SISTERS WITH TRANSISTORS (MIFF 2021) – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

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As Caroline Catz’s recent film Delia Derbyshire the Myths and the Legendary Tapes so passionately demonstrated, the donation of women to the history of electronic music is perversely as large as it is broadly ignored. In many ways a companion piece to that film, the central mission statement Lisa Rovner’s Sisters with Transistors: Electronic Music’s Unsung Heroes now currently playing at the Melbourne International Film Festival in Australia is made explicit through the words of narrator Laurie Anderson when she says in those familiar, soothing tones: “The history of women has been a story of silence, of breaking through the silence with beautiful noise”. Anderson continues, laying out the manifesto-like mission of the film as a whole as she notes “this is the story of women who hare music in their heads, of radical sounds where there was once silence, of dreams enabled by technology”.

Sisters with Transistors makes an explicit connection between the assumed ‘boys club’ nature of electronic music and the broader plight of feminism more generally explicit. All those catch phrases and keywords that have been tethered to the former since its conception – speaking up, being heard, making noise – are granted remarkable new meaning when tied so explicitly to the history of women in electronic music, and how broadly their place in that history has been denied.

Electronic music is embodied; if not dance music as such which many of us might falsely assume it is synonymous with at first, it is, at least, certainly embodied. The very first shot of the film is a striking image of a woman dancing in a carpark by herself, with no audible sound of music, and throughout the film there is an emphasis on women’s hands. This of course is perhaps nowhere more dramatic and captivating in the performances of iconic theraminist Clara Rockmore, but even in the case of the many other women showcased in the film, there is a focus on their hands and their fingers as they twist dials and press buttons on the wide and varied range of analogue, vintage audio equipment that were the tools of their trade.

Working through the parallels between the burst of technological development at the beginning of the 20th century and its parallels with the burgeoning women’s movement, by the mid-20th century the film makes it clear that if electronic music itself had been denigrated as “not music”, then the role of women within its history was doubly excluded based on their gender. One of the film’s many fascinating subjects Éliane Radigue even called what she made “sonic propositions” instead of music, so eager was she to avoid the tiresome and heavily gendered “yes, but is it music?” debates.

Along with Radigue, Rockmore and Derbyshire, Sisters with Transistors profiles with a succinct elegance a number of other key women pioneers, including Suzanne Ciani, Daphne Oram, Aura Satz, Pauline Oliveros, Maryanne Amacher, Laurie Spiegel, and Bebe Barron. Across these interwoven portraits, Rovner presents a profoundly moving and genuinely exciting vision of the invisible history of women in electronic music which – as Anderson so neatly surmises – emphasises that “through technology, voices are amplified”. Of these, the omnipresent grace of Anderson herself is the heartbeat of the documentary in many ways; while she is not one of the case studies herself, it seems hard to imagine anyone else so wholly well-suited to telling this story. With her warm, familiar, soothing and yet somehow simultaneously always provocative voice, Anderson herself forms a bridge between the pioneers of yore who laid the groundwork for women in electronic music, and so many of the women flourishing in the field today, amongst them – and obviously not limited to – hugely diverse artists ranging from Cosey Fanni Tutti to Björk to Diamanda Galas to Gazelle Twin to FKA Twigs to Lady Gaga. As Anderson herself sung in Let X=X from her groundbreaking Big Science album from 1982, “I can see the future and it’s a place – about 70 miles east of here”. The future was always within reach for women in electronic music, and this film thus acts as both a tribute, a homage and a roadmap to how they got to where they are today.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a multi-award-winning film critic and author who has published nine books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema with an emphasis on gender politics, including the 2020 book ‘1000 Women in Horror, 1898-2018’ which was included on Esquire Magazine’s list of the best 125 books written about Hollywood. Alexandra is a contributing editor at Film International, a columnist at Fangoria, an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and a member of the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (LA, NYC, London).