Sisters With Transistors

Movie theaters are back, baby!

And in a lovely display of serendipity, my two-weeks-post-vax mark just happened to coincide with the Balboa Theater’s reopening weekend. So Alex and I went to see Interstella 5555, Daft Punk’s 2003 animated film set to the album Discovery. I had never seen it before and thought it was delightful. And then, because the Roxie Theater was *also* celebrating its reopening, we went to a Memorial Weekend screening of Sisters With Transistors, a 2020 documentary about women in electronic music, which is what I’ve come back here to blab about.

If you are even just mildly interested in music, music history, and/or women’s history, you should watch this film! I’m now graced with the knowledge of so many artists I’d never heard of before, and got to learn more about those I may have been familiar with but hadn’t really explored much. The documentary website has a great rundown already, so here are just a few highlights…

I’d seen a video or two of Clara Rockmore (née Reisenberg), but didn’t know much of her backstory. She was a classically trained violinist who came to America from Russia to study music. Unfortunately, she developed tendonitis at a young age and had to give up the violin, but then shrugged it off and became a theremin virtuoso instead. (I love the tidbit that Léon Theremin was apparently so enraptured that he proposed to her—several times, according to some accounts—but she politely turned him down.) She went on to help Theremin develop the instrument into its modern day design and also created her own technique for more precise phrasing and articulation:

Daphne Oram became a sound engineer at the BBC during WWII and spent late nights in her makeshift sound studio experimenting with electronic music. She came up with Oramics, a method of producing music that involves drawing notation on blank 35mm film and running it through a wild-looking apparatus called the Oramics Machine. She called it “drawn sound” and it’s fascinating to me:

Pauline Oliveros made a lot of experimental music (a good amount of it featuring the accordion!) and she also has some crossover into the meditation world with her notion of “deep listening.” (While most of Oliveros’s stuff is a little too out-there for me, I’d totally buy this album.) I was interested to learn about her involvement with the San Francisco Tape Music Center, an experimental music studio headquartered at 321 Divisadero in the 1960s (it later moved to Mills College). I wonder how much, if any, the electronic music scene from the San Francisco Tape Music Center overlapped with the psychedelic rock scene in the Haight that was happening at the same time? Were there ever shows where you could experience artists from both? That’d be pretty wild.

Wendy Carlos doesn’t get much airtime in the film, but we have her to thank (in part) for the Moog synthesizer, this album of Moog’d Bach that I desperately want, and the soundtracks for A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, and Tron. Also, Wendy’s cat-filled Greenwich Village studio is life goals:

Suzanne Ciani was one of the early aficionados of the Buchla synthesizer (a Moog competitor). She also hung out at the San Francisco Tape Music Center and studied at both Berkeley and Stanford (then moved to NYC).

There’s a lot of good Suzanne content on YouTube and in general she is very online, so I had a hard time picking a video to share here. I chose the one below because A) part of it was featured in the documentary, and B) I just found it immensely soothing (I can guarantee it’s popped up in some ASMR community somewhere). Now, I’m sure this is partly because this video was recorded for a children’s program, and also because Suzanne seems to really enjoy sharing her knowledge of electronic music with other people, but I love how patient and generous she is with her answers. I feel like women who are experts in any field are usually more inclined to humanize the complex parts of their craft—a sort of nurturing approach, with the intention of helping someone to understand something—rather than try to impress (or mansplain, if you will). Obviously this is a generalization, but the number of times I’ve felt dumb trying to understand this stuff when men explain it is embarrassingly high, compared with my experiences watching these videos.

There are many more, like Delia Darbyshire, who arranged and performed the original Doctor Who theme; Maryanne Amacher, who created mind-bending sounds based on physical spaces; and Laurie Spiegel, who wrote a piece of music software called Music Mouse, for which the late-90s-era website still exists. I was woefully unaware of most of these women before watching the film, and am feeling grateful to have learned about their lives and work (and also more about electronic music in general!).

PS: If you’re interested in watching, it appears that the documentary is available here with a subscription. Or, if you’re in SF, there’s a second showing at the Roxie this month! See you at the movies. 🍿

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