Sisters With Transistors

“Technology is a tremendous liberator, it blows up power structures.”

Laurie Spiegel

This incredibly well-researched, hereto untold story of female pioneers who gave form to what is now electronic music, narrated by that icon of all things multimedia, Laurie Anderson, with her hypnotic voice, and steady pace, is absolutely brimming with Promethean insight on the relationship between human and machine – yet is also subdued in form, aiming for precision rather than panache. Thus, somewhat losing in narrative fluidity. Which is perhaps its only fault.

Directed by Lisa Rovner, French-American artist and filmmaker, based in London, Sisters With Transistors (2020), might be, in many ways, an entirely niche experience, but it still offers plenty of exquisite nuggets, archival and otherwise, even to the casual viewer, one that is perhaps uninterested in the historical aspect of electronica, but can appreciate a good story, intricately woven, and a new way of viewing the present and the past.

An anthological expedition into the origins of machine-made sounds and the women who shaped the soundscape of our current simulacrum, it’s promo line reminds us that “the history of women has been a history of silence.” And if we really think about it, the intro quoted line by Laurie Spiegel, inventor of the Music Mouse, speaks volumes really (pun intended), as does the doc’s unveiling of the web of wires connecting all the women composers who embraced technology as a singular way of gaining independence in a world of power structures created by men, for men. And an industry in which they were not only outsiders, without access to any significant resources, but often vulnerable to various forms of abuse.

Transforming an entire medium, an art, and a few senses besides, electronica offered a direct line to the public, a chance to reach audiences sans the middle man, directly, and equally importantly, circumvent the Cereberi at the gates.

New age recording artist Suzanne Ciani praises the machine as a sensitive, while Anderson speaks of dreams enabled by technology – women finally the sole arbiters of their creations. Clara Lockmore, the classically trained Lithuanian violinist, was dazzled by the idea of playing something without touching it. Bebe Barron, who received a tape recorder for a wedding present, opening a futuristic recording studio – taping artists in Greenwich Village, with her husband Louis Barron, experimented on electronic media, and avant-garde film; she recalls Anais Nin’s likening of electronic sound to a molecule that “has stubbed its toe.”

Composer and accordionist Pauline Oliveros loved listening to the sound of the motor car, radio, and its in-between static, stations tuning in and out, linking music to therapy, while British composer and mathematician Delia Derbyshire, of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and Dr Who Theme, found that the sounds of air raid sirens she witnessed in Coventry, during the Blitz, were imprinted in all she did hence.

Bountiful in archival footage, loving in its detailed study of what is truly a group of extraordinary individuals, only now becoming recognised as the revolutionaries they are, Sisters With Transistors might have benefited from a bolder storytelling approach, indeed, it could have been thereby electrified. However, this long overdue study of electronica, and its founding heroines, is a documentary with a mission – a treasure for the connoisseurs, and a revelation for everyone else.

★★★★✩

Author: ©Milana Vujkov

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