‘Sisters With Transistors’ review: music’s forgotten female electro pioneers

The women who built EDM get their turn in the strobe light

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    YouTube veterans familiar with the internet’s most viral clips will likely recognise the opening scene from director Lisa Rovner’s Sisters With Transistors. It’s the morning after New Year’s Eve 1993 at a Fantazia rave in the Littlecote House estate in Wiltshire. A young woman is still throwing some serious shapes as the event comes to a wonky close. The fact that the music has stopped doesn’t seem to bother her. “I’m gonna keep dancing forever, me,” she says, mid-gurn. “Well, at least until I can remember where I put my car.” Even if she’s the only one who can hear it, she’s in it for the music and the transportive effect that electronic bass and beats – and sure, the occasional mind-altering substance – can offer.

    Sisters With Transistors looks at the lineage of the incredible women who worked in the early days of electronic music – the women who were also the only ones to hear a special kind of music in their heads – and whose stories are still so often minimised, and often ignored completely.

    Getting Laurie Anderson – one of the most well-known female electronic pioneers thanks to her otherworldly 1981 hit ‘O Superman’ – to narrate the film is a nice touch. In the same measured way that she narrates her own spoken-word art, Anderson begins by talking of the women who made “radical sounds” and innovative, never-before-heard noises that she calls “dreams enabled by technology”. For the rest of the film Rovner largely lets these artists and visionary women talk for themselves, piecing together old interviews – many are now dead – and exceptional archive material.

    In fact, there are so many talents crammed into this film that you may start wondering if your nan might secretly actually be Aphex Twin. We see illuminating – and sometimes all too brief – profiles of the women who worked in the post-war boom of creativity and invented a whole new sound, which Rovner portrays as an innately feminist act. One such composer, Laurie Spiegel, explains why women were drawn to electronic music during its formation – it was so new that it was refreshingly distant from the male dominated industry structure that was already in place and already holding women back.

    Sisters With Transistors
    American composer Pauline Oliveros, who incorporated political activism into her work. CREDIT: Mills College

    Electronic music was about freedom, from the 1950s and 1960s work of Daphne Oram – a former pianist who was instrumental in the founding of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop – and fellow BBC employee Delia Derbyshire (subject of the recent film Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and Legendary Tapes), who created the Doctor Who theme over 40 long days and in fabulous footage demonstrates sampling and looping in a stuffy studio, tapping along with her kitten heels.

    In the US we see the rather more hippyish 1970s likes of Suzanne Ciani, who plays giant wired synths and praises their sensuality, finding warmth and sensitivity in technology as well as the proudly political Pauline Oliveros, whose work was as much about activism as it was sonics.

    Throughout the film younger voices drop in too, with contemporary electronic artists Holly Herndon and Caro Churchill thanking the trailblazing women for their inspiration, but mourning the fact that despite their accomplishments, they’re still not nearly as revered as they should be. Hopefully Sisters With Transistors goes some way to fixing that.

    Details

    • Director: Lisa Rovner
    • Featuring: Clara Rockmore, Daphne Oram, Bebe Barron
    • Release date: April 23 (virtual cinema release)
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