Blog

A new documentary is exploring the rich history of female composers at the forefront of electronic music – Madeleine Seidel speaks to director Lisa Rovner to find out more

Sisters with Transistors is the new documentary from filmmaker Lisa Rovener that sheds light on the forgotten histories of female composers in electronic music. These composers such as Delia Derbyshire, Wendy Carlos, and Suzanna Ciani were innovators in their field, pioneering new musical styles and instruments in an industry that was unwelcoming to both female musicians and their avant-garde creations. In Sisters with Transistors, Rovner – along with iconic musician and artist Laurie Anderson’s narration – reclaims electronic music’s women-led roots by highlighting these composers’ stories through archival footage, interviews, and of course, music. In this interview, Rovner tells us about the documentary, working with Anderson, and how she hopes Sisters with Transistors will inspire a new generation of women in electronic music. 

The Quietus: What compelled you to make this documentary in the first place about underrepresented women in the history of electronic music?

Lisa Rovner: What really drew me in was that this music was the sound of liberation. The political aspect of the story was what grabbed me, and I was drawn to these women and these photographs of them that I was discovering online… It was both my personal interest in politics and bringing politics to the screen, and obviously the music and obviously these women – these women who were enchanting me through the archive I sourced online.

Can you walk me through the research process with the archival footage? There must be a lot of information to include with the footage from the BBC and other places in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

It took me four years to source everything, and until the last moment, I was still swapping things and discovering new things. It was an extremely difficult story to properly uncover. With [composers] Delia [Derbyshire] and Daphne [Oram’s] archive, some of it was housed at the BBC, which was a bit easier, but some of the other stuff was much harder to source. Some of [the footage] came from the women’s families; some of it came from the women themselves. Suzanne Ciani and Laurie Spiegel both luckily took a lot of care in archiving their work, so that was kind of more straight-forward––although the concert footage of Suzanne where you first meet her in 1974 where she’s smoking a cigarette, that took a lot of work to get, to get digitised, and then to get licensed. Originally, I had just thought, “Oh, we’ll find an archivist and you know, that will be great,” but when the archivist came back with nothing, I just thought that this was going to be a very involved process, so I took on the challenge. I just spent the next few years reaching out to universities tracking these women’s lives and all the different places they’ve been and all the people they’d potentially met, all the people they had slept with. It was a huge, huge work but so rewarding discovering some of these gems. 

The recordings of Laurie Spiegel and some of the later composers that you profile are so striking, because they seem to be so interested in recording themselves. It’s like they knew that this was going to be historic one day and needed to be preserved.

That is what's so interesting about this story. All of these women, perhaps they were aware of how important they were, but other people were too. Other people were inviting them on television, and other people were recording them… What’s really fascinating is how they have been left out of the bigger narrative of electronic music, of the canon. Of course, things are changing – for some of us, these stories are not lost. 

READ THE WHOLE ARTICLE HERE

 

The Oscillation fes­ti­val will mix talks, per­for­mances and works for radio + workshops. Check the complete program HERE

Tuned Circuits, the 2021 edi­tion of Oscillation Festival, bor­rows its title from Daphne Oram, the ear­ly elec­tron­ic com­pos­er and instru­ment inven­tor. In Oram’s work and writ­ing we glimpse the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a par­al­lel between elec­tron­ic and bio­log­i­cal cir­cuits, and a desire to per­ceive phe­nom­e­na simul­ta­ne­ous­ly from var­i­ous sides. More broad­ly, the fes­ti­val looks at prac­tices and phe­nom­e­na of tun­ing. Tuning is a fun­da­ment of music mak­ing. To think in terms of tun­ing is to think in terms of rela­tions; of one thing com­ing into con­so­nance or dis­so­nance with anoth­er, of one thing colour­ing and affect­ing anoth­er. It is also to think in terms of time, since tun­ing requires a process of con­stant cal­i­bra­tion: what is now in tune will not stay that way.

 

Ben Bertrand made a soundtrack for “Snakearms - Alexander Vantournhout / not standing”

 

Senyawa – Alkisah Remix (Les Albums Claus)

Everyone is still getting their heads around Senyawa’s magnificent Alkisah album, and the inspired way in which they released it. Depending on where you reside, and where you get your music fed to you, you might have copped the album in any number of ways. It was released by scores of labels, each edition with different artwork and packaging, and often embellished with additional remixes or other such unique material. A completist’s nightmare, but do completists even exist any more? 

Amongst the many unique configurations and spin-offs, Belgian label Les Albums Claus – itself a spin-off of the alternative music venue Les Ateliers Claus – gathered together a separate remix album with a stunning cast that deserves appraisal in its own right. From Sugai Ken’s tender drips and drops to a typically downcast and ominous rhythmic tryst from Tolouse Low Trax, there are a lot of bold ideas that spring from reinterpreting Senyawa’s predominantly intense sound. The ever-brilliant Celine Gillain is perhaps the star of the show though, exercising a brooding restraint for the opening half of her version of ‘Alkisah II’ before opening it up into a dead-eyed stepper down low, and a sparkling FM fantasy up top.
OW

  • senyawa remix

Double residencies at claus for the moment: Farida Amadou & Floris Vanhoof downstairs, Christophe Clébard upstairs

 

  • Double residencies

The first of the year's two promised Dntel albums offers an intriguing glimpse into Jimmy Tamborello's sketchbook for Will Salmon

In ‘The Lilac And The Apple’, the opening track on the new Dntel album, a robotic voice croaks out the first few bars of an eerie acapella folk song. It's joined a few moments later by the far more human tones of Kate Wolf, the American singer-songwriter who originally wrote the song in 1977. The two singers – in fact both Wolf, processed, vocodered and time-stretched – duet with each other in uncanny harmony.

It's not the first time that producer Jimmy Tamborello has used such effects. His breakthrough 2001 LP, Life Is Full Of Possibilities, also warped and twisted the human voice to often searingly emotional effect. But there's something uniquely haunting about hearing Wolf – who passed away in 1986 aged just 44 – singing about the way that life carries on regardless, even if we’re not around to see it. It’s unsettling at first, but the song grows more moving and beautiful with every listen, her voice now a ghost in the machine.

If The Seas Trees See peaks with its first track, the rest of the album is still shot through with moments of quiet beauty in a similar electronic pastoral mode. There’s a bucolic tranquility to the burbling, aquatic synths of ‘The Seas’, while the sun-bleached clutter of ‘Back Home’ recalls Rounds-era Four Tet. ‘Fall In Love’ is joyful, a soft, shy serenade with the vocals warped to near abstraction, but you still get a sense of the meaning. 

Tamborello has referred to these tracks as a collection of “sketches” and that’s evident in a couple of places. A few of them don’t feel quite fully-formed, with the tape-worn piano of ‘Movie Tears’ and ‘What I Made’ both built around meandering loops that simply peter out. They’re unobtrusive ambient doodles, pleasant enough, but also fairly forgettable. ‘The Man On The Mountain’, meanwhile, is a spoken-word narrative that doesn’t add anything to the record aside from some nice sound design.

More interesting are the moments where he chucks a rock in the water to disrupt the calm. There’s nothing as energised as the skittering glitches of his last full album, 2014’s Human Voice, but ‘Whimsy’ sounds like the sort of stark electronic experiment you might find on a knackered LP from some forgotten 1970s music library, while ‘Hard Weather’ closes out the record on soaring synths worthy of M83.

The Seas Trees See is the first of two Dntel albums this year, with the second, Away, said to be more pop-influenced. That will likely appeal to fans of Tamborello's work with The Postal Service and may overshadow this entirely. That would be a bit of a shame. It’s a little ramshackle in parts, but this is a wide-ranging, evocative, and never-less-than intriguing glimpse into the producer’s sketchbook.

Review in The Quietus