Documentary Highlights History of Women in Electronic Music

Source: Gay City News.

“Sisters with Transistors” conjures nostalgia for a past most of us never knew existed. At this point, most pop music is recorded to computer and made largely, if not entirely, with electronic instruments. Mac laptops come bundled with the digital audio workshop Garage Band. The Fairlight, which was the first sampler to hit the market in 1980, was so expensive that wealthy rock musicians like Yes and Peter Gabriel were its earliest users. (William Gibson’s quote “the street finds its own uses for things” applies to hip-hop DJs using turntables to get similar effects around the same time.) Now, free applications offer a level of ability to make music on your phone that makes the synthesizers and samplers available in the ‘80s look puny.

Lisa Rovner’s documentary “Sisters with Transistors” shows how we got to this point, arguing that technological innovation stemmed from women’s exclusion from conventional musical fields. To this day, classical music is dominated by the idea that Beethoven, Bach and Mozart were the greatest composers who ever lived (or, crucially, will ever live), drowning out women’s voices. If electronic music wasn’t considered “real music” (and, often, still isn’t), why not compose and produce music from pitch-shifted tape loops of field recordings or one’s own drumming on household objects? No matter how talented a female pianist was in the ‘50s or ‘60s, she would never be recognized as a genius on par with Glenn Gould, so why play by those rules?