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Sisters with Transistors

Lisa Rovner "Storytelling is not neutral; it either upholds or it disrupts the status quo"

Documentary filmmaker revises the history of electronic music by shining a light on the unsung pioneers of the art form in the visually and sonically arresting Sisters with Transistors

Compiled from archive footage and featuring contributions from contemporary musicians and sound designers, Sisters with Transistors tells a remarkable story of the energy, tenacity, creativity and vision of the early pioneers of electronic music – women like Suzanne Ciani, Pauline Oliveros, Éliane Radigue and Laurie Spiegel, who embraced the emancipatory and creative potential of technology to create sounds that disrupted the musical establishment.

I spoke to Director Lisa Rovner ahead of the film's European premiere this week in conjunction with Sheffield Doc/Fest.

Pauline Oliveros

Pauline Oliveros.

Sisters with Transistors is your first feature film and what a year it has been to launch this work into the world! How has the experience been for you so far?

I am beyond excited to share the film with UK audiences. It’s been a long time coming. We were meant to premiere the film at SXSW in March. That long! All of our physical screenings were cancelled and while screening online is great for audiences it’s not ideal for filmmakers because we don’t get to have any interaction with the audience or create a community with your peers that we would in a festival setting.

We had all these dreams of creating events around the screenings, with performances, panel discussions, as a way of bridging the past with the contemporary, and at the moment none of that is possible. So in many ways it’s been heartbreaking. On the flipside, we’ve had time to build buzz.

The film’s strapline is ‘Electronic music’s unsung heroines.’ What, for you, does more representative artistic recognition look like?

I don’t know that artistic recognition looks like one thing, but contributions by women artists and people of colour have more often than not been silenced by the canon.

The feminist activist artist group The Guerrilla Girls nail it with their poster about the advantages of being a woman artist, which reads, ‘Working without the pressure of success; seeing your ideas live on in the work of others; having the opportunity to choose between a career and motherhood; being included in revised versions of art history…’ The list it goes on but you get the point.

I think the main thing for me, and something I learnt through the making of this film, is that we all need to do more active and inclusive listening, especially for what’s being left out.

You describe wanting to break from traditional, male-dominated forms of storytelling, and in the film we hear how the music that these women made struggled to be classified as music by the existing power structures. How do you think stories can work to reshape structures?

People live and die by stories. It’s not something to take lightly. It’s the way through which we understand ourselves and the world. Who gets included and who doesn’t get included in history is important because it shapes the world.

And so storytelling is not neutral. It either upholds or it disrupts the status quo, advances or regresses social structures. Many documentaries about women musicians tend to have the classic arc, the meteoric rise to fame and then the terrible fall from grace. I wanted to tell a story of active heroines, not passive victims.

Films often glamorise and glorify a handful of people, but I hope that what people walk away with is this idea that history is not a fixed concept, that it needs to be constantly revised and rewritten. I also want to stress that this is not a definitive history of women in electronic music. There are so many women who deserve to be celebrated but there is only so much you can cover in a film and only so much archive [footage] to work with.

Eliane Radigue

Éliane Radigue.

The film sounds fantastic, thanks in part to the work of sound engineer Marta Salogni. How did you find each other?

I discovered Marta thanks to Suzanne Ciani, who was involved in the IN_KoLAB initiative that brings pioneers like Suzanne with younger women working in electronic music to a studio for a few days to make an album together.

Suzanne was in London for the album playback and she invited me to come along. The sound was enormous, quadrophonic, like what 3D does to images, exactly what I wanted for the film. During the playback, I couldn’t help but notice Marta. She stood behind the enormous mixing desk. There was this ease about her.

The film’s soundtrack is composed of the music from the featured composers, but I wanted to take the sound design further. Because Marta’s a sound engineer she really understands spatialisation. She’s fluent in the language of sculpting sound. Marta processed the archive [to] make it more alive. She added sounds but only where needed. It wasn’t about, ‘I’ve got to put my mark on this.’ She has too much respect for sound.

The closing sequences of the film brought tears to my eyes. Without giving too much away for people yet to see the film, why did you decide to end the film with this new footage?

The film is all archive but I wanted to end with Éliane [Radigue], Suzanne [Ciani] and Laurie [Spiegel] in the present.

I knew I wanted to capture Laurie Spiegel feeding birds, something she does every day. There was something so symbolic in that image.

As for Éliane, I could not have predicted how emotional the scene would be. I knew while we were filming that I was experiencing something magic, something that would change me. That scene has a message and that message is, ‘Never give up - dreams do come true.’ Just thinking about it now is making me well up.

Learn more

Sisters with Transistors premieres at the Showroom on Saturday 31 October at 5pm, followed by Lisa Rovner in conversation with Sheffield Doc/Fest Deputy Director Melanie Iredale and a short pre-recorded performance from The Space Lady. The film, Q&A and performance will be available to watch online via Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects Saturday 31 October at 7pm until Thursday 12 November.

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