Thursday 22 April 2021

Ladytron legacy: "Sisters with Transistors"

One possible movie trend of 2021: women and technology. (Jyoti Mishra was ahead of the curve.) I'm assured that Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and Legendary Tapes, Caroline Catz's biopic of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop figurehead, will become widely available before the year's out; for now, we have Sisters with Transistors, a useful documentary overview of an entire, previously understudied scene, directed by Lisa Rovner, with narration by Laurie Anderson. From the off, Rovner's film acknowledges that it's having to circumvent decades of built-up condescension and prejudice, chiefly the idea that machines sprouting wires and flashing lights are an exclusively male preserve. It does this by laying out a series of case studies, brisk cinematic pen-portraits of those pioneering ladynerds who, through the second half of the 21st century, seized upon these glowing, throbbing bits of kit, generated some remarkable sounds with them, then faded into musical and artistic obscurity as your various Kraftwerks, Geneses and other, beardier types made off with the plaudits. 

Derbyshire is here, with her extraordinary RP accent (far removed from her Coventry roots) and proto-hipster wardrobe; but so too is Clara Rockmore, a Russian exile who relocated to New York, became a devotee of the theremin, and really should have become a major pop star with a name like that; Éliane Radigue, representing the more glamorous end of French electronica (and introduced exiting the waters of Nice in a bikini); Bebe Barron, who with husband Louis emerged from the fringes of New York experimental filmmaking to add "electronic tonalities" to the score of mainstream studio hit Forbidden Planet; and Pauline Oliveros from the West Coast, openly gay at a time when such things mattered, and a vital link between this new music and the emergent feminist movement. Each of these, and many more besides, gets their overdue moment in the spotlight and their name writ large across the screen; the commitment to repositioning these women front and centre is such that the film's contemporary contributors - who include the musicologists Jo Hutton and David Butler, and rock goddess Kim Gordon - are kept off-camera, heard from but never seen. Chapter by chapter, Rovner affords her subjects the same visibility last year's Be Natural and Beyond the Visible restored to Alice Guy-Blaché and Hilma af Klint respectively, but here there's also the additional element of audibility. As our narrator puts it, these were women "breaking the silence with beautiful noises".

Accordingly, Sisters with Transistors proves heavily soundtrack-led, with attention paid to Foleying up even the secondary noises in the film's archive footage; we're dropped bang in the middle of the Coventry Blitz (to hear, among other bombshells, Derbyshire claim that the sounds she heard in her head were connected to those of air raid sirens and all-clear signals: that eerie, dissonant strand of electronica starts here) and the sonic experiments of Pierre Schaeffer and Edgard Varèse, noted in passing as examples of what the blokes were getting up to around the same period. (If you are planning on streaming the film this weekend, do rig up your home cinema equipment/plug headphones into your laptop: much of this work was designed to be immersive, and some of it may just blow your mind.) While sonically dense, it's structurally a little looser, Rovner's pick 'n' mix approach whisking us rapidly from one profile to the next. If there's a grand unifying theory here, it's that there's no fixed idea of what a female composer should be; the field clearly attracted a range of types and personalities, who then wrung very different tones and melodies out of similar equipment. The bottom line, as in diversity drives elsewhere, is that it takes all sorts.

That's why Rovner clears room for the toothy, commercially minded trans composer Wendy Carlos, who enjoyed a early hit with her Switched-On Bach LP before accepting a slew of invites from the advertising industry (and David Letterman) in the Reagan years, and - further out towards the hardcore end of things - Maryanne Amacher, a distractible provocateur, prone to wearing kids TV-style red dungarees, who trained at Boston's MIT and collaborated with Sonic Youth as part of her lifetime's project of blowing the past away. (As one admirer puts it: "She didn't want to push around dead white men's notes.") Anderson's insistently chilly narration needed dialling up, perhaps - and the writing dialling down a little: "the spirit of modern life was a banshee, screeching into the future", indeed - and an unapologetic pop kid like myself would have liked to see this canon extended to include Gillian Gilbert, the mystery woman who added (and continues to add) so much to the sound of New Order. Yet Sisters with Transistors retains interest and value as a sampler of samplers: a startpoint for further listening, the beginnings of a properly alternative playlist, and - who knows? - possibly even the inspiration for a whole new career or two to boot.

Sisters with Transistors will be available to stream from tomorrow via Curzon Home Cinema, the BFI Player and the Modern Films website.   

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