Sisters with Transistors tells a forgotten history of female electronic composers

From Delia Derbyshire to Suzanne Ciani, woman in the world of electronic music are lauded in this poetic if imprecise documentary.

22 April 2021

By Hannah McGill

Sisters with Transistors (2020)
Sight and Sound

Sisters with Transistors: Electronic Music’s Unsung Heroines is in virtual cinemas from 23 April.

A succession of fascinating people, diverse in their origins, output and prominence, are covered by this study of women in electronic music. Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram worked within the BBC as part of the legendary Radiophonic Workshop it established in the 1950s. Bebe Barron, along with her husband Louis, blurred cutting-edge sound technology with the bohemian spirit of Greenwich Village and went from working with underground legend Shirley Clarke to creating the legendary electronic score for the mainstream hit Forbidden Planet (1956).

Pauline Oliveros pioneered what she called “deep listening”, and directed the San Francisco Tape Music Center as an avowed feminist and out lesbian. Suzanne Ciani was a synthesiser pioneer whose work constructing scores and sound effects was in huge demand during the 1970s and 80s.

Daphne Oram in Sisters with Transistors (2020)
© Daphne Oram

“There were really no role models for female composers when I studied music,” Ciani says, “and to this day it kind of irks me that when I turn on my favourite radio station it’s just the male parade.” To her contemporary, composer Laurie Spiegel, “It is odd that electronic music is generally considered a male field; women have been so formative in it.”

Among the reasons the film suggests for this are the flourishing in women’s confidence with technology encouraged by the work they undertook in wartime, and the fact that electronic music could be composed, recorded and performed alone, without access to or patronage from male-dominated institutions.

These women’s stories are loosely linked via a dreamy voiceover written by Sophia Al-Maria and performed by Laurie Anderson, whose own sparse electronic composition O Superman became a surprise hit around the world in 1981. The voiceover text favours poetic vagueness (“the story of women is a story of silence, and of breaking through the silence with beautiful noise”) over a more organised enquiry into how ‘forgotten by the history’ these individuals actually are, and why. It’s an approach that arguably suits Anderson’s eccentric persona, but leaves the film a bit short on rigour.

As in film history, the habitual assertion that significant women are ‘forgotten’ can itself be disempowering, and the film risks the odd position of downplaying the fame of some of those it covers – can one really call the likes of Oliveros or Derbyshire obscure? How many experimental electronic composers of either sex are household name? Are female composers of electronic music omitted from official histories, from university courses, from decreed canons of talent or from festival line-ups? Do experts disparage them?

If you don’t know this going in, you won’t necessarily glean it here – but you will certainly get to spend time with a lovingly curated line-up of figures whose charisma and boldness is as striking as their talent.

Further reading

The new issue of Sight and Sound

Hamaguchi Ryūsuke: insights on and from the Japanese auteur Plus: Mica Levi on their innovative score for The Zone of Interest – Víctor Erice interviewed about his masterful return to feature filmmaking, Close Your Eyes – a festival report from a politically charged Berlinale

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