As part of the Dundee Contemporary Arts and MASH Cinema's Re:Sisters season of films, celebrating the women who have shaped and changed electronic music, members of our Young People’s Collective met to discuss the documentary Sisters With Transistors.
While electronic music is often perceived as a boy’s club, the truth is from the beginning women have been integral in inventing the devices, techniques and tropes that have defined the shape of modern sound. Sisters with Transistors maps a new history of electronic music through the visionary women whose radical experimentations with machines redefined the boundaries of music.
Catherine – How much knowledge did we have before? I had shockingly little knowledge of all the people involved in the start up of electronic music and that technology. Aiesha, you said you knew who did the Doctor Who theme?
Aiesha – Yeah, I vaguely knew Delia Derbyshire’s name because I owned her version of the Doctor Who (Original Theme) from an album, but she wasn’t top billed. So she was there, but I didn’t really remember her until it was brought up. I will say that I didn’t expect it to go as far back as the 1940s; it’s not what I expected from electronic music.
Catherine – Yeah, there's this bit where they talk about the Coventry Blitz, which is where I'm from, and it was like this kind of eerie music over a bombed Coventry and it's just crazy that back then that's what music they were making; it’s sort of experimental and has this sci-fi feel. I thought it was really interesting that that kind of aesthetic was from war time.
Aiesha – What got under my skin was when they wouldn't count it as music. They called it, like, electronic tonalities because it was used in a film, but it couldn’t be counted as a soundtrack. That was the part that got me.
“Something as simple as electronic music was so crazy for people to hear and accept – especially from a woman – which feels shocking to me. But in the scope of history, isn't that shocking at all, really.”
Gareth – I think it was the Forbidden Planet soundtrack that was also electronic tonalities and Éliane Radigue called it “sonic prepositions”, which I really liked. But they said that because they didn't have to explain whether or not it was music.
But what was fascinating to me about that was that a lot of it was classed as sort of, like, ambient music. Brian Eno is pretty much considered the person that, maybe didn't invent ambient music, but was certainly a pioneer – this is years before Eno did anything!
Aiesha – I do find it kind of weird that they wouldn’t consider it as music because you didn’t need to write it in tabs or use music notation. Especially since there’s ‘free jazz’ that doesn’t follow sheet music or any type of defined structure. They just work off of one another, just like an electronic composer does when hearing the sounds the machines make.
Gareth – Yeah, I'm thinking about how much of that is just having to, sort of, fight their corner and defend themselves because they were women making that kind of music and, considering the time, maybe people would be like “Oh well, it's not music because a woman made it” or something really backwards like that. The fact that they're having to defend something which is obviously music, it was so ahead of its time.
There are still, I would say, biases against women in the music industry, especially for trans women and people of colour.
Catherine – They said there were conversations about the dehumanisation of music, rather than how liberating this new technology was. It was a source of expression for so many women who hadn't had the access or resources before, and even then they weren't being taken seriously.
I feel that people were scared, and that's what led to it being labelled dehumanising; that something as simple as electronic music was so crazy for people to hear and accept – especially from a woman – which feels shocking to me. But in the scope of history, isn't that shocking at all, really.
Aiesha – It’s funny because the people who made the music spoke about the machines as if they were human. Suzanne Ciani mentioned how the machine was alive and that it communicated with her; meanwhile listeners thought the complete opposite and were almost scared. It’s almost as if those who appreciate change loved the machines, and those who were set in their ways were scared, thinking it was going to take their jobs. It’s an odd contrast.
Catherine – The involvement a lot of the artists had in movies, and that kind of progression of atmospherics of new music – it was like new age music, to make films feel completely different than they ever had. I think it was Wendy Carlos who did this really 1980s synth soundtrack for The Incredible Shrinking Woman.
Aiesha – If you take Doctor Who, that was 1963; but then the first woman to do a motion picture soundtrack wasn’t until the 1980s, and then the next one another 14-year gap after that.
Catherine – Insane, yeah, it takes that long. A woman just isn't seen as a viable option for any sort of major thing that could be consumed on a large scale. People just couldn't, and sometimes still can't, accept that women are very, very capable and skilled.
Gareth – Yeah, I think it's a good way to look back. And then, after looking back, look forward, or look to now, and see who the pioneers are. Who would be considered a pioneer 40 or 50 years from now?
Aiesha – Like Catherine, I know quite a few women artists and we've made quite a lot of progress; we've made leaps and bounds from back in the 1940s and 1950s, but we still have so many more hurdles to overtake. There are still, I would say, biases against women in the music industry, especially for trans women and people of colour. It still exists, which is kind of weird watching the film and having Éliane Radigue talk about how she was pushed aside in the workplace because she was a woman, and yet it still happens to this day.
Catherine – I liked the overall quality of the film and it's a nice accessible look at female pioneers of that music. I feel like it's good for maybe any kind of marginalised creatives to watch it, because it shows you that there's so many people out there that have been creating for so long. They've been creating for, you know, centuries – we just need to find out about them. A really good watch, I'd say.
Sisters with Transistors is viewable from Friday April 9th 2021 via DCA at Home, a new film streaming platform from Dundee Contemporary Arts.
V&A Dundee’s Young People’s Collective come together weekly to co-design programmes and develop design-related skills. If you’re aged 14-24 and interested in joining YPC email email@example.com