Footage from a New York art gallery in 1974 shows Suzanne Ciani setting up three large electronic consoles with extruding connecting wires piled and looped like spaghetti. A well-dressed audience sits on the floor as she adjusts knobs to elicit electronic music from the Buchla synthesizer.
Director Lisa Rovner's documentary Sisters With Transistors is narrated by veteran performance artist and experimental musician Laurie Anderson. While it is full of exotic sounds and early electronic music, it also is about quieter revolutions, as women battled sexism and resistance to new ideas about musical creation.
Almost all of the film concerns developments from the last century, and Ciani's performance is decades after women developed their own machines and methods of making electronic music in Britain, France and the U.S. Sisters With Transistors is eye-opening, but less about the concept of electronic music than about the little-known history of pioneering women in the field.
The timeline goes back to the 1930s to introduce Clara Rockmore, a classically trained musician who helped develop the theremin. Manipulated without direct contact, the device makes eerie sounds as an antenna picks up the musician's hand movements. She brought electronic music to classical music halls and listeners.
The film finds perfect illustrations of the use of machines to build beats from two prescient British women. Daphne Oram was a classically trained musician who co-founded the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. While some wrote off her work as post-World War II experiments in surreal art, she created practical devices and techniques. She set up her own electronic music studio and now is remembered as a musical composer. Also credited and named for her, Oramics is based on her invention of turning drawings into sound via electronic readers. Delia Derbyshire also did groundbreaking work at the Radiophonic Workshop, where she would splice together magnetic tape to build loops that play repeating sounds, and by simultaneously playing several that run at different frequencies, creating music. She was fascinated by abstract sounds, though some dismissed her work as merely exercises in mathematics. Later, she created the original music for Doctor Who.
Using new technology to make music was taking hold elsewhere as well. In France, Éliane Radigue battled distrust of technology to make art. In New York, Bebe Barron and her husband Louis Barron built their own equipment for their avant-garde recording projects. They recorded readings by writers such as Anaïs Nin and overloaded circuits to make musical sounds. They created the first entirely electronic film score for the 1956 science fiction movie Forbidden Planet, though the credits read merely "electronic tonalities."
While much of the film features antiquated equipment — tape reels and modular synths that look like antique telephone operator panels — it makes the great leap forward to the first Macintosh. Sisters With Transistors introduces many women who found different points of entry into the intersection of music and technology. In one of the film's more recent clips, Ciani's music seems to blow David Letterman's mind in a segment on his pre-Late Night morning show.
Rovner also examines the contributions of composers Pauline Oliveros, Maryanne Amacher and Laurie Spiegel, who developed the early Mac music software Music Mouse. (Astute listeners might recognize Spiegel's 1972 track "Sediment" from the cornucopia scene in the first Hunger Games film.)
The documentary does not attempt to bridge the gap from these women of the avant-garde to contemporary electronic music ("EDM") or its explosion in popularity. It's fascinating to hear women from the 1950s articulating ideas about making electronic music that would be resisted or misunderstood for decades. It seems that many people just weren't listening, either to the music or women.