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Sisters with Transistors (2020)
Sisters with Transistors (2020)Courtesy of Peggy Weil

The film exploring the avant-garde female pioneers of electronic music

Narrated by Laurie Anderson, Sisters with Transistors traces the lives and legacies of electronic music’s women trailblazers, including Delia Derbyshire, Suzanne Ciani, and Pauline Oliveros

There’s an oddly compelling story about the experimental musician Pauline Oliveros that describes the moment she came to coin the phrase ‘deep listening’. In 1988, having just descended four feet into the Dan Harpole underground cistern in Port Townsend, Washington, Oliveros sets out to make a field recording of the noises surrounding her. What initially starts as a pun (she’s deep underground, get it?), becomes the final puzzle piece of vocabulary for a decades-long practice, seeking to deploy the principles of improvisation, electronic music, and meditation into a state of radical awareness.

The principles of deep listening, which sits in contrast to mainstream culture’s pop consciousness of distraction and saturation, are a recurring theme in Lisa Rovner’s debut documentary, Sisters with Transistors. Made using found archive footage, the film – narrated by Laurie Anderson, with guest appearances by Aura Satz, Holly Herndon, and Kim Gordon – traces the beginnings of electronic music through the lens of the women who helped shape it. “The history of women has been a story of silence, and music is no exception,” Rovner tells me. “These women have been integral in inventing the devices and the techniques and the tropes that would define the shape of sound for years to come.”

Their music, though hard to categorise, exists on the fringes of the avant-garde. “It’s very experimental, it’s not pop music,” explains Rovner. Made of typically slow and subtly changing sounds, mechanical thrums, and manipulated field recordings, these noises were, and remain, a far cry from the melodic catchiness of pop music – instead featuring amorphous soundscapes built to not only immerse the listener, but change their bodily disposition too. Whether it’s Bebe Barron’s haunting electronic score for 1956’s Forbidden Planet (the first completely electronic score for any mainstream film) or Maryanne Amacher’s groundbreaking use of otoacoustic emissions in music, the act of listening to these sounds is submersive, demanding patience and active participation on behalf of those present.

Similar to how today’s Glitch Feminism radically reimagines the digital landscape to open up space marginalised identities, Sisters with Transistors depicts a time where electronic music (and technology, generally) represented a liberating force for women, removed from the patriarchal gaze. Laurie Spiegel, the founder of Music Mouse, one of the earliest music softwares, puts it succinctly: “We women were especially drawn to electronic music when the possibility of a woman composing was in itself controversial. Electronics let us make music that could be heard by others without having to be taken seriously by the male-dominated establishment.” To engage with this burgeoning technology was, by its very nature, a transgressive act, and the ghost in the machine was only getting bigger.

Below, we highlight five of the musicians featured in the film.

Sisters with Transistors is part of Sheffield Doc Fest Rhyme and Rhythm programme. You can buy a ticket for online screening here and find it on Instagram here