New documentary showcases electronic music’s female pioneers

Sisters With Transistors profiles the overlooked role of female musicians, producers and engineers at the dawn of electronic music...

A new documentary places the spotlight on the role of “electronic music’s unsung heroines.”

Sisters With Transistors is a new documentary profiling the music of several female electronic music pioneers, including Clara Rockmore, Delia Derbyshire, Daphne Oram, Éliane Radigue, Maryanne Amacher, Bebe Barron, Suzanne Ciani, Pauline Oliveros, Laurie Spiegel, and Wendy Carlos. Directed by Lisa Rovner, the film focuses on the avant garde and experimental origins of electronic music from the 1920s to the 1980s in which female musicians played an extraordinary — and later overlooked — role.

Of particular interest is Bebe Barron, who 5 Mag has profiled repeatedly over the years for her work in the era before Electronic Music Synthesizer Mark I was created at RCA labs in Princeton, New Jersey. Barron and her husband Louis were pioneers of tape machines, might have invented the tape loop, probably invented the audio book and created all of their sounds from hand-built customized circuits that would gloriously howl before they burned out, unusable and discarded. What they were doing was so far ahead of the time that their film score for the science fiction masterpiece Forbidden Planet was never called a “score” at all, with the Hollywood Musicians Union objecting to the idea that the electronic squalls was “music” at all. Instead the Barrons were credited with the film’s “electronic tonalities.”

There’s been some discussion on the internet of the somewhat diminished role Wendy Carlos plays in the documentary, but according to Rovner’s interview with The Muse, Carlos (who hasn’t done interviews in many years) shared her sentiment that she really didn’t want to be in it:

I reached out to Wendy at the beginning of the film process and Suzanne knows her very well and Laurie. We really wanted her to be part of the film, but she didn’t want to do an interview with me. And it was quite clear, from what I gather, that she just would rather not be in the film.


Viewing the film at the moment is somewhat complicated, with limited screenings that are likely intended to keep the documentary eligible for the festival circuit when it resumes post-pandemic. For those in the United States, the only way to see the film is to subscribe to Metrograph through May 20. For other options based on where you live, visit the film’s website.


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