Sheffield Doc/Fest: Lisa Rovners Sisters with Transistors portrays forgotten pioneers of electronic music and celebrates the dream of being liberated by the machine. The film only listens to the story with one ear.
A table in a television studio. On it is a synthesizer, a microphone, a sound console and various cables and devices. The young David Letterman stands in a suit behind this table, next to it a woman with braids and brightly colored clothes who is just explaining to the talkmaster how a clay mixer works. “Why do you have all that stuff?” Asks Letterman, looking at the table. Suzanne Ciani laughs, raises her hands, can hardly believe her answer herself: “Well, this is how I make a living.”
Ciani is one of the female pioneers of electronic music, whose names hardly appear in the narratives of the genre – and Lisa Rovner in Sisters with Transistors takes center stage. In addition to Ciani, the film also introduces Daphne Oram, Pauline Oliveros, Delia Derbyshire, Bebe Barron and other European and American artists in their musical work. The women talk about themselves and each other about soundtracks from the time of their creation, the search for recognition for their art, for which there was no market yet, and about what they actually do with all the tape recorders and recorders and use self-made equipment. The spectacular structures of the musicians are more than creative or funny DIY handicrafts, rather they turn out to be feminist-avant-garde cabling, with the help of which Oliveros and co make their own precarious situation visible and open up the male-dominated fields of technology and composition. In their anecdotes, the musicians repeatedly emphasize the influences of the works of the other people, which are presented in the film.
Sisters with Transistors tries no chronology, but dedicates itself to the individual characters in episodes. Instead of linear historiography, relationships and connections emerge across times and national borders. For her story of a musical sisterhood, Rovner uses photographs, private recordings of the artists and interview recordings from television as visual material that relates to the music of the protagonists. Rovner reverses the relationship between sound and image that is common in film: it almost seems as if the sound dictated what there was to see; as if the picture was inferior to the carpet of voices, sounds and noise. As a narrator via voice-over, Laurie Anderson drives this shift even further: “The history of women has been a history of silence,” she says at the beginning of the film.
Liberation through machines?
Also sketched using Anderson’s language of cobbled metaphors Sisters With Transistors a story of the 20th century in which movement and speed become principles of progress. Technology history is history of emancipation. The machine, according to Anderson, means liberation. In the end, she concludes with reference to a present time with the phrase: “Silence is broken, spaces are shared.” There are also shimmering synthesizer harmonies. The supposed happy ending stays that way, the idea of liberation is no longer questioned in Rovner’s film – and that’s annoying. First, because feminism is not done and everything is fine. On the other hand, because you have to ask who has been ‘liberated’ in what way over the past 100 years. When the history teacher Anderson speaks of the importance of the introduction of women’s suffrage in the United States in 1920, she does not mention that in practice this mainly related to the white population and was of little importance to many black women until the 1960s would have.
While Sisters With Transistors Continuously emphasizing that its protagonists were denied equal social life and attention in the musical canon, the film makes its own narrative exclusions. Electronic Music’s Unsung Heroines is the subtitle of Rovner’s film, which not only conveys sympathy for its protagonists, but also wants to produce a feeling of veneration – and yes, it is an achievement of Rovner to open up, sort, prepare and access this chapter of music history with all its hidden material to have done. Still fiddling Sisters With Transistors crude and inattentive to the world; a film with only one ear.
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Sisters with Transistors
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