‘Sisters with Transistors’ @ Sheffield Doc Fest – reviewed

Source: Barbican

According to Pauline Oliveros, it was no mystery why, by 1970, there seemed to be no great female composers. Oliveros, herself a pioneering experimental and electronic music composer, was lamenting the shameful fact that the question was often asked. 

‘Sisters with Transistors’ is a new documentary which expresses this discontent throughout, while at the same time it is a fittingly serious film about serious artists whose significance seems obvious in hindsight. Considering the overwhelming impression each female composer makes when they are on screen, predominantly appearing via archive footage, it seems implausible that any of them would now be thought of as “unsung” or “forgotten”. But this was and is still the case. And the blinding truth is that much of this has to do with them being women.

The old interviews, studio clips and television spots, especially those dating from the 1950s, are almost as alien as the music being discussed. Watching Daphne Oram – elegant and well-postured, a tape machine at each hand in her own self-built studio – it wouldn’t be much of a leap to imagine her in those silly adverts aimed at the kind of women that 50s nostalgia likes to evoke. But Oram was an experimentalist, redefining, like all the composers in ‘Sisters with Transistors’, the rules of how we listen to music and what we should consider sound.

The film’s director, Lisa Rovner, allows the subjects to define their work in their own words, as well as their unique philosophies on sound and process. Highlights vary from a humorous quote regarding one artist’s romantic relationship to her machines, to complex scientific descriptions of another’s experiments. Maryanne Amacher’s work with psychoacoustics – in this case, playing two separate tones simultaneously, creating a third “ghost” tone within a person’s ear – is as sublime as when Éliane Radigue says “I loved a love story with my ARP 2500 [synthesiser].”

All the Sisters’ stories – including Delia Derbyshire, Laurie Spiegel, Suzanne Ciani, Bebe Barron, Clara Rockmore – are worth exploring. These are challenging sounds being created by composers who found no home in popular styles or predetermined musical structures or techniques. In the film, past collaborators and contemporary fans provide anecdotes and opinions, including some narration from Laurie Anderson, and the overarching story Rovner tells never strays far from her subjects.

The praise at times seems to be confined within a squarely female space, making up their own corner of music history where being a woman is their defining trait. However, the parallel history of male composers is of no use to Rovner when the aim is to re-establish what should already be considered a significant part of foundational electronic music.

The music is key, and the wide scope of the film is managed with complete control. ‘Sisters with Transistors’ is an odyssey through art and computer love, where people are more comfortable with the response they can get from machines, rather than from humans. Before such sounds became commonplace, they were misunderstood. These women had to navigate this new world while being ignored by those within and without it.

At the end of the film, as she listens to modern musicians playing her compositions, Éliane Radigue begins to cry. She is delighted to be getting appreciation for her work, she says. “I thought I was crazy sometimes.”

‘Sisters with Transistors’ is available to watch until the 12th of November – find out more here