Sheffield Doc Fest Exclusive Review: “Sisters With Transistors”

Year: 2020
Runtime: 90 Minutes
Director: Lisa Rovner
Stars: Clara Rockmore, Daphne Oram, Bebe Barron, Pauline Oliveros, Delia Derbyshire, Maryanne Amacher, Eliane Radigue, Suzanne Ciani, and Laurie Spiegel.
Narrated by: Laurie Anderson

By Bianca Garner

“Sisters With Transistors” should win an award for having the best film title of this year. This is the first feature documentary from French American artist and filmmaker Lisa Rovner and it’s a brilliant piece of revolutionary filmmaking that sets your senses aflame. Not only is this film eye-opening, it’s ear-opening, in fact it goes beyond that…it’s truly soul-opening. “Sisters With Transistors” is a beautiful journey into a hidden world of female composers and electronic music that will capture your imagination and will lead you down a rabbit hole into a soundscape that is like nothing else you’ve ever heard before. 

Consisting of archive footage, featuring news reel, interviews, film clips and avant-garde art pieces, “Sisters With Transistors” shines a light on several female composers who have been severely overlooked by the history books. We are introduced to the likes of Clara Rockmore, Daphne Oram, Bebe Barron, Pauline Oliveros, Delia Derbyshire, Maryanne Amacher, Eliane Radigue, Suzanne Ciani, and Laurie Spiegel. All of these women have extraordinary tales to tell, overcoming the constraints of society in order to pursue their passion to experiment and create electronic music. Their music beautifully accompanies the imagery we see on-screen, and we feel like we are gaining an unique insight in their minds and experiencing their creativity firsthand. 

The soothing tones of Laurie Anderson, narrates us through this adventure. Electronic music is something that still remains fairly new in the world of composing. In fact, many didn’t even consider what these composers were creating to be actual music, it was so revolutionary and groundbreaking that people just didn’t know how to react. As Anderson puts it, “The history of women has been one of silence and one of breaking through that silence.” Finally, we get to hear them loud and clear. 

Credit: Lisa Rovner

“Sisters With Transistors” is a beautiful journey into a hidden world of female composers and electronic music that will capture your imagination.”

Women like Oram, Derbyshire, Ciani, Oliveros and Radigue embraced the new emerging technology such as the theremin, tape recorders, synthesizers in order to find their voices and to become heard. This technology was accessible and they could easily build their own equipment and set ups. It was a true DIY music scene like nothing seen before. As Ciani states, “You could do it all yourself.” These were one-women orchestras creating a new kind of symphony that reflected the modern world exploding all around them. 

The music we hear in the film is truly surreal, beautiful and haunting. It has this otherworldly element that just grabs your attention and refuses to let go. Even if you’re not a fan of this type of music, you cannot help but admire the extraordinary talent behind it. We hear how Delia Derbyshire overcame her working class background to earn a place at the BBC, something pretty much unheard of in the 1950s. She was so inspired by her childhood experience of growing up through the Blitz, that she knew she had to recreate the melodies that she’d heard from the air raid sirens. She would go on to create one of Television’s most iconic themes, “Doctor Who”. It was thanks to her work on this super popular show, that Electronic Music was pushed into the public consciousness. 

We also hear the story of another member of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Daphne Oram, who set the workshop up in 1957. The music that was created reflected the type of plays being written at the time, tapping into the paranoid feelings of the Cold War. Oram left the workshop to set up her own studio, the Oramics Studios for Electronic Composition, where she eventually developed her “Oramics” technique of electronic sound creation.

“This is one of the most hypnotic and relaxing documentaries I have personally come across, like Chicken Soup for the soul. Each woman’s story is just so inspiring that you are left in pure awe.”

IWe are also told about French composer Eliane Radigue, who recounts how she was ‘born into a Macho world’ and that one sound technician commented on how the studio smelt nice because she was there. In her own words, “I was there to learn only.” Radigue wasn’t the only one to face sexism and misogyny, Pauline Oliveros also encountered issues. She even penned an editorial for the New York Times, that stated that women shouldn’t be referred to as ‘Lady’ composers, but instead should simply be referred to as composers. Oliveros’ story is truly inspirational, not only was she a feminist before it was even a thing, but she came out as a lesbian in the 1950s.

Credit: Lisa Rovner

There is also Bebe Barron who worked alongside her husband, Lois to create Electronic music after receiving a tape recorder as a wedding present. The duo would go on to create the music to one of Sci-Fi’s most iconic films, “The Forbidden Planet”. However, the musician’s union refused to acknowledge their soundtrack as music or even them as composers.There’s also many other women whose stories are told in this fascinating, electrifying documentary, but it’s best for viewers to experience it firsthand. 

Listening with headphones gives you a whole new autonomous sensation and this is one of the most hypnotic and relaxing documentaries I have personally come across, like Chicken Soup for the soul. Each woman’s story is just so inspiring that you are left in pure awe. One can only hope that a whole new generation of female composers are inspired to create their own DIY music, because we still need to hear the voices of female composers from not only the past, the present but of the future too. 

Please note: “Sisters With Transistors” is to be screened in Sheffield in Autumn, and online on Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects in parallel.

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