Sheffield Doc/Fest 2020 Interview: Lisa Rovner on the Women Who Expanded the Possibilities of Music in “Sisters with Transistors”

The director talks about uncovering a hidden history of female musicians who pushed the limits of electronica.

In “Sisters with Transistors,” Laurie Spiegel can be heard describing her time at Bell Labs punching holes in cards during the 1970s that could be fed through a computer to create sounds, eventually developing a program known as Music Mouse that turned one of the earliest Mac computers into an instrument. She had been ukulele player initially, but like the generations of female musicians before her that are celebrated in Lisa Rovner’s appropriately galvanizing documentary, Spiegel found liberation in the burgeoning art of electronic music, following in the footsteps of the violinist Clara Rockmore, who began to apply her skills to the theremin, and Daphne Oram, who had an offer to continue her education at the Royal Academy of Music, but put the piano aside to tinker with tape recorders.

Using the same instruments simply wouldn’t be an option for the women to move forward in an art form dominated by men as Rovner comes to discover — although artist/technologist Nadia Botella speaks specifically of Maryanne Amacher, who experimented with pairing similar frequencies to create an entirely new pitch, she could be describing anyone featured in “Sisters with Transistors” when talking about a disinterest in “want[ing] to push around dead white men’s notes” — and fittingly in recounting the history of innovators who rewired what music could be, the filmmaker creates her own cinematic language to capture the adventurous spirit of its subjects.

From Oram and Delia Derbyshire crafting an entirely new way to process sounds at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop to Eliane Radigue setting up two Tolana Phonogènes in her apartment in France where “electronic music was [considered] diabolical,” Rovner individually highlights a number of the most prominent women in electronic music through an archival-based approach where you’re allowed into their creative space, with interviews from the past or conducted in the present by the filmmaker to illuminate the driving instinct behind their work as it unfolds visually on screen and even more crucially through its many channels of sound. Profiling musicians who so burst through institutional, geographic or psychological barriers to supply audiences with an unparalleled experience, the film transcends time and space to recreate the sonic landscapes that these artists could create for themselves when they felt as if they couldn’t be a part of certain spheres in the physical world.

Ironically, “Sisters with Transistors” now feels slightly confined in existing in a realm just beyond our reach after falling into limbo once its planned debut at SXSW was cancelled as a result of the coronavirus and its festival plans put on hold, but the film promises to roar out the gate once it’s let loose into the world and as it starts to screen virtually as part of the Sheffield Doc/Fest where it will be part of the physical event in the fall, Rovner spoke about putting together this lively travelogue through largely uncovered terrain of music history.

How did this come about?

Like most people, when I thought of early electronic music, I thought of men pushing buttons, knobs and boundaries. So when I discovered old photos of Clara Rockmore, Daphne Oram, Bebe Barron, Delia Derbyshire, Maryanne Amacher, Pauline Oliveros, Wendy Carlos, Eliane Radigue, Suzanne Ciani, and Laurie Spiegel with machines and learned they were among the greatest pioneers of modern sound, I was compelled to break the silence that surrounded their stories. But it was only through the obsessive research that ensued and the pilgrimages to meet Laurie Spiegel in NY, Suzanne Ciani in Bolinas and Eliane Radigue in Paris that I realized hidden in their lofts, storage spaces and European radio and television libraries was a wealth of archive to prove it.

When it is this hidden history to some degree where credit has not always been properly given – or as it’s reflected in the work Bebe and Louis Barron did on “Forbidden Planet” marginalized as “Electronic Tonalities” instead of being credited as score, does that make your job more difficult later in finding out who really did these things?

The history of women has been a story of silence. Recent protests calling for greater recognition of women’s achievements have swept across politics, business, even Hollywood. The world of music is no exception. In terms of getting the facts right, I have to give credit to the academics, record collectors and labels who have been working for years on uncovering their stories, preserving and distributing their work, without them, this film could not have been made! And kudos to the people who recognized their contribution at the time when they were working, who recorded them at work, telling their stories. It was important to set the record straight but also to do so with emotion, the pioneers telling their own stories was crucial to getting this balance right.

Is that what led you to structure this around influence more than chronology?

I wanted to explore what it would mean to tell a story of electronic music in a feminist way. Daphne Oram has this great quote [in her book “An Individual Note of Music”], “Do not let us fall into the trap of trying to name one man as the ‘inventor’ of electronic music. As with most inventions, we shall find that as certain changes in circumstances occurred — as certain new facilities became available — many minds were, almost simultaneously, excited into visualizing far-reaching possibilities.”  In storytelling, we long for a hero, a sole genius, generally a white male, I think this has led to the erasure of women from history, so in the edit it became increasingly important to break from traditional, in other words male forms of storytelling, with a clear beginning, middle and end. I wanted the story to weave, to draw connections. We start the film with a clip of Suzanne Ciani from the 70s, she’s so good at explaining what it was about electronic music that captivated her, of sharing the excitement of playing with electricity, which links us back to Clara Rockmore’s fascination with the theremin in the 20s…

In another interview, you said that that the archival materials dictated what artists to focus on to a certain degree. Were there certain building blocks that you could use as a foundation?

The film focuses on women for whom I could find archive, but of course there are many others whose stories also merit attention, I just couldn’t find any archive to illustrate their story. This is probably due to my own failings and most likely due to a lack of resources, I’m sure there is more archive out there, although I have to say I tried as hard as I could to find it. When I say the archive drove the story, it dictated what I was able to explore in the film. Bebe Barron, for example, has very, very little archive of her, there are just a few stills of her and her husband Louis in their studio form 1956, but luckily she was making sounds for experimental and avant garde films, so there was a lot of material I could work with to build her story visually.

This feels like you could take in the film with your eyes close and have such a rich experience. Was it easy to map out sonically?

From the beginning I imagined the film as an illustrated oral history, we built a visual world from the audio archive I found. It’s a long process to figure out what works with what, but I’m super happy with the result, thanks to the three brilliant editors I worked with — Kara Blake, Michael Aaglund and Mariko Montpetit — you really get a sense of each woman’s individuality, even though they were all pioneering electronic music, with each subject you experience a different world, a new soundscape which reflects their different interests and surroundings. They were all pushing boundaries, but in completely unique and idiosyncratic ways. The filmmaking had to reflect that.

“Sisters with Transistors” will screen physically at the Sheffield Doc/Fest later this fall.

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