Sounding Out Electronic Music’s
By Margaret Barton-Fumo
The 21st century has already marked the loss of some of our most influential female electronic composers, beginning in 2001 with the death of Delia Derbyshire and followed in 2003 by Daphne Oram, two pillars of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop at the turn of the 1960s. Underappreciated during their lifetimes, these women left behind copious archives, inspiring the public and historians alike to dig deeper into their largely overlooked bodies of work. By the time Pauline Oliveros, who started her career as an American contemporary of Derbyshire and Oram, died in 2016, the popular history of electronic music had already begun a quiet, if morbid, revision, retroactively celebrating its female pioneers.
Boutique record labels have also unearthed recordings of myriad female electronic musicians, from Clara Rockmore (doyenne of the theremin) to Suzanne Ciani (the “Diva of the Diode”) to Susan Dietrich Schneider, aka “The Space Lady,” a synth-pop street musician in the tradition of Moondog. In the past few years, new documentaries have been released about Derbyshire and Ciani, a play about Oram toured Scotland, and in October 2020, Oxford University Press published Amanda Sewell’s unauthorized biography of Wendy Carlos, the Moog innovator, soundtrack composer, and proto–ambient musician—undoubtedly one of the most important figures in electronic music.
Women were not tangential to the development of electronic music—they were pivotal, and director Lisa Rovner renders this fact undeniable in Sisters with Transistors, the first documentary to assemble a collective history of the genre’s key female figures. Featuring mini-sections devoted to a choice selection of musicians, composers, and inventors from Rockmore to Laurie Spiegel (one of the earliest composers of computer music), the film effectively connects the dots among a retrospective assembly of solitary artists. Speaking to NME’s El Hunt in November 2020, Ciani described electronic music itself as “a story of intimacy, in a way, with these machines.” Women were experimenting at the forefront of the electronic movement, working closely with machines to create music that was as foreign as an alien language. With their identities (and gender) often obscured by inhuman sounds, some of the earliest female electronic composers were able to thrive in relative anonymity, testing out their most ambitious ideas while history was being written. One major downside, of course, was that few people knew of their existence, and subsequently their names were not repeated as often as those of their male counterparts.
Beyond drawing attention to significant, under-represented artists, Sisters with Transistors
illuminates a ghost network of female composers who worked resolutely to advance the progression(and, in turn, the history) of electronic music.
Laurie Anderson provides the narration for Sisters with Transistors, her recognizable voice hinting at a more popular strain of electronic music. She and, to a lesser extent, Annette Peacock both gained renown in the 1970s and ’80s for their daring use of synthesized vocals and electronic instrumentation, delicately merging the avant-garde with pop sensibilities. But that level of recognition for a pre-Björk female electronic musician was rare. Several of the women featured in Sisters with Transistors honed their talents under the fluorescent lights of the corporate sphere in research groups, public broadcasting, or academic facilities such as the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, the San Francisco Tape Music Center, the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and Bell Labs, with little interaction among budding female composers. As Ciani lamented in her NME interview, in spite of having worked in electronic music since the ’60s, she did not learn of Derbyshire or Oram until 2016, and when she first heard their compositions she began to cry. “I felt so cheated that I didn’t have these women in my personal history.”
Beyond drawing attention to significant, underrepresented artists, Sisters with Transistors illuminates a ghost network of female composers who worked resolutely to advance the progression (and, in turn, the history) of electronic music. The film’s aesthetics are duly invigorating: the images are completely archival, free from the imposition of distracting talking heads. Rovner focuses instead on her subjects, while commentaries from a multitude of experts such as musicologist Jo Hutton, composer Holly Herndon, and sound artist Aura Satz are restricted to the voiceover track. The footage accompanying the film’s soundtrack is ideal, encompassing public-domain clips, concert videos, and even scenes from the experimental cinema of filmmakers like Shirley Clarke, Wallace Berman, and Harry Smith. The final edit is a hypnotic array of sounds and images that perfectly illustrate the subjects’ accomplishments, activating what Rovner has described as “an oral history that moves.”
Sisters with Transistors is broken into 10 segments, each profiling a different electronic music pioneer, occasionally circling back to a previously highlighted subject to draw a tidy parallel. To riff on the associations suggested by Rovner, a number of pairings bordered on kismet. Several of the composers, for instance, embarked on proclaimed “love affairs” with man-made machines, developing and even revolutionizing the musical capabilities of mechanical objects. Wendy Carlos approached a sleeping Robert Moog at an audio-engineering convention, eventually convincing him to develop the touch-sensitive keyboard that would greatly improve his landmark invention. Ciani similarly befriended Don Buchla and toiled for years on his modular synthesizer. Éliane Radigue grew especially attached to the ARP 2500, while Laurie Spiegel made waves with her “Music Mouse” software, which she programmed for the Macintosh computer. Even Clara Rockmore, the first woman in the Sisters with Transistors timeline, adopted another man’s contraption and ran with it—she helped Leon Theremin adapt his namesake invention (one of the very first electronic instruments) and went on to master the device—after Theremin proposed marriage (and she declined).
The differences among the various “sisters” are as enlightening as their similarities, further emphasizing the wide range of their influence. As Rovner reveals in the film, the pioneers were both scientific and conceptual thinkers. Many of them promoted their own music theories based on their nuanced considerations of creation/composition and reception/listening. Ciani is steadfast in her feminine classification of electronic music as inherently “sensual,” dependent on the composer’s manipulation of “sensitive” machines. She has also taken issue (respectfully) with the popular image of synthesizers advanced by the success of Carlos’s 1968 album Switched-On Bach, which translated classical music into novel electronic sounds. Ciani prefers to use the synthesizer as a tool for creating entirely new sounds, distinct from the music of the past.
When it comes to the reception of electronic music—and acoustic music, or just about any sound—Oliveros was one of the most perceptive listeners ever to lend an ear. She lectured beautifully on what she coined “deep listening,” encouraging students at her foundation (later christened the Deep Listening Institute) to convert the everyday practice into an art. Electronic composer Maryanne Amacher’s approach to listening was more rigorous, as she frequently experimented with otoacoustic emissions or “ear tones,” which the listener’s own ear generates in response to vibrating sounds at high volumes.
Radigue practiced her own version of deep listening (she and Oliveros were friends and contemporaries), but she is best known for her super-precise soundscapes, or the controlled manipulation of what she sometimes refers to as “wild sounds” or sons sauvages. She spent decades using the ARP 2500 modular synthesizer to tweak her specific vision, directing it to interweave slightly changing drones. About 20 years ago, she switched to acoustic instrumentation, conducting carefully selected musicians as they slowly shift and modulate their sounds. The closing image of Sisters with Transistors homes in on Radigue in 2018, emotional and overwhelmed as she listens to a group of live musicians perform one of her compositions. A few moments earlier, she had relayed her awe at the experience in voiceover: “For the first time I’m hearing the music I’ve been dreaming of hearing all along.” This reaction calls back to Laurie Anderson’s opening voiceover, eloquently written by Sophia Al-Maria: “This is the story of women who hear music in their heads. Of radical sounds where there was once silence. Of dreams enabled by technology.” The 86-year-old Radigue’s visible satisfaction serves as a lovely coda to Sisters with Transistors, a film devoted to talented women who live in their heads, liberated for an hour and a half, as they finally appear united on screen. •
Margaret Barton-Fumo is the host of “No Pussyfooting,” an online radio show on www.kpiss.fm. She is the editor of Paul Verhoeven: Interviews (UPM) and has contributed to Film Comment since 2006.