NERVOUS NELLIES REWIND – SISTERS WITH TRANSISTORS REVIEW
This special Nervous Nellies Rewind podcast instalment includes a review and transcript of the documentary Sisters with Transistors from the October-December 2021 radio season of Nervous Nellies (originally in episode 7). Read (or listen) all about it below!
Transcript part 1: Review intro
“On that note we’re up to the movie I wanted to cover, titled Sisters with Transistors, which was also the first one I saw in cinemas since the big mid year lockdown in Melbourne. I first heard about it in April of this year but I think distribution of it in Australia was significantly hampered by ongoing cinema closures, meaning I was only able to catch a screening of it at my local theatre last week.
“As of this episode I’m not sure where you’d be able to watch it but I’d strongly recommend seeking it out. It’s a great overview of the history of women in electronic music, which in itself is extremely valuable because the way 20th century electronic music gets regurgitated in the era of YouTube recommendations and music communities on social media is very male dominated.
“If you hear about electronic music in the 60s, it’s Silver Apples of the Moon by Morton Subotnick. Musique concrète, the two Pierres, Henry and Schaeffer. And the conversation about integrating electronics into popular music often starts and ends with Kraftwerk. Likely knowing this is the case, director Lisa Rovner does a great job of pairing all of those cultural touchstones with women voices.
“Alongside the inventor of the theremin was violin virtuoso Clara Rockmore who applied the precise fingering of a string instrument to the theremin, showing from the beginning that the technology wasn’t just a gimmick as well as helping with its design. Alongside Subotnick was Pauline Oliveros at the San Francisco Tape Music Center.
“Working with the two Pierres was Éliane Radigue whose own music branched out into tape generated feedback loops. And over in Britain Daphne Oram introduced electronic music to the BBC, establishing the BBC Radiophonic Workshop to produce electronic, incidental music for the station’s radio and TV shows, which paved the way for artists like Delia Derbyshire who produced the original Doctor Who theme.”
Part 2: Electronic music and feminism
“The film is also just a really good overview of 20th century electronic music in general. It shows that music generated from synthesisers and music pieced together from tape loops in studio have more overlap than you’d think.
“In some of the artist spotlights they talk about putting their taped audio clips through various filters to sound more electronic, including reverb. Sometimes that literally just means playing the clip back in a bathroom, taking advantage of the acoustics in the same way wind instruments manipulate the natural movement of air by filtering it through something like a clarinet. And on the other hand some of the sounds in Bebe Barron and her husband Louis’s electronic film score for 1956’s Forbidden Planet were simply generated from their homemade electronic circuits blowing out.
“This notion of synthesisers and tape machines organically manipulating sound as much as a traditional instrument is especially important from the 20s to the 60s, where these technologies were getting developed in classical and academic institutions and fighting to be recognised as music. The film argues that from a feminist standpoint electronic music was liberating because many of these artists were avant garde composers that weren’t getting performed, and that synthesisers and tape decks offered a way for them to produce their own compositions.
“Unfortunately the next hurdle was mainstream music publishing, with many of the century’s pioneering works needing to exist as incidental music to other media in order to get produced, and even then still continuing to be marginalised. What I mean is that while incidental music isn’t less artistic in any way, the same marginalising forces that push women into these alternative avenues then get reapplied to devalue their work that does get published.
“Beyond the publicly funded BBC Radiophonic Workshop, the Barrons’ soundtrack for Forbidden Planet was refused to be considered a film score, instead being credited as electronic tonalities. Suzanne Ciani has the honour of being the first woman to score a major Hollywood film, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, but it took until 1981 for this to happen.
“And while popular in the mainstream, Wendy Carlos’ Switched On Bach was considered classical sacrilege, with one line of thinking being that the synth instruments weren’t real music and could at best only imitate the sounds of an orchestra. This is a dumb argument because as I’ve indicated previously the idea of scales and octaves are equally as fake, and it’s completely arbitrary that we decided to poke holes in our wind instruments at certain spots and tighten the strings on our violins to certain amounts.”
Part 3: Electronic music and retrofuturism
“To me, one of the most important insights from this film’s feminist reading of 20th century electronic music is that there’s also a huge irony implicit within 2000s hauntology and 2010s vaporwave music.
“Usually in this style of music, samples of analogue synthesisers and 80s pop are chopped, screwed, and fused with imagery of shopping malls, commercial audio and early attempts at CGI, with the common takeaway being that this imagery is a lost future. That its technology promised us a new space age, even if it was consumerist, and yet now the real future of technology has ended up with most CGI looking boring, and shopping malls closing down in favour of staying home and getting same day delivery.
“And in this culture of treating analogue synths and early computer technology as retrofuturist, incidental and new age music alike are consumed incredulously, with its sounds still being considered kitschy. But what Sisters with Transistors implies is that this association between analogue synths and commercialism, with artists like Ciani also finding success scoring TV spots and creating sound bites for ads, is partly caused by this technology being driven out of academic and mainstream spaces in the first place.
“In the segment on the Radiophonic Workshop, the diversification of career opportunities for women is very explicitly linked to World War II and the need for women to take on the jobs of men while they’re away, to keep the engine of capitalism running, so to speak. And the parallel here is that again, these achievements for women’s equality are occurring in the embrace of commerce.
“So I guess the ironic consumption of retrofuturist kitsch in hauntology and vaporwave is itself ironic because many of its samples are only commercialist because of the institutional rejection of electronic music as art. Personally with Nervous Nellies I often describe the downtempo electronic music I air as weird or off kilter but I should stress that I’m not asking you to listen to these things ironically.
“In many ways music in the digital age is still a history in the making, with the timeline in Sisters with Transistors stopping in the mid 80s. Digital music does approach sound differently to the organic manipulation of acoustics present in both analogue electronics and classical instruments, but it doesn’t have to be considered kitsch or inferior, which is why often with my examples of nervous energy in music I highlight intersections between classical, analogue and digital composition.
“Frankly I shouldn’t be referring to any of this music as ambient because of how loaded a term it is with regards to deigning that some music should stay in the background, or shouldn’t be listened to with intent. So to rectify that, please listen with intent to one of Sisters with Transistors’ many featured artists, Delia Derbyshire’s ‘Pot au Feu’.”
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