Let’s get this out the way early – yes, you are correct, “Sisters with Transistors” is the best title for a documentary you have seen so far this year. Doing exactly what it says on the tin, Lisa Rovner’s debut feature is a secret history of electronic music, told via the women that made it happen. No Kraftwerk, no Robert Moog, and only the most cursory mention of Leon Theremin. Instead we hear – and hear from – ten unsung (or rather un-bzzzzzzzed. There’s little singing going on) geniuses of electronic art, drawn from across continents and musical styles, dating back to classical violinist Clara Rockmore’s adoption of the Theremin in the 1920s, and passing through avant-garde art pieces, movies, TV scores and commercials.
Laurie Anderson provides the narration – herself a pioneer of the form – as Rovner stitches her film together from archive audio and footage, with the odd new interview thrown in from the surviving subjects. Almost every voice we hear is a part of the story, with very few pundits and talking heads to muddy the waters. They weave a tale between them of rebellion, defiance and innovation. Almost all of these women have been told by men that they should not, cannot or will not create their art on their own terms, with Bebe Barron (working with husband Louis) banned from even calling her contribution to the Forbidden Planet soundtrack “music”, and massively successful commercial artist Suzanne Ciani turning up at studios to be asked by engineers “what are you going to sing?” Defying such prejudice, each of these women have contributed to the sonic tapestry of our lives, most obviously when the unassuming maths whizz Delia Derbyshire, working in a BBC backroom in 1963, took a piece of muzaky fluff and turned it into the throbbing, bleepingly iconic theme to Doctor Who.
What links these women, beyond gender and era, is that each has successfully moved the goalposts of the artform. We learn about Daphne Oram, who turned down the Royal College of Music for a life of messing around with tape and microphones, eventually creating a whole new system for writing musical notations in a way that could be read by machines and played back; about Pauline Oliveros who combined her love of the accordion and tape recorders to co-found experimental music game-changers the San Francisco Tape Music Centre. She would go on to develop meditation techniques focussed around “deep listening” and “sonic awareness”. We get the gratifying sight of Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, himself no stranger to aural carnage, absolutely freaking the fuck out as audio artist Maryanne Amachar destroys him with volume. He looks simultaneously delighted, and terrified that his head is about to explode. Each story is fascinating, and in terms of the development of music technology, hugely important.
This is not always the most slick and easy of viewing experiences – that witty lightness of touch in the title is largely absent from the film itself – but it’s worth pushing through the odd dry spell. Rovner’s film has an old-fashioned, solid, properly made feel; it is thorough in a way audiences, conditioned by Netflix to expect drone shots and cheeky animations, simply aren’t used to anymore and, occasionally, that risks stretching the viewers attention span. The filmmaking grammar here is slow and methodical, the kind of documentary the BBC used to excel at. Combined with the 4:3 aspect ratio, mostly black and white images and (obviously) ambient soundtrack it does occasionally feel like it’s being projected in a little side room as part of an exhibition at the Science Museum or Tate Modern (both equally applicable).
Still, that’s a quibble. Sisters With Transistors tells a fascinating and important story of women rewriting the rulebook that is absolutely worth your effort and attention. The phrase “listen, you might learn something” has never been more apt.