Synth Sisters: Exposed’s Mark Perkins interviews Sisters With Transistors director Lisa Rovner
Following an online Sheffield Doc/Fest screening, Exposed’s Mark Perkins spoke to director Lisa Rovner about her documentary ‘Sisters With Transistors’ – an exploration into the untold stories of electronic music’s female pioneers.
If there’s one thing that’s bound to generate interest with me, it’s a history of electronic music. This particular film documents the struggles and pioneering work of influential, but often overlooked women who made this music. How did you get the idea for making this film?
I first heard about Delia Derbyshire on Jarvis Cocker’s radio show. She worked in the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop in the sixties, and I was immediately fascinated by the sounds that she created. I was fascinated by the sounds, but when I discovered that there was a large group of women, whose stories hadn’t been told, but who played a massive part in today’s sounds, I was compelled to look into it more. I realised there was an archive of filmed material online, but then I discovered much more which has never been seen. Some came from the BBC, but a lot came from family members, ex-girlfriends and boyfriends, all kinds of sources. I’ve basically spent three years full time finding and researching this stuff. As I saw them, heard them speak, how they looked, the way they expressed themselves; all of these things made me think this would make a really good film.
How far back in time does the archive footage go?
Incredibly, Clara Rockmore was playing the theremin in 1928, almost 100 years ago. She was already a famous Lithuanian violin virtuoso, playing classical music, but she also worked on the design and fine-tuning of early models of the theremin, which was a predecessor of the synthesiser. She performed in concert halls but had to work hard to convert audiences into accepting an electronic instrument as being the artistic equal of traditional instruments. She’s pretty much an unknown, but then again most people outside of the UK have never heard of Delia either.
There’s some astonishing footage in the film of her playing the Theremin in the manner of a violinist. Where did this footage come from?
Her family, and you’re right, it is remarkable to see her play. You really get a sense of her spirit, and how magnetic she is, and how alive she is and also how playful she is.
One of the things I often hear from young and emerging directors, when I meet them at Doc/Fest, is how hard it is to get finance for making a film. What was your experience?
I started thinking I’d pitch it to the BBC or someone, and that they’d finance the project, but that’s not how it worked out. In the end I’m so grateful that it didn’t work out that way, because it meant I could make a very free film – the film I really wanted to make rather than make if for a chosen audience, or network, or in a specified format. It’s just so free and liberating to work in that way. Obviously it was very difficult financially, but it’s my first feature and I’m so happy I got to make a film that reflects the subject. I may never get to make another film like this; I was just so passionate about it and it just took over my life.
I imagine you took some inspiration from the struggle these women had.
Totally. One of the things Suzanne Ciani said that really resonated with me, was that when she grew up in a traditional Italian-American household, nothing much was expected of her. That meant she was then free to follow music. The same thing happened to me with this film. I didn’t have anybody expecting something from me so I could be completely free. I was so inspired by these women, and as a young filmmaker, having this to be the story I got to work on, it just couldn’t have been a better time or story for my personal growth.
The sound is obviously important in a film of this nature. How did that evolve?
I had though of doing an original soundtrack, but it became obvious we didn’t need an extra soundtrack. I worked with an amazing young female sound engineer, Martha Salogni, who made perfect contribution to the sound of the film. I’m looking forward to hearing it in the Showroom, as I feel there’s no better place to listen to music these days than in a cinema.
I liked how it was not all unfamiliar names. Artists such as Wendy Carlos are very well known.
Yes, she was very important, and has had several chart albums. Switched On Bach was such an important record, and her Clockwork Orange soundtrack was hugely influential. Before that, in the fifties, Bebe Barron was an awesome compositional talent, involved with producing The Forbidden Planet soundtrack. She made it by overloading electronic circuits, and then listened for hours and hours to miles and miles of tape. She composed the music by picking out certain moments when these circuits were doing these wild things, and stringing them together. In the interview you really get the idea of how sad and disappointed she was that it wasn’t allowed to be called ‘music’. The film credits call it ‘electronic tonalities’, and she was barely acknowledged as a composer, after pressure from the musicians’ Union.
I was fascinated to see how making electronic music at home – which is very much how it happens today – was pioneered in the eighties.
People were owning home computers for the first time, and thanks to Laurie Spiegel, who wrote the Music Mouse program for the Mac 512, in the eighties, they could now begin to make music. Now we take for granted that our Apple computers will do this. She was also responsible for creating the ‘sound’ of a Coke bottle being opened and poured, used in all Coca Cola commercials since the mid-eighties. Almost no-one realises it is produced totally electronically on a Buchla Analogue Modular Synthesiser. She was a total luminary.
The film is more like a weaving, moving away from the chronology approach to filmmaking, there was a lot of stuff going on, around the same time, and it’s important that we see there wasn’t just one person responsible. Many people contributed in their own ways, and that was an important aspect of why I chose to make the film the way I did. I’m sure I’m not alone in not realising how important these early experimentations were. I feel somehow I hear music differently now. The influence of someone like Pauline Oliveros, who is one of the subjects of the film, has made me more in tune with the soundscape that surrounds me. The sounds we hear, but also the sounds that we don’t hear. It feels like the time is right to hear the stories of these creative women, whose voices haven’t been heard until now.