Review: ‘Sisters With Transistors’: Breaking barriers with electronic sounds

A woman stands beside a bank of electronic gear.
Daphne Oram, one of the subjects of the documentary “Sisters With Transistors.”
(The Daphne Oram Trust/Metrograph Pictures)

“This is the story of women who hear music in their heads,” announces narrator Laurie Anderson, introducing Lisa Rovner’s fascinating documentary “Sisters With Transistors,” about the women who pioneered electronic music yet who aren’t household names.

The film is a vital historical corrective, inscribing the names of these women into history as the innovators, independent thinkers and trailblazers they were: Suzanne Ciani, who created a commercial career with her Buchla synthesizer; Clara Rockmore, a Lithuanian violin prodigy turned theremin virtuoso; Delia Derbyshire (composer of the “Doctor Who” theme) and Daphne Oram of the BBC Radiophonics Workshop; Éliane Radigue, a young Frenchwoman delving into the world of “sonic propositions” with the ARP synthesizer; Bebe Barron, a fixture of the Greenwich Village avant garde scene who composed the “electronic tonalities” of “Forbidden Planet” with her husband, Louis; Pauline Oliveros, a founding member of the San Francisco Tape Music Center and proponent of new music and deep listening; Maryanne Amacher, who captured the tones of the city while working at MIT and activated spaces with sound installations; Wendy Carlos, who melded classical and electronic with “Switched on Bach”; and Laurie Spiegel, a pioneer in the use of computers in composing electronic music.

While “Sisters With Transistors” is an important tribute to these women and their influence, it’s also a cinematic experience that melds the visuals to the abstract, hallucinatory sounds of their compositions. Working with archival footage, Rovner depicts the spaces that influenced their work: the air raid sirens of the blitz in Coventry, planes taking off in Nice; the psychic environments of the antiwar movement of the late 1960s, the Cold War, the dream of liberation through technology. As Anderson, in the beautifully-written narration, says, “the spirit of modern life was a banshee, screeching into the future.”

Rovner’s film is about the music these women made as a reflection of the time and space they inhabited, but it’s also about the way they forged ahead without role models or representations of female composers of any kind. Hopefully, “Sisters With Transistors” can fill that gap for a new generation.


‘Sisters With Transistors’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes

Playing: starts April 23, virtually, at