Women have often been overlooked in the history of electronic music. Their mastery of new technology and alien sounds enabled them to innovate outside of traditional male-dominated structures, but even collaborations with John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Karl Stockhausen, MGM Studios, and Coca-Cola failed to cement their pioneer status.
Sisters with Transistors, a documentary film directed by Lisa Rovner, presents a remedial history chronicling the defining female figures of electronic music. The eighty-four-minute film is divided into roughly ten sections of public-domain, concert, interview, and even experimental cinema footage documenting each composer. The archival collage, like the creative history it depicts, is initially disjunct but coheres later on; artist Laurie Anderson narrates but the musical soundtrack is the real throughline.
To create their new musical vocabulary, these composers used an array of existing technology and also developed their own. Clara Rockmore popularized the theremin (an electronic instrument controlled by hand movements in air rather than physical contact). Suzanne Ciani fell in love with Buchla modular synthesizers. Éliane Radigue used the ARP 2500 to create airplane-inspired soundscapes. Daphne Oram collected tape machines from World War II and basic lab equipment to establish first a BBC electronic music division and then her own studio. When available tools were insufficient, Wendy Carlos helped advance the Moog keyboard, Bebe Barron built her own circuitry, and Laurie Spiegel programmed compositional software for Macs.
Electronic music lends itself to interdisciplinary collaboration, and Maryanne Amacher reached beyond art and technology to integrate scientific research into her compositions. Conscious that the mammalian ear introduces distortions—phantom tones—which modify acoustic input, Amacher “established practical and conceptual groundwork that centered auditory processes in composition.” These women were doing the basic science of composing: there was no guaranteed profit or application from their efforts. In fact, electronic music was unpopular with both labor unions and the public alike. But the aesthetic influence of World Wars and space exploration eventually required new sounds. The MGM sci-fi Forbidden Planet (1956) featured Bebe Barron’s music as the first all-electronic film score; the film’s dying monster was the sound of a “dying” circuit. Seven years later, Delia Derbyshire—an Oxford mathematician turned composer—created the original Doctor Who theme song and shifted English public opinion on electronic music. Suzanne Ciani became the first woman to score a major Hollywood movie in 1981, and electronic music transitioned into public consciousness and pop music with the help of Wendy Carlos’ Switched-On Bach album.
These composers went beyond tinkering with radios: their work made social demands. They challenged traditional structures and founded influential departments. Oliveros explicitly correlated her electronic music with societal responsibilities during the Vietnam and Cold War eras, and her theoretical writings are still instructive today. She insisted that deep listening is radical attentiveness that gathers meaning, interprets, and ultimately shapes culture by deciding on action. These composers did exactly that, changing our soundscapes and cultural practices; Sisters with Transistors turns up their sound.
Sisters with Transistors had its U.S. premiere through Metrograph online 23 April 2021 and at the time of writing was only available through 06 May 2021. https://sisterswithtransistors.com/
1 Hudspeth, A. ‘Integrating the active process of hair cells with cochlear function’, Nat Rev Neurosci, 15 [online]. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn3786 (Accessed 02 May 2021)
2 Cimini, A. and Dietz, B. (eds.) (2020). Maryanne Amacher: Selected Writings and Interviews. Brooklyn, NY: Blank Forms Editions