‘Sisters With Transistors’ Review: How Women Pioneered Electronic Music

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This documentary from Lisa Rovner, about women and electronic music, is hardly as goofy as its title makes it sound. Many of the innovating individuals profiled here contend that women have an affinity for digital technology. And that technology had, and still has, the potential to “blow up the power structure.”

Then again, discussing her theremin — an electronic instrument that creates sound via hand movements through what looks like empty space — the performer Clara Rockmore says: “You cannot play air with hammers. You have to play with butterfly wings.” By the same token, Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire, 1950s and ’60s pioneers of synthesizers and tape loops who both worked for the BBC, are conventionally proper and polite as they explain their innovations in archival interviews.

Narrated by the avant-garde musician Laurie Anderson in a vocal timbre that blends her performance mode with a more conversational one, this film is informative and often fascinating. It is invigorating to hear the great performer-composer Pauline Oliveros ask, “How do you eliminate the misogyny of the classical canon?” — pointing to a tape recorder as a potential tool. (Oliveros, who died in 2016, also discusses her 1970 New York Times Op-Ed titled “And Don’t Call Them ‘Lady’ Composers.”

The short shrift the movie gives to Wendy Carlos is puzzling. The very brief segment allotted to her begins with a French television clip about “Switched-On Bach” and its high sales. This segues into the composer-performer Suzanne Ciani’s dismissal of Carlos’s work: “The way it impacted the public’s consciousness of what a synthesizer was, was completely retroactive.” Rovner sees no irony in then chronicling Ciani’s work in television advertising.

Sisters with Transistors
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 26 minutes. Watch through Metrograph’s virtual cinema.

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