“Technology is a tremendous liberator,” says Laurie Anderson in her voiceover narration for the new documentary Sisters with Transistors, a look at the women who have pioneered electronic music since its beginnings and been integral to inventing new sounds and ways of making them. “Women were naturally drawn to electronic music. You didn’t have to be accepted by any of the male-dominated resources. You could make something with electronics, and you could present music directly to an audience.”
Technology as liberator may sound utopian to our jaded 21st century ears, accustomed as we are to focusing on tech’s misuses and abuses. But machines have very often been a means of social progress, just as when “bicycles promised freedom to women long accustomed to relying on men for transportation.” The creation and innovation of recording and broadcasting equipment deserves its own place in women’s history.
Radio in particular gave women the opportunity to experiment with sound and reach millions who might not otherwise give them a hearing. The influence of BBC radio composers like Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram, for example, remains pervasive, and the electronic soundscapes they created for radio and television helped define the sonic world we now inhabit. It is a world, director Lisa Rovner tells AFI’s Malin Kan below, permeated by electronic music.
“I can’t actually remember,” says Rovner, “a time when I wasn’t aware of electronic music. Electronic music penetrates pretty much every single aspect of my life since I was a kid, whether that’s stuff that’s on television or the video games that I played with my brother.” Her interest in the music’s “transcendent” qualities was first piqued, she says, at a rave. The film project happened to “check all the boxes” for her, with its focus not only on the electronic music women have made for over a century, but also on “the wider social, political and cultural context of the 20th century,” as the film’s site notes.
Sisters with Transistors covers a range of composers, several of whom we’ve previously featured on Open Culture, including Derbyshire, Oram, Clara Rockmore, Bebe Barron, Maryanne Amacher, Eliane Radigue, Suzanne Ciani, Laurie Spiegel, and Pauline Oliveros. “The history of women has been a history of silence,” Rovner writes. “Music is no exception.” Or as Oliveros put it in a 1970 New York Times Op-Ed:
Why have there been no “great” women composers? The question is often asked. The answer is no mystery. In the past, talent, education, ability, interests, motivation were irrelevant because being female was a unique qualification for domestic work and for continual obedience to and dependence upon men.
As Sisters with Transistors shows, new technologies broke that dependence for many women, including Oliveros, who provided us with a different answer to questions about the paucity of women composers. Why are there no “great” women in electronic music? Because you haven’t heard them yet. Learn their names and stories in the new documentary.