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  • Gareth Crook

Sisters with Transistors (2020) - 10/10

Okay so before we start, can we agree that Sisters with Transistors is a wonderful title. “This is the story of women who hear music in their heads. Of radical sounds where there was once silence. Of dreams enabled by technology”. If that doesn’t whet your whistle I don’t know what will. It’s the story of early electronic pioneers, all women. Suzanne Ciani, Clara Lockmore, Delia Darbyshire, Daphne Oram, Eliane Radigue, Bebe Barron, Pauline Oliveros, Maryanne Amacher, Wendy Carlos, Laurie Spiegel. Electronic music is often thought of as a male domain, but this music and the ability to make it on your own, without the need of anyone else, including men set it perfectly for women to express themselves openly when other area of music and society were closed to them. Still, too many of these names are largely unknown. Sisters with Transistors sets out to change that. It’s a deep dive into the origins of electronic music. Analogue machines, brought to life with patch wires, switches and flashing lights. The music is warm, open, energetic, unpredictable, but it’s as much about women’s struggle to be seen in the world as it is to harness their creative potential. It’s 90 minutes are packed with fascinating archive footage, the only new elements are voice narration with everyone from Jean Michel Jarre and Holly Herndon to Kim Gordon. It’s all very DIY. Delia will run you through the concept of waveforms and tape loops, foley, pitch shifting and how The Blitz influenced her ideas of abstract sound. It’s quite incredible, from Oran’s Drawn Sound to Radigue’s feedback experiments. Spiegel’s hole punched computer music and her invention of the first music software on the Apple Mac to Barron’s score for Forbidden Planet being credited as ‘Electronic Tonalities’ instead of music, because the establishment was scared of what was happening and Darbyshire then blowing the doors off the whole damn thing with the Doctor Who theme. I don’t like Doctor Who, but my god that score is spine-tingling. Can you imagine sitting in your living room in 1963 and that sound coming from the TV in the corner. There’s only one word, Powerful. To which Thurston Moore can attest to with his fingers in his ears as Maryanne Amacher threatens to make them bleed. It’s exciting stuff! The Beeb is a common thread that pops up in several of these stories, with the fabled Radiophonic Workshop, a throwback to when the BBC was much braver in its programming choices. But the main thread is these woman are confident. They are the experts in their field and they know it. There’s no arrogance to them though, even in the face of the sometimes condescending men interviewing them. It does what any good documentary does in being informative, but it’s a journey of these women’s lives, of gender inequality, of their ingenuity. “How do you exercise the cannon of classical music of misogyny with two oscillators, a turntable and tape delay” and like any good doc, it’s left me wanting to research further. Not least by finding a vinyl copy of Switched On Bach, which sounds like something I need to hear with a bit of authentic crackle. There’s not a single mention of seeking commercial success, it’s pure art, pure expression. Sit back and let these wonderful musicians transport you and if you need a teaser…


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