Guest Post: By Creating a Living History of Women in Electronic Music, I’m Telling a Different Kind of Story

Guest Post by Lisa Rovner

People often ask me why the women in my film “Sisters with Transistors” aren’t represented in the history of electronic music, and while there are many factors at hand, I think it’s largely due to the way we have traditionally told stories. Narrated by Laurie Anderson, “Sisters with Transistors” is the untold story of female pioneers in electronic music, remarkable composers who embraced machines and their liberating technologies to utterly transform how we produce and listen to music today. As one of the film’s subjects, Laurie Spiegel, explains, “We women were especially drawn to electronic music when the possibility of a woman composing was in itself controversial. Electronics let us make music that could be heard by others without having to be taken seriously by the male dominated Establishment.”

With the wider social, political, and cultural context of the 20th century as a backdrop, the film reveals a unique emancipation struggle, restoring the central role of women in the history of music and society at large.

In her 1972 book “An Individual Note,” Daphne Oram, one of the pioneers celebrated in the film writes, “Do not let us fall into the trap of trying to name one man as the ‘inventor’ of electronic music. As with most inventions, we shall find that … many minds were, almost simultaneously, excited into visualizing far-reaching possibilities. New developments are rarely, if ever, the complete and singular achievement of one mind.”

So why do we so often still think they are?

We know women and people of color have been silenced by hierarchies of privilege and oppression, but I’ve also come to believe that it’s the oversimplification of the way we tell stories, our learned longing for a (generally white male) hero that has led to the erasure of their groundbreaking accomplishments. Storytelling is not neutral. It either upholds or disrupts the status quo, advances or regresses social justice. Filmmaking is thus always political. That’s why I decided on a form featuring multiple heroines whose stories are told subjectively.

As a way of confronting limiting storytelling practices, I opted for a chronology that weaves, a narration that’s not all-knowing. And all throughout the making of this film my choices were questioned. People kept reverting me to “The Hero’s Journey,” asking me to define the structure as five acts, to connect the subjects to more recognizable names. Why wasn’t it enough that these women had been integral in inventing the devices, techniques, and tropes that redefined the boundaries of music? They were women with agency, who were truly independent; their stories were stories of personal liberation and persistence, something that as a female filmmaker I could really relate to.

I was told “think of your audience,” and that’s exactly why I made the choices I made. I didn’t want audiences to walk away with the idea that “Sisters with Transistors” encapsulates the definitive history of women in electronic music, or even that such a thing exists. I want people to walk away with curiosity and desire to keep adding to this history. The result is an oral history that moves, a series of personal recollections about the key moments in the history of electronic music, merged with collective culture that unfolds like a mixtape.

In her essay “A Short History of Silence,” Rebecca Solnit writes, “Silence is the universal condition of oppression … Liberation is always in part a storytelling process.” In moments of doubt, of which there were many, I returned to this essay and repeated it like a mantra.

While women telling their own stories is key to challenging patriarchal and racist constructs, what I’ve learned through making “Sisters with Transistors” is the importance of active listening, especially for what is left out. Many have rightly expressed frustration with the idea that they have no voice. According to their experience, they have been speaking the whole time. The problem is a matter of who is listening. Or rather, not listening. Pauline Oliveros, one of the subjects in the film, argues that listening is a form of activism and that through deep and inclusive listening, we can heal.

Gender discrimination, racism, and economic inequality are inseparable; they depend, above all, on attitudes held dear in private life. If we want a more just world, we’re going to need to change hearts and minds. So how do we bridge the distance that divides? Through a reimagining and liberation of storytelling that reflects complexity, ambiguity, and new possibilities, coupled with listening with intent and agency.

In the midst of America’s current social and political chaos, Oliveros’ case for listening couldn’t be more urgent. So, as her “Sonic Meditation” suggests, can we all please “Take a walk at night. Walk so silently that the bottoms of your feet become ears”?

“Sisters with Transistors” will screen at Sheffield Doc/Fest this fall, and will be part of the fest’s virtual lineup. Head over to the film’s site for more information.

Lisa Rovner is a French American artist and filmmaker based in London. Her films spring from her fascination with archives and her underlying aspiration to transform politics and philosophy into cinematic spectacle. Rovner has collaborated with some of the most internationally respected artists and brands including Pierre Huyghe, Liam Gillick, Sebastien Tellier, Maison Martin Margiela, and Acne. Her films have been presented internationally in art venues and theaters. “Sisters with Transistors” is her first feature documentary.

July 21, 2020
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