Sheffield review: Sisters with Transistors by Lisa Rovner

Sheffield review: Sisters with Transistors by Lisa Rovner

Narrated by avant-pop pioneer Laurie Anderson, Lisa Rovner’s film presents the women who embraced electronic music and machines, and transformed the way we produce and listen to music today. 


Lisa Rovner’s debut doc feature Sisters with Transistors focuses on ten pioneering 20th Century women who came to electronic music from different backgrounds. Each had (or still has, in a few cases) a unique musical identity, but all shared a collective vision to change listener perception of what music should sound like. Traditional constructs, barlines, harmony and melody were binned, allowing for a more horizontal mode of thinking, and the focus shifted to the nuances of sound and the movements within it. 


Five-time Grammy award-nominated composer and electronic music pioneer Suzanne Ciani refers to her craft as an ‘energy’, a more organic way to represent shifts in feeling. Through the slow layering of drones, arpeggios, polyrhythms and changes in key, all the while varying the timbres within each layer, we see the malleable nature of her approach to music making and its possibility to veer in a new direction at any given moment. This is the reason she was drawn to the synthesiser. Having complete control to meander within the sounds she made thus gave her the freedom to do anything with them – “you are the sole arbiter of your creation”.


Many of the pioneers shown are largely inspired by the sounds of their surroundings, as opposed to a particular composer or style of music. Delia Derbyshire, the artist responsible for the electronic arrangement of the ‘Doctor Who’ theme, lived in Coventry during the Second World War and was attracted to the eerie and industrial sounds of the air raids, motivating her to later recreate similar pitches with a synthesiser. 


Daphne Oram, who began her career in radio broadcasting in the early 1940s, was equally set on the creation of new sounds, leading to rigorous experimentation in her self-built studio; we see a fascinating manual process where she creates different tones through trial and error using various non-musical objects. She goes on to create the technique ‘oramics’, a graphic representation of sound which is fed through a machine, making for unpredictable oscillations and spikes in the pieces she writes. 


San Franciscan Pauline Oliveros takes inspiration from the sounds she heard as a child. She talks of the ‘in-between’ sounds as her dad changed radio stations in the car, and how the sound of the motor would modulate the pitches of her parents talking in the front. This way of hearing sound informed her approach to music making throughout her life.


In the early part of the  20th Century, Clara Rochmere trained as a concert violinist, travelling and performing from a very young age with her sister. She went on to be a virtuoso on the theremin, an unearthly sounding instrument consisting of two oscillators and played without physical contact, which has a smooth, legato sound similar to that of a violin. Both its sensual nature and the precise, subtle control required to play the instrument greatly intrigued Rochmere. “You cannot play air with hammers… you have to play with butterfly wings”.


Maryanne Amarcher, a student of Karlheinz Stockhausen and a collaborator of John Cage and Merce Cunningham, would put recording devices in various locations around the Boston harbour where she lived. She liked to hear the sound of places – Boston had an undertone of a low F#, New York a low E. And she was particularly interested in the listener’s reaction. Amarcher combined psychology and music, and hence recognised the importance of her audience’s contribution, be it physical, oral or sensual. For her the onus of her music was on the social and spacial contexts.


In all cases shown, each artist’s personality is at the forefront of their music, their individuality and way of thinking clearly manifested in each sonic choice.


“Women are naturally drawn to electronic music. You didn’t have to be accepted by any of the male dominated resources… and that gives you tremendous freedom. But some women get forgotten from the industry,” says another pioneer, the New York composer and programmer Laura Spiegel. 


It seems absurd to believe that these women are largely unheard of considering their pivotal roles within the electronic movement. Many worked alongside big names too. Elaine Radigue was an associate of Pierre Chaffer, creator of musique concrete, whilst Suzanne Ciani wrote the score for The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981), Ciani being the first woman to compose for a major Hollywood film. Bebe Barron, alongside her husband, wrote scores for the avant-garde films of Anaïs Nin, and yet their names are still little-known.


Until now. Lisa Rovner finally gives these ten revolutionary women the recognition they deserve in a captivating study of their achievements, both technologically and in social terms, and her film underlines the considerable debt owed to these architects and engineers of a new musical language.