During the world war II, the women took a lot of things. Americans being shipped abroad, they worked in aviation factories, manufactured ammunition, flew airplanes. Most people know this, or at least know the name Rosie the Riveter. Less is known about what happened after the war ended. When the soldiers returned home, they took over many of the jobs held by the women. But the freedom and expansion of new technology at the time sparked something else, something that was almost lost in history: a new wave of female musicians in a league of their own.
British mathematician and composer Delia Derbyshire lived in Coventry during the Blitz. His electronic compositions – abstract sounds created by the looping of tapes and the sound modification technique known as concrete music– were inspired by the air raid sirens she heard during this time. “It’s electronic music!” she said in the documentary Sisters with transistors. Derbyshire then joined the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and worked on the theme song for Doctor Who. Ron Granier, the man credited with composing the theme, has always said Derbyshire should get co-songwriter credit for his arrangement. But in the 1960s the BBC preferred that its workshop assistants remain anonymous, so Derbyshire work never had recognition.
Sisters with transistors, Which one is currently streaming thanks to a partnership with New York’s Metrograph Theater, is full of stories like this. Directed by Lisa Rovner and constructed through numerous archival interviews, it’s a meticulously crafted story of the women who throughout the 20th century attempted to capture the sound of a newly electrified world. From the period after World War II, when new technologies made new noises possible, to traces of their music still audible on the pop charts today, the goal of Sisters is to put women back in the history of electronic music. “The story of women is one of silence and the breaking of that silence,” avant-garde musician Laurie Anderson explains in the film’s narration. “Where there was once silence, now there is a beautiful noise.”
Noise is crucial. According to the film, female composers were drawn to electronic music because it lived on the fringes. They didn’t need to be part of the male-dominated music industry – or deal with radio stations, record companies, or concert halls – to get involved. Synthesizers and tape recorders enabled women to bypass the rigid industry and make whatever arrangements were necessary. They could invent their own instruments and their own sounds. Like the internet allowing musicians to reach a wider audience, Sisters with transistors postulates that these tools have given breakthroughs to artists. “Technology is a tremendous liberator,” says composer Laurie Spiegel. “It blows up the structures of power.” (A very apt quote considering Spiegel’s music find his way in The hunger Games, a film about the explosion of power structures.)
For Pauline Oliveros, that meant recording all the sounds outside of her San Francisco apartment and creating soundscapes using household items like the tub or toilet rolls. Oliveros created a tape delay system so that she could perform her compositions live and co-founded the San Francisco Tape Music Center, which became the heart of the city’s experimental music scene in the 1960s. also denounced sexism, write in The New York Times in 1970, “It is always true that unless you are super excellent, the woman in music will always be subjugated, while men of the same or less talent will find their place.”)
However, not all of the musicians in the film remain strangers. Suzanne Ciani found commercial success composing music for commercials and even made an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman. But Ciani is an exception. Most have never seen mainstream success and some have suffered serious setbacks. The pioneers of electronic music, Bebe and Louis Barron, for example, lost a skirmish with the Union des musicians in the 1950s which resulted in their score for Forbidden planet considered “electronic tones” – not music – and therefore ineligible for awards. (See also: what happened to Derbyshire Doctor Who job.)
Sisters with transistors ends with something very traditional: Johann Sebastian Bach. In 1968, Wendy Carlos published Bach lit, a collection of the composer’s songs recreated on a Moog. Until then, the use of synthesizers was limited to experimental music; Alight marked a departure from these avant-garde roots and paved the way for the introduction of synths into popular music. It’s a fitting ending, albeit anticlimactic. Carlos’ music set the tone for the future of music, although it is only now seen as part of its history.
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