out of making weird sounds and what a role model that is for all the people making weird sounds today.

It’s difficult music and it’s conceptual music. It’s music that makes you think, which for me personally is what everything should do.

It was interesting to see the different perspectives in the movie when it came to this sort of repeated wall artists hit where the music they were making was not being recognized as music. You have that quote from Éliane Radigue calling her work “sonic propositions” because that was freeing to her, but then there’s Bebe Barron who was obviously quite disappointed her work wasn’t classified as music.

Electronic music really opened up music to an entire field of sound. That interview with Éliane, where she’s talking in English, she’s like, oh, yeah, people in France either like it or they don’t like it at all, and they don’t call it music. They don’t think of it as music. That’s from the ’80s, so she was still struggling at that point. And at the end [of the documentary] where she’s with musicians playing one of her compositions, she says in the voice-over, 40 years ago I could have never imagined musicians playing my music.

Something I thought was interesting, and I know you said the archive really dictated the form of the movie, is how short the section is on Wendy Carlos. The film kind of creates this juxtaposition between Switched-On Bach and then you go right into that quote from Suzanne Ciani about that album being retroactive. I was curious why Carlos’s section was shorter than the other artists, was it an issue of the archive?

I reached out to Wendy at the beginning of the film process and Suzanne knows her very well and Laurie. We really wanted her to be part of the film, but she didn’t want to do an interview with me. And it was quite clear, from what I gather, that she just would rather not be in the film. I did find that archive of Wendy really enlightening, because what it means to me is that Switched-On Bach was this moment when all of a sudden electronic music became pop and became just as popular as the Beatles. That album is so important in the history of electronic music.

And I totally get the juxtaposition and personally I think it’s being misinterpreted as a kind of diss when that was not at all the point. It’s actually quite interesting because most of the people I interviewed in the film from that time talk about that album as being problematic for electronic music in general, because all of a sudden that became what people wanted when they were asking for electronic music. So I feel really bad about how people are interpreting that, it was not at all in any way meant to be like an attack. I just thought it was really one of the most interesting things that kind of kept coming up, and I felt like it was an important thing to talk about.

Do you know what your next project or documentary is going to be as a filmmaker?

I want to bring politics to the screen, so that’s kind of my theme. The next thing I’m working on is a feature drama that’s a story of a woman in 1968 inspired by my mother. When my mother passed away I discovered that she had been engaged before, my father had no idea. The way I found out is because the person that she had been engaged to wrote a letter to the family to send their condolences. And he said the reason she called off the wedding two weeks before was because she wanted to participate in the ’68 revolution. The ’68 revolution for me has always been the Situationists, the Paris students, a very male representation and very urban representation.

My mother [who] grew up in rural Brittany, removed and remote, and it was fascinating to think about how we think of that revolution as a failed revolution, but it actually really changed people’s lives. It enabled them to dream for themselves and to really determine what they wanted for themselves. I’ve just finished the treatment, I just submitted a grant, I don’t know if I’ll ever make it, but it’s something I feel really close to. And I’m excited as well to kind of tap into fiction because it’s so much more freeing, because of course when you make a film like this you really want to I can get it right. It’s really quite stressful to make sure that you respect and portray properly.

SISTERS WITH TRANSISTORS will be available on Metrograph’s digital platform April 23-May 6, with theatrical and outdoor screenings booked from the first week of May through August.

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