Sisters with Transistors movie review (2021)


A crash course about how women were often the pioneers of the unknown frontier still defined by the names of men such as John Carpenter and Edgar Froese, “Sisters with Transistors” introduces ten of these incredible women—Clara Rockmore, Delia Derbyshire, Daphne Oram, Eliane Radigue, Bebe Barron, Pauline Oliveros, Maryanne Amacher, Wendy Carlos, Suzanne Ciani, and Laurie Spiegel—using archival footage and audio to tell the fascinating accounts of how they influenced what is today one of the most popular mediums of music, accompanied by narration from artist and composer Laurie Anderson. It’s a story about rebelling, freedom, and establishing new cultures and languages in a world with strict rules on how things are done, especially when it comes to women.

The narrative, which is wonderfully told through a kind of archival collage that, along with the futuristic soundtrack of the profiled composers, makes it feel like an avant-garde art film. It explores its stars chronologically and tells of how they evolved the musical culture in terms of not only language but also technology, which itself opened up an array of new avenues without needing the approval of others, again, mostly men. What’s interesting is that many of the women profiled were from classical backgrounds. Oram is a prime example, having turned down a spot at London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Music so she could work at the legendary BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and eventually building a proto-synthesizer that used a bespoke notation system called “Oramics.”

Further commentary is provided by the likes of Holly Herndon, Jean-Michel Jarre, and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, with the latter talking about visiting Maryanne Amacher’s “vibrating” home of wall-to-wall equipment over footage of Thurston Moore awkwardly covering his ears while the composer batters a keyboard like a woman possessed. The commentary and interviews are wonderfully audio-only, meaning the visual focus is kept on the women. Much of the footage shown is from older sources, with only Radigue, Spiegel, and Ciani captured in the present-day, but there are fun sequences where Rovner has taken vintage scenes of dancing and overlaid them with these avant-garde pieces, with the unusual juxtaposition of these bright American teenage faces bopping along to synthesized bubbles and echoing drones.

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