Lisa Rovner’s superb documentary pays a deeply deserved, seldom-expressed tribute to the female composers, musicians and inventors from the brief history of electronic music. The focus falls on about nine or 10 women in the field, from experimental music pioneer Clara Rockmore, a Theremin maestro in bias-cut evening dress, through to the British composer and mathematician Delia Derbyshire (probably best known for co-creating the Doctor Who theme), up to Suzanne Ciani, the first woman to score a major Hollywood movie (The Incredible Shrinking Woman in 1981) and her contemporary, composer and early software designer Laurie Spiegel.
Each of them entered the field of electronic music from different paths. Unsurprisingly, several started out as classically trained musicians. Others did not: Daphne Oram, for instance, was originally a sound engineer at the BBC before went on to win scientific grants for her research and creating a method of writing on celluloid to score electronic sound.
Although Rovner keeps the focus mostly on the women’s work and accomplishments, passing mention of some of the their biographical details points to a remarkable diversity. Pauline Oliveros, a founding member of the influential San Francisco Tape Music Centre, was an out lesbian and Wendy Carlos, who helped develop the Moog synthesiser and won fame for Switched-On Bach, was an early transgender pioneer.
Indeed, the film touches on so many characters and ideas it could have been sliced up and rearranged in any number of ways without making gender the connective thematic thread. It could have accentuated the relationship between electronic music and other experimental art forms of the mid-20th century, or the overlap electronic music and technological innovation elsewhere. Rovner’s assiduous, often playful use of archive material points to connections between these musicians and 80s art-school punks such as Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, 50s independent film-makers such as Shirley Clarke, 60s antiwar protestors and 70s Silicon Valley tech pioneers.
Not that there’s anything to complain about regarding the woman-artist angle. In fact, a stray remark by contemporary composer Holly Herndon beautifully sums up the feedback loop of visible diversity and why it matters that female pioneers are honoured: “There is something psychological that happens when you can see yourself in the people who are being celebrated.” Surely it will only be a matter of time before someone uses this as inspiration for a biopic project or two, perhaps with Keira Knightley as the compelling Delia Derbyshire.
Sisters with Transistors is released on 23 April in virtual cinemas.