The essence of documentaries in modern days is trying to keep away from talking heads and using seldom seen imagery to affect this idea. Ken and Ric Burns with their bigger productions have established this while others including with films like “the Kid Stays In The Picture” find new technological ways to bring their characters to life. In “Sisters Wirth Transistors” all of the music had been curated and on display for years and yet only a small sub set of the population knew about it. This is not club electronic dance music but the creation of true electronic music itself. Most of us even in the business, first really heard this intention with Wendy Carlos with her soundtrack to “A Clockwork Orange”, a theme from “The Shining” and then “Tron”. But the path before then is undeniable and fascinating. From the first air harmonizers to the complex structures that many of these women created, it paints the portrait of women in this sector (and many others) as not being taken seriously for their groundbreaking work. Delia Derbyshire breaking down the essence of certain sounds is like textbook in creating electronic music before computers. Pauline Oliveros has a story even more dynamic because of her more experimental approach as an exploration of self. Wendy Carlos’ story and how identity played a part into it is an eye opener. Unfortunately we only see a brief view into her life then with what footage is available. Carlos apparently has become somewhat of a recluse after her run of great soundtracks. But the film only examines “The Incredible Shrinking Woman” which again might have to do with clearances and footage available.
The symphony of sounds that run through the film really gives a sense of the talent that was passed over in many ways but yet the power of their voices still resonates, With everything that can be done with computers, it is not the same sounds. Like with chemical reaction on film, CGI cannot replicate true natural occurrences. That is what made Bebe Barron and her husband’s approach in the 50s with sounds so interesting. Her husband had the technology but Bebe found the way to compose it which gave way to the “score” for “Forbidden Planet” which is still ahead fo its time. The explanation of a certain pivotal scene is so metaphysical in a certain way that it gives one a glimpse into a reactionary creative process like no other. And yet the studio wouldn’t let it even be considered a score because they thought Barron would take work away from her male counterparts. Oliveros makes a good point that throughout history “why haven’t we heard of great female composers” on the range of Bach or Mozart. It was simply not encouraged. Of course now in certain circles again, film scoring for women is more accessible but it is still very hard. “Sisters With Transistors” exposes this travail while still reflecting the beauty of creation though certain angles (like that of Wendy Carlos) still remain vastly unexplored.
By Tim Wassberg