'Sisters With Transistors' Documents The Pioneering Women Of Electronic Music The new documentary tells the story of the roles women played — and continue to play — in the creation and development of electronic music, from theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore to today.
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'Sisters With Transistors': Pioneers Of Electronic Music

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'Sisters With Transistors': Pioneers Of Electronic Music

'Sisters With Transistors': Pioneers Of Electronic Music

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Over the past century, musical instruments that produce sound by using electronic circuitry bore the names of male inventors, and they were popularized by male artists. But as Allyson McCabe reports, women were and still are at the forefront. With a new documentary, they are finally getting their due.

ALLYSON MCCABE, BYLINE: In the 1920s, the Russian physicist Leon Theremin debuted an electronic instrument that could be played without any physical contact.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLARA ROCKMORE'S "THE SWAN")

MCCABE: Musicians stood in front of a box and waved their hands over antennas, summoning otherworldly sounds seemingly from thin air.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLARA ROCKMORE'S "THE SWAN")

MCCABE: The theremin might have been a passing novelty if not for the late Clara Rockmore, a virtuoso who wowed concert hall audiences and helped refine the instrument's design...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CLARA ROCKMORE: Musically, it was not satisfactory.

MCCABE: ...As she recalled in a 1992 interview with public radio station WQXR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ROCKMORE: There was no way of breaking the sound. You couldn't make staccato. You couldn't make separation. All I had to do is inspire him that I need it.

MCCABE: Rockmore is just one in a long line of women who changed the shape and sound of modern music, says filmmaker Lisa Rovner.

LISA ROVNER: When most people think of electronic music, in most cases, they'll picture men pushing the buttons, knobs and the boundaries. So one of the things that really drew me to this story was that this was a story of women being enabled by new technology.

MCCABE: Rovner's new documentary "Sisters With Transistors" celebrates their achievements, spotlighting pioneers such as Daphne Oram, who was hired as a studio engineer by the BBC in the 1940s while men were off fighting in the war. After hours, Oram began recording and manipulating sounds on magnetic tape.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAPHNE ORAM'S "FOUR ASPECTS")

MCCABE: Her experiments led to the cofounding of the BBC's Radiophonic Workshop, which also provided a platform for Delia Derbyshire. She crafted sounds for hundreds of BBC programs, including the iconic theme music for the TV sci-fi series "Doctor Who," which debuted in 1963.

(SOUNDBITE OF DELIA DERBYSHIRE'S "DOCTOR WHO THEME")

MCCABE: Five years later, Wendy Carlos took the first commercially available keyboard-based synthesizer to the general public. She introduced the instrument she helped Robert Moog design on her album "Switched On Bach," which sold more than a million copies.

(SOUNDBITE OF WENDY CARLOS PERFORMANCE OF BACH'S "BRANDENBURG CONCERTO NO. 3 IN G MAJOR")

MCCABE: At the same time, female composers continued working on their own music. Juilliard-trained Laurie Spiegel says electronic instruments helped them bypass creative and professional obstacles and give voice to their compositions themselves.

LAURIE SPIEGEL: It was like working the way a painter or a writer works. You were working on the actual work itself. You were creating a piece of music out of sound that you could then play for somebody else instead of just having a piece of paper that you then needed someone else to go and perform.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAURE SPIEGEL'S "PATCHWORK")

MCCABE: As a researcher at Bell Labs in the 1970s, Spiegel made music using experimental computer systems and complex algorithms to generate entirely new sounds.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAURIE SPIEGEL'S "PATCHWORK")

MCCABE: In 1977, Spiegel's work was included on the Voyager golden record launched into space to represent all of humankind. But she says the achievements of women have often gone unrecognized.

SPIEGEL: Early computer programmers very often were women because it was considered clerical. Then when it began to be called computer science, then it was suddenly totally men, and it was forgotten that there were women involved in the early days of computers.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SISTERS WITH TRANSISTORS")

LAURIE ANDERSON: The history of women has been a story of silence, of breaking through the silence...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We shall not be robbed any longer.

ANDERSON: ...With beautiful noise.

MCCABE: "Sisters With Transistors" is narrated by Laurie Anderson. In 1977 Anderson debuted the tape bow violin, which allowed her to create her own performance art. In the 1980s Anderson modified her electronic drum set, turning her body into an instrument.

ANDERSON: I think I had a LinnDrum machine, and it was broken. And so I took it apart, and I thought, well, what if you sewed it into a suit, you know, and you used the various drum pads spatially?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HOME OF THE BRAVE")

MCCABE: For today's pioneers, electronic music isn't just music. It's also a tool to break down barriers, says composer Yvette Janine Jackson.

YVETTE JANINE JACKSON: My creative journey with electronic music, especially in the past decade, has been centered around just trying to find a voice, an African American voice, a queer voice, a female voice, the intersection of these voices.

(SOUNDBITE OF YVETTE JANINE JACKSON'S "CANNOT BE (UNRUNG)")

MCCABE: Jackson says expanded opportunities will empower the next generation to take electronic music in new directions.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

That's Allyson McCabe for NPR News.

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