Pioneer DJs: the unsung women who invented electronic music

Lisa Rovner, director of new doc 'Sisters With Transistors', lists her fave female electro innovators

Lisa Rovner’s fascinating documentary film Sisters with Transistors shines a spotlight on the unsung heroines of electronic music. These women weren’t just sonic innovators, but cultural trailblazers carving out their own space at the intersection of music and technology. As one of the pioneers, Laurie Spiegel, explains: “We women were especially drawn to electronic music when the possibility of a woman composing was in itself controversial. Electronics let us make music that could be heard by others without having to be taken seriously by the male-dominated establishment.” Here, Rovner discusses the seismic impact of the nine women who feature in her film.

Delia Derbyshire: overlooked British heroine of Doctor Who 

“The Doctor Who theme [which has an electronic arrangement realised by Derbyshire] is brilliant, but some of her other music that I feature in the film is so full of poetry and mystery and atmosphere. She made electronic music beautiful and really created a pathway for people to think of electronic music as music. That’s what these women were up against: not just being women in what was regarded as a man’s world, but also people’s narrow conceptions of what music could be.”

Pauline Oliveros: fought for gender equality in music


“She kind of embodies the bigger themes of the film because gender equality was something she addressed throughout her career. She wrote an essay for the New York Times in 1970 called “And Don’t Call Them ‘Lady’ Composers”. She co-founded the San Francisco Tape Music Center in 1962, so she was working in electronic music really early on, and her compositions have a meditative vibe: they explore deep and existential questions. I also really love her exploration of listening as a practise. One of the ideas that I hope people take away from the film is just how important it is to listen.”

Suzanne Ciani: broke new ground with synthesisers

“She had a very successful career scoring TV spots in the ’70s where she created iconic sounds like the sound effect of the Coca-Cola bottle being opened and poured. As one of the contributors says in the film, she made a living by doing this weird stuff that fascinated her, which is kind of what everybody wants from life. In the film we see how magnetic she is as a person and how awesome her relationship with her Buchla synthesiser was. She talks about it being sensual and alive: when you see her relationship with that machine, it almost makes you jealous.”

Clara Rockmore: ’30s trailblazer who popularised the theremin

“In the film we’re introduced to Clara Rockmore in the ’70s. She’s playing the theremin for Bob Moog [inventor of the first commercial synthesiser] and the guys are just in complete awe of her. But it’s really wild to think of her playing the theremin back in the ’30s – think how strange and eerie that would have looked to people back then. Because she was such an established and well respected violin player, the way she played the theremin made people take it seriously as an instrument. She was the person to usher electronic music to concert hall prestige.”

Daphne Oram: brought electronic music to the BBC


“In 1958 she co-founded the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and spent most of her time there exploring ways of making music with electronics. I love this image of her staying late at night so she could bring all the different tape recorders into the studio and just experiment with sound. She then left the BBC because they were more interested in scoring radio dramas, whereas she was more interested in exploring electronic sounds for music. Later, she created this amazing machine called the Oramics which allowed her to use ‘drawn sound’ technique to create music.”

Éliane Radigue: used tape loops before any of your faves

“In the ’50s and ’60s she was experimenting brilliantly with feedback and tape loops. In her early pieces, she’s basically bringing a microphone close to a speaker and recording the sound that it’s making, and it’s really about very minute gestures. That feels to me like a very feminine approach to the technology. She then discovered the AARP synthesiser and used it to make these amazing long-duration compositions. Her work involves a very deep reflection on sound, in a similar way to Pauline Oliveros’s work.”

Bebe Barron: wrote the first fully electronic film score

“Bebe and her husband Louis were given a tape recorder as a wedding present, and in 1949 they opened the first private recording studio in the US. They started out recording writers like Aldous Huxley and Anaïs Sin in Greenwich Village and creating these things called sound portraits, which unfortunately aren’t easy to find now. They then got invited out to LA to score [1956 sci-fi movie] Forbidden Planet, which became the first fully electronic film score. Louis was more interested in the electronic side of things, whereas Bebe would listen to the sounds they were making and cut together all these really gorgeous, fluid compositions. Their technique involved amplifying circuits and they saw these circuits not as a tool, but as their collaborator.”

Laurie Spiegel: the reason you make music on your MacBook

“While she was studying at Juilliard [arts school] in New York, she gained access to the analogue synthesiser; at this point, she says music went from black-and-white to colour for her because she really fell in love with the electronic sounds. She then started working at Bell Labs [research facility] where she made beautiful electronic music by programming these giant computers. After Bell Labs closed, she created an incredible piece of software called Music Mouse that came out in 1986. It basically turned a Mac personal computer – which was such a new thing at the time – into a musical instrument. She had so much agency and her computer music was really ahead of its time.”

Maryanne Amacher: ahead-of-her-time sound artist

“She was a sound artist before sound art was a thing; she’s almost like the conceptual artist of the group. She would spend hours fine-tuning frequencies to make a particular thing happen in your ear that would create a sound different to anything you’ve heard before – I really hope this comes across in the film, because it’s quite an abstract concept. I think what’s amazing about the women in this film is that they all approached this new medium of electronic music in such unique and idiosyncratic ways, and you really see that in Maryanne’s work.”

‘Sisters With Transistors’ is out now via Modern Films

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