Ellen Duggan explores the IFI premiere of a documentary centring on women in electronic music
On International Women’s day of this year, the IFI premiered Sisters with Transistors, a documentary focusing on the untold stories of women’s role in the early experimentation of Electronic Music.
Presented by the IFI, aemi and Dublin Feminist Film Festival, this documentary, narrated by Laurie Anderson, an avant-garde composer and performer best known for her 1981 track ‘O Superman’, lay the groundwork for the pioneering heights of women in the electronic field through its choice of narrator. Anderson spent many years developing various electronic and experimental musical instruments, such as: ‘The Tape Bow Violin’, which utilized recorded magnetic tape as opposed to traditional horsehair on the bow. It was used in live performances to manipulate previously recorded audio and ‘The Talking Stick’, which Anderson described to the Universal Music Society;
"It is a wireless instrument that can access and replicate any sound. It works on the principle of granular synthesis. This is the technique of breaking sound into tiny segments, called grains, and then playing them back in different ways. The computer rearranges the sound fragments into continuous strings or random clusters that are played back in overlapping sequences to create new textures. The grains are very short, a few hundredths of a second. Granular synthesis can sound smooth or choppy depending on the size of the grain and the rate at which they're played. The grains are like film frames. If you slow them down enough, you begin to hear them separately".
The film, directed by Lisa Rovner, follows the extraordinary composers who incorporated machines into their musical process at a time when others in the music industry may have found them threatening, or embodying a future in which humans were losing control. It discusses how liberating they found working and experimenting with musical technology. It allowed women to be the masters of their own sounds and to separate themselves from male-heavy environments in which their creativity was stifled and questioned.
The film touches on everything from the mind-altering possibilities of digital synthesis, the more recent revival of analogue recording, the saturating ‘perfect pitch’ of autotune which can still be heard on the radio today to varying degrees, to the powerful democratisation of music-making for a generation of bedroom music producers.
The film touches on everything from the mind-altering possibilities of digital synthesis, the more recent revival of analogue recording, the saturating ‘perfect pitch’ of autotune which can still be heard on the radio today to varying degrees, to the powerful democratisation of music-making for a generation of bedroom music producers. All of these powerful developments are directly linked to the musical work of the women featured in Sisters with Transistors and their influence is still with us today, although these women’s names may be unfamiliar to our ears.
The film is shaped by rarely-seen musical archival footage of these female musicians being interviewed, performing their newly pioneered electronic sound for an audience, or simply for the camera. The film centres around ten women: Clara Rockmore, Daphne Oram, Bebe Barron, Delia Derbyshire, Maryanne Amacher, Pauline Oliveros, Wendy Carlos, Eliane Radigue, Suzanne Ciani, and Laurie Spiegel. With some of them still alive to tell their own accounts of their musical work, and some of them passed - we understand the importance of singing the songs of history's unsung heroes.
The film opens with Clara Rockmore, a classically trained virtuoso violinist from Lithuania. She gained notoriety as a violinist with the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. In 1928, Leon Theremin patented the first accessible electronic musical instrument: the Theremin, an instrument which is controlled by physical contact of the hand of the player, or ‘thereminist’. Rockmore mastered the instrument and assisted Leon theremin in its design, fine-tuning earlier models to enhance precision. She began to bring the theremin to concert halls, consolidating herself and the instrument as pioneers in the electronic music world. In the words of Rockmore; "I had to make – and then meet – my own standards; I had to win the public over into thinking of the theremin as a real, artistic medium”.
Daphne Oram began working for the BBC as a sound engineer at the tender age of 18. Beginning her career in radio broadcasting during the 1940s, Oram dedicated the majority of her free time to investigating and experimenting with newly discovered developments in audio technology. She was one of the founding figures of the BBC’s radio phonics workshop; a sound effects unit for the BBC created in 1958 which created electronic sounds to be used as incidental music to be used for film and later television. She was one of the earliest electronic musicians to compose from field recordings, and later in her career she opened the Oramic studios for Electronic Composition, dedicated to the sound techniques she had spent her life developing and honing.
One of the most unique tape movements in this history came as a result of the work of Bebe Barron. As a wedding present, Barron and her husband were gifted one of the earliest tape recorders, which utilized magnetic tapes. Together, they founded one of the first private electroacoustic studios in New York, where they recorded artists such as Tennesee Williams and John Cage. In 1956, the duo made history by recording one of the first electronic film scores for Forbidden planet. In their home studio, Barron created the practice of ‘multi tracking’ which is still used in recording studios today.
Why are there no great women composers?’ is the provocative title of the essay Pauline Oliveros wrote for the New York Times in 1970. Oliveros, a composer and accordionist, dedicated her life’s musical work to challenging gender bias within the musical community and the world at large.
‘Why are there no great women composers?’ is the provocative title of the essay Pauline Oliveros wrote for the New York Times in 1970. Oliveros, a composer and accordionist, dedicated her life’s musical work to challenging gender bias within the musical community and the world at large. Oliveros was a founding member of the San Francisco Tape Music Centre, an electronic group in which Oliveros released pieces focusing on musically meditative practices. Her 2015 TED talk; ‘The difference between hearing and listening’, sums up her life’s work beautifully. Oliveros engaged with listening as a form of activism, and in today’s world, stands in opposition to the listening habits encouraged by streaming sites.
Delia Darbyshire reached a heroic status as the composer of the Dr Who theme song, one of the first solely electronic pieces of music used on television. She describes in this documentary how hearing the air raid sirens in her hometown of Coventry as a young girl served as her musical inspiration. Darbyshire can be heralded as bringing early electronic techniques to wider audiences.
Mary Ann Amacher gained electronic music experience as a student of Karlheinz Stockhausen and later came to collaborate with the likes of John Cage and Merce Cunningham. As an American electronic composer and sound artist, she had a penchant for overwhelming tonal velocity and deep love for science which encroached upon all of her musical work. Amacher worked extensively in later life with a set of psychoacoustic phenomena known as ‘auditory distortion products’, specific tones which are generated in the ear. These tones have a long history in musical theory and scientific research.
French Composer Elaine Radigue began apprenticing with the founders of Musique Concrete. Defined as a type of musical composition that utilizes recorded sounds, these sounds are then modified and manipulated to create a form of musical montage. Radigue is famed for her incredibly long compositions, but since 2001 has been mostly composing for acoustic instruments.
Suzanne Cianni is perhaps the most lauded of all of the women included in this film. Cianni has been Grammy-nominated five times throughout her career for her electronic works of musical composition. Whilst studying for her Graduate degree in Berkeley, California, she came across the Buchla synthesizers and dedicated herself to its mysterious workings for two decades. Cianni is responsible for having scored iconic advertisement soundbites through electronic music, such as the sound of a Coca-Cola bottle being opened. She is also noted in Sisters with Transistors for being the first lone female to ever score a Hollywood Film, The Incredible Shrinking Woman starring Lily Tomlin.
Last but not least, Laurie Spiegel is an American composer, currently residing in New York. She grew up well versed in traditional music, proficient in both the guitar and the lute. As a music student in New York in the 60’s, Spiegel was introduced to the analogue synthesizer and her classical career as she knew it was changed utterly. In 1973, Spiegel began working for Bell Lab’s programming computers, a skill she combined with her musical knowledge to create the first musical composition software: Music Mouse. Music Mouse quickly turned in to a hugely in-demand application and was among one of the first examples of music software available to consumers.
With every woman we are introduced to, and the musical legacy they have left behind or are still creating, we understand the importance of voicing the unvoiced, and placing our gratitude in places where, perhaps, society has told us it cannot be placed. Through hearing the pioneering music these women created and their effects on the musical world we exist in today, we can retell the History of Electronic Music, with their names clearly stamped upon it.