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
When Bebe Barron composed the score for 1956’s ‘Forbidden Planet’ with her husband Louis, electronic music was so alien that she was credited as producing “electronic tonalities”, rather than actual music. The modernist score, which reflects the film’s Freudian dreamscapes, was made entirely of the bleeps, whirs, and screeches generated by their home made electronic circuits. These noises would be manipulated by slowing them down, running them backwards, and adding basic effects such as echo (the writer Anaïs Nin said the music sounded like a “molecule stubbed its toe”). “The Barron’s practice of layering manipulated sounds from several different tape machines can be seen today in the multi-tracking practices so fundamental to modern recording studios,” says Rovner.
It’s been over 60 years since Pauline Oliveros began practicing the musical methods that would come to be known as deep listening, yet the need for soft-focus sounds that filter and purify the atmosphere of our living environment is particularly pertinent in an era of never-ending social media streams, neoliberal anxiety, and a global pandemic.
The principles of deep listening (“Walk so silently that the bottoms of your feet become ears” is a typical instruction), are a stark contrast to the numbing listening habits encouraged by streaming, where music takes the function of a utilitarian tool for productivity. In contrast, Oliveros’ philosophy is an end in itself, a way to create “an atmosphere of opening for all to be heard, with the understanding that listening is healing”.
It took Delia Derbyshire 40 days to make the ‘Doctor Who’ theme tune in 1963, one of the first entirely electronic pieces used on television. Before samplers, synthesisers, and sequencers, Derbyshire brought the early electronic techniques of musique concrete and tape manipulation to a wider audience, often using the hollow thrum of a lamp shade and her own voice as instruments. One of the central figures in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, she’s often referred to as “the unsung heroine of British electronic music”, and is cited as a major influence for the likes of Aphex Twin and Cosey Fanni Tutti.
A vital figure in late 20th century experimental music and sound installation, Maryanne Amacher is a pioneer of what she termed ‘long distance music’ – long-duration audio transmissions of distant urban sites via dedicated telephone lines. Finding space and dimension to music that “sounds very far away and close up”, these slowly fading bass frequencies would be translated into site-specific works, such as the haunting “Merse” dance piece.
In the 70s, Amacher developed ‘ear tone’ music, where she applied the principles of otoacoustic emission (a psychoacoustic phenomena in which the ears themselves produce audible noise) to sound. It’s through these experiments that she was able to play with the physicality of the listener, their perception and experience of a physical space.
Dubbed variously as the “diva of the diode” and “America’s first female synth hero”, Suzanne Ciani is best known for her work on the Buchla, a bulky modular synthesiser tangled together in multicoloured wires, knobs, and buttons. One of the few women on the frontline of electronic innovation in the 70s, Ciani was a regular among Soho’s avant-garde circles, alongside the likes of Philip Glass, Vladimir Ussachevsky, and Ornette Coleman. Throughout her career, Ciani became a five-time Grammy-nominated artist, a pioneer of the new age genre, and the first female composer to soundtrack a Hollywood film, ‘The Incredible Shrinking Woman’.