Film Reviews

Sisters With Transistors – Documentary Review

”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.”

Sound has been described as amplitude changing over time, and Lisa Rovner’s new documentary feature – Sisters With Transistors – works to boost the signal strength of women whose accomplishments within the field of electronic music have sadly been muted with the passing years.

Rovner’s subjects have all independently sought to advance not just the cause of women at a time when gender dynamics were very different to those today, but also to bridge the gap between what constitutes noise and what was considered to be music. Dissonance was a key element not just in the work they did, but also in the strongly male-dominated society in which they found themselves. Instead of history, Rovner has shown us the importance of ‘herstory’.

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Given that it was only in the 20th Century that women were first enfranchised and emancipated, it is of little surprise to find men have generally set the narrative, giving themselves primary credit. For example, look at the 2016 movie Hidden Figures, based upon the non-fiction book of the same name, in which the key role of three African American women in the success of the US space programme – including the missions to the Moon – was brought to the public’s attention, having been overlooked for so many decades.

As the narration tells us, the history of women has been one of trying to break through the silence imposed upon them by society; for composers and musicians, the notion of enforced silence is particularly antithetical, going against the grain of who they are and what they do. For too long, composing had been seen solely as the province of old, white men, and there were barriers in place to stop women from encroaching onto their territory; technology, however, liberated them from all these strictures.

For the first time, women finally had the opportunity to not just write but also perform their music directly to audiences. Despite these advances, however, many female pioneers of electronic music have been forgotten, or accomplishments diminished. Lisa Rovner has chosen to make this movie her platform to right a truly egregious wrong, and finally bring the groundbreaking musicians, along with their works, into the limelight; the subtitle of the feature literally tells us this is the story of some unsung heroes.

While many of the names featured here will be unknown for the most part, some may be more familiar to the audience, such as Wendy Carlos, or Delia Derbyshire. In fact, ahead of Sisters With Transistors, Derbyshire had already undergone something of a reappraisal, including a performance piece – Hymns For Robots – and dedicated documentaries as well – 2009’s The Delian Mode, and Delia Derbyshire: The Myths And Legendary Tapes from 2020; in addition, she also has a street named after her in Coventry, plus an annual event in her memory.

As such, Derbyshire’s status could scarcely be described now as ‘unsung’; however, her place in Sisters With Transistors is still deserved, as it would be such an awful oversight to omit someone whose work is noteworthy, and whose high profile has helped to highlight the role women have played in what has long been seen as a chiefly male province. One of Delia’s immediate forebears – Daphne Oram – rightly gets her due, as she was instrumental (pun not intended) in setting up the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1958; Daphne walked so that Delia could run.

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Another eye-opener for many people will be discovering the part a woman played in creating the first electronic score for a feature film, 1956’s Forbidden Planet. Together with her husband, Louis, Bebe Barron’s major contribution to such a landmark is quite rightly highlighted by Rovner; however, it is truly galling to find that both of them were denied having a composers’ credit, as the establishment had a snobbery in terms of electronic music being recognised, so their refusal to consider these recordings as music shows how the system made women have to fight harder.

Indeed, a prime example of the male-dominated attitudes towards women in electronic music is seen in Rovner’s use of a clip where the American composer and musician Suzanne Ciani makes an appearance in 1980 on talk show host David Letterman’s show. Even in such a relatively brief snippet, it is difficult not to feel fire in your belly relating to Letterman’s treatment of Ciani, by presenting her almost as a disposable novelty, being at best dismissive and at worst derisory when it comes to Ciani and her music.

As the full story spans nearly a century – going right back to Clara Rockmore’s pioneering efforts in helping to refine the theremin, playing the air like a true virtuoso – it means that sadly so many of the subjects are no longer with us, and are unable to contribute directly to the documentary. It has not, however, prevented Rovner from giving them all voices, as it means that she has out of necessity needed to be creative in presenting their individual tales; painstaking research has uncovered so much archive material, much of it unseen for decades, if not entirely.

It means Rovner has found the most representative clips of each artist, letting them still speak for themselves, creating in the process a tapestry not just of music and sound, but of voices, speaking to us across time, each one sharing similar frustrations and also joys. Rovner has also eschewed here a strictly linear approach to the narrative, letting the stories intertwine with each other, and flow organically; by doing so here, it ends up being far more satisfying than if Rovner were to have stuck to a more rigid chronology.

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Rovner has also ensured that the viewer’s interest is held at all times, as her storytelling technique shifts back and forth between having something visually compelling happening on screen, and presenting an immersive soundscape, using pieces by the women featured to perfectly create the right atmosphere. If there is any minor criticism here, it would be that the film is too short – it feels like it could go on for a lot longer, and in interviews Rovner has admitted that she had to make some hard choices about who to include.

Sisters With Transistors has proved to be a compelling and thoroughly engaging piece, and must be lauded for making some noise for all these forgotten alchemists of sound and music, who finally get the recognition they rightly deserve. In so many ways, Rovner’s documentary has managed to hit the right notes.

Sisters With Transistors is out now on Digital release.

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