‘Sisters with Transistors’: The untold story of how women shaped electronic music as we know it

Written by Andrea Domanick, produced by Rosalie Atkinson

“You were the composer, you were the performer, you were the sole arbiter of your creation,” electronic pioneer Suzanne Ciani says in the new documentary “Sisters with Transistors.” Photo courtesy of Suzanne Ciani.

Electronic music is a global phenomenon, but all of today’s highest paid electronic musicians are men, such as the Chainsmokers, Calvin Harris, and Tiësto. Lesser known is the history of women who pioneered electronic music beginning in the 20th century. Their story is told in a new documentary called “Sisters with Transistors,” narrated by electronic luminary Laurie Anderson.  

KCRW speaks with director Lisa Rovner about the influence of war on electronic sounds, the innovations wrought by these unsung female auteurs, and how synthesizers liberated women from the patriarchal structures of music. 

KCRW: In the documentary, composer Suzanne Ciani almost makes it sound like the machines she uses are people. At one point, she calls them “sensual.” Why did they have this very intimate feeling for machines? 

Lisa Rovner: “I really think it was because these machines liberated them, they enabled them, they were able to help them express themselves in a way that wasn't possible before them. To master these machines, it takes a lot of work and time. I guess we all have that kind of relationship with our phones now in our computers. I don't know exactly why they describe it in that way, but I can only assume it's because they were so enabled by them.”

You begin your movie at the early part of the 20th century. You compare the sounds of war and the electronic music created by a few women composers in Britain. Was that their primary influence — the Blitz, war, and bombs falling on Britain?

“I think the connection between electronic music and war is very interesting, not only in terms of certain sounds inspiring Delia Derbyshire and her work at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, but also the possibility that this war created for women to enter radio. Daphne Oram was aged just 18 when she started working at the BBC as a sound engineer, and she was galvanized by the ongoing developments in audio technology. And she devoted all of her free time to explore new ways to make sounds with electronics. 

But one of the things that I think is so fascinating about all these women, and that really connects them all, is how they listen actively, not only to the sounds that they create, but to the sounds around them. Delia Derbyshire talks about the sounds of the air raid sirens as being electronic music and that perhaps her love for abstract sound comes from the sounds of the war.”

Normally you would think raid sirens and sounds of war would inspire terror — not beauty. 

“Yes, but I feel like in early electronic music you really hear the angst. Early electronic music in Britain was mainly created at the BBC radio station, and it was mainly created for radio dramas. And a lot of the writers at the time were writing in this very surreal and kind of weird way, a legacy of the war really. And so those early electronic sounds, they do have that scary kind of eerie quality to them.”


Daphne Oram was at the forefront of developing the graphic representation of music widely used today. Photo courtesy of the Daphne Oram Trust. 

Tell us about Daphne Oram. She trained as a conventional musician initially. And she was a pioneering female composer also at the BBC. 

“She had a place at the Royal Academy of Music, but instead decided to go work at the BBC as a sound engineer. She began her career in the early 1940s, and was really the driving force to the Radiophonic Workshop, where most of the recognizable electronic music from the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s was created. The Radiophonic Workshop created the famous ‘Doctor Who’ soundtrack. And she was just passionate about electronic music and co-founded the Workshop, but then very quickly left because the BBC was really more interested in creating sounds for drama, and she was more interested in exploring the possibilities of electronic music. 

In 1959, she opened the Oramics Studios, and she was one of the first women to have a private electronic music studio in England. She dedicated the rest of her life to drawn sound techniques, something that she called the ‘Oramics machine.’ … She wanted a system where she could graphically represent sound. And so basically, you would draw the sound and the machine would create sound.

But if you think about how people are making music today, with the technology that people are using, it's all graphically represented. So in so many ways, she was so ahead of her time. People don't necessarily draw, but they see a shape and you can manipulate that shape in software. She was really at the forefront of that.”

Right, because at the time, people were using these old tape machines to make this music.

“Yes. The tape machines came out of wartime needs for improved means of communication. And what was amazing about the tape recorder was that it was suddenly possible to record and manipulate sounds in ways that were unimaginable before. So tape became more than just a means for recording and playing back. It became a tool for a composition.”

What was the reaction to this music at the time, and to the women who were composing it?

“Can you imagine seeing Clara Rockmore playing the theremin in 1932? The theremin is this wild instrument that you don't touch, you kind of sculpt the air. So I can only imagine what it must have been like. People must have thought that she was some kind of witch. But until the late 1960s, people didn't really like electronic music. Bebe Barron, her and Louis Barron’s score for ‘Forbidden Planet’ wasn't credited as electronic music. It was credited as electronic tonalities. People were afraid of electronic music. People were afraid of machines, in general. The machines, just like the computers, belonged to the banks and the insurance companies and the big corporations. So this music was not exactly accepted or light.”

But then people saw electronic musicas useful in film soundtracks and TV/radio commercials.

“Yes, absolutely. A lot of these women made their living thanks to soundtracking. Suzanne Ciani famously did the pop-and-pour Coca Cola ad. And actually all of these women worked scoring films and television adverts.”

Why were women drawn to this in the first place, and sought refuge and freedom in this particular art form?

“Laurie Spiegel explains in the film that women were drawn to electronic music when the possibility of a woman composing was in itself controversial. So electronics really enabled women. It was a way for women composers to be heard by others without having to be taken seriously by the male-dominated establishment. Electronics basically meant that women could do it all themselves. 

There was a very D.I.Y. aspect to making electronic music. As Suzanne Ciani says, ‘You were the composer, you were the performer, you were the sole arbiter of your creation.’ And you could really, thanks to these machines, get your compositions out to the world. So you didn't need to hire an orchestra, you didn't need to get a grant in order to hire the orchestra. It was a way of bypassing all these patriarchal structures.”

Why did these women think that this was possible for them? Because men tend to dominate the field of computers and electronics.

“I think this set of women are truly remarkable. These were women with agency. This is what's so fascinating. We all, as younger women, as even a filmmaker, as a director, you’re constantly looking for role models, and these women didn't really have any. It makes me think you don't really need role models, but I know how powerful a role model can be. 

… So many women that we learn about and that we see are kind of cast as muses, not so often as creators, and that was why I was so drawn to them and to telling their stories. There's something so inspiring as a young woman creator to discover that there were many, not just one. ... And this is what I wanted to do with the film.”

Credits

Guest:

  • Lisa Rovner - director of “Sisters with Transistors”