'Sisters With Transistors': Pioneers Of Electronic Music

Feb 9, 2021
Originally published on March 24, 2021 3:03 pm

In the 1920s, the Russian physicist Leon Theremin debuted an electronic instrument that could be played without any physical contact. Players stood in front of a box and waved their hands over antennas, summoning otherworldly sounds seemingly from thin air. The theremin might have been regarded as a passing novelty if not for the late Clara Rockmore, a virtuoso who helped to refine the instrument's design, and wowed concert hall audiences with her performances.

yaoikan1981 via / YouTube

Rockmore is but a single figure in a long line of women who have changed the shape and sound of modern music — often invisibly, says filmmaker Lisa Rovner. "I think when most people think of electronic music, in most cases they'll picture men pushing the buttons, the knobs, and the boundaries."

Rovner's new documentary, Sisters with Transistors, corrects the record. Narrated by Laurie Anderson, the film celebrates the achievements of early pioneers such as Daphne Oram, who was hired by the BBC as a studio engineer in the 1940s. After hours, Oram began recording and manipulating sounds on magnetic tape, experiments that led to the co-founding of the BBC's Radiophonic Workshop in 1958. Another pioneer, Delia Derbyshire, crafted sounds for nearly 200 BBC programs, including the iconic theme music for the sci-fi series Doctor Who, which debuted in 1963.

Modular synthesizers soon followed, and the development of the first commercially available models was guided by women. Wendy Carlos advised Robert Moog on the design of the first keyboard-based model, and introduced it to the general public on her 1968 album, Switched-On Bach, which sold more than a million copies. Suzanne Ciani realized the creative potential of a contemporaneous system designed by Don Buchla, which allowed artists to patch components together to control characteristics of sound such as pitch and timbre.

Ambient Church via / YouTube

Juilliard-trained composer Laurie Spiegel describes these technologies as revolutionary. "The way composing was previously done was you wrote on a piece of paper, with a pencil, a set of instructions for someone else to make music," she recalls. Free to realize her own creative vision, Spiegel programmed computer-based music generation systems while working as a researcher at Bell Labs in the 1970s. She was able to fashion entirely new sounds, as well as variations within sound itself, and share her music directly with audiences.

In 1977, Spiegel's work caught the attention of NASA. Her musical interpretation of Johannes Kepler's "Harmonices Mundi" was included on the Voyager Golden Records, launched into space to represent all of humankind. However, she is quick to point out that she is too often seen as an anomaly. Spiegel recalled being part of an active community of women who were affiliated with university-based and non-profit electronic music studios in and around New York City. Some of those studios, such as Harvestworks, are still around today.

In a sense, all music is "electronic" now, since digital technology is a ubiquitous part of how tracks and albums are made and consumed. But composer Yvette Janine Jackson, whose work explores historical events and current social issues, says there is still plenty of room for innovation and legacy building.

"My creative journey with electronic music has been centered around trying to find a voice," says Jackson, "an African American voice, a queer voice, a female voice, the intersection of these voices." She hopes tomorrow's creators will have expanded access to tools, and receive greater recognition for their work.

Having premiered at SXSW in 2020, Sisters with Transistors has screened at prestigious U.S. and international festivals, including Sundance and the AFI. It is slated for national release on virtual cinema platforms early this spring.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Over the past century, musical instruments that produce sound by using electronic circuitry bore the names of male inventors, and they were popularized by male artists. But as Allyson McCabe reports, women were and still are at the forefront. With a new documentary, they are finally getting their due.

ALLYSON MCCABE, BYLINE: In the 1920s, the Russian physicist Leon Theremin debuted an electronic instrument that could be played without any physical contact.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLARA ROCKMORE'S "THE SWAN")

MCCABE: Musicians stood in front of a box and waved their hands over antennas, summoning otherworldly sounds seemingly from thin air.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLARA ROCKMORE'S "THE SWAN")

MCCABE: The theremin might have been a passing novelty if not for the late Clara Rockmore, a virtuoso who wowed concert hall audiences and helped refine the instrument's design...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CLARA ROCKMORE: Musically, it was not satisfactory.

MCCABE: ...As she recalled in a 1992 interview with public radio station WQXR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ROCKMORE: There was no way of breaking the sound. You couldn't make staccato. You couldn't make separation. All I had to do is inspire him that I need it.

MCCABE: Rockmore is just one in a long line of women who changed the shape and sound of modern music, says filmmaker Lisa Rovner.

LISA ROVNER: When most people think of electronic music, in most cases, they'll picture men pushing the buttons, knobs and the boundaries. So one of the things that really drew me to this story was that this was a story of women being enabled by new technology.

MCCABE: Rovner's new documentary "Sisters With Transistors" celebrates their achievements, spotlighting pioneers such as Daphne Oram, who was hired as a studio engineer by the BBC in the 1940s while men were off fighting in the war. After hours, Oram began recording and manipulating sounds on magnetic tape.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAPHNE ORAM'S "FOUR ASPECTS")

MCCABE: Her experiments led to the cofounding of the BBC's Radiophonic Workshop, which also provided a platform for Delia Derbyshire. She crafted sounds for hundreds of BBC programs, including the iconic theme music for the TV sci-fi series "Doctor Who," which debuted in 1963.

(SOUNDBITE OF DELIA DERBYSHIRE'S "DOCTOR WHO THEME")

MCCABE: Five years later, Wendy Carlos took the first commercially available keyboard-based synthesizer to the general public. She introduced the instrument she helped Robert Moog design on her album "Switched On Bach," which sold more than a million copies.

(SOUNDBITE OF WENDY CARLOS PERFORMANCE OF BACH'S "BRANDENBURG CONCERTO NO. 3 IN G MAJOR")

MCCABE: At the same time, female composers continued working on their own music. Juilliard-trained Laurie Spiegel says electronic instruments helped them bypass creative and professional obstacles and give voice to their compositions themselves.

LAURIE SPIEGEL: It was like working the way a painter or a writer works. You were working on the actual work itself. You were creating a piece of music out of sound that you could then play for somebody else instead of just having a piece of paper that you then needed someone else to go and perform.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAURE SPIEGEL'S "PATCHWORK")

MCCABE: As a researcher at Bell Labs in the 1970s, Spiegel made music using experimental computer systems and complex algorithms to generate entirely new sounds.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAURIE SPIEGEL'S "PATCHWORK")

MCCABE: In 1977, Spiegel's work was included on the Voyager golden record launched into space to represent all of humankind. But she says the achievements of women have often gone unrecognized.

SPIEGEL: Early computer programmers very often were women because it was considered clerical. Then when it began to be called computer science, then it was suddenly totally men, and it was forgotten that there were women involved in the early days of computers.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SISTERS WITH TRANSISTORS")

LAURIE ANDERSON: The history of women has been a story of silence, of breaking through the silence...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We shall not be robbed any longer.

ANDERSON: ...With beautiful noise.

MCCABE: "Sisters With Transistors" is narrated by Laurie Anderson. In 1977 Anderson debuted the tape bow violin, which allowed her to create her own performance art. In the 1980s Anderson modified her electronic drum set, turning her body into an instrument.

ANDERSON: I think I had a LinnDrum machine, and it was broken. And so I took it apart, and I thought, well, what if you sewed it into a suit, you know, and you used the various drum pads spatially?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HOME OF THE BRAVE")

MCCABE: For today's pioneers, electronic music isn't just music. It's also a tool to break down barriers, says composer Yvette Janine Jackson.

YVETTE JANINE JACKSON: My creative journey with electronic music, especially in the past decade, has been centered around just trying to find a voice, an African American voice, a queer voice, a female voice, the intersection of these voices.

(SOUNDBITE OF YVETTE JANINE JACKSON'S "CANNOT BE (UNRUNG)")

MCCABE: Jackson says expanded opportunities will empower the next generation to take electronic music in new directions.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

That's Allyson McCabe for NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.