‘They were all boundary breakers’: The films celebrating the overlooked women pioneers of electronic music

Jochan Embley
·6-min read
<p>Innovator: Maryanne Amacher is one of the seminal electronic artists featured in a new documentary, Sisters With Transistors</p> (Peggy Weil)

Innovator: Maryanne Amacher is one of the seminal electronic artists featured in a new documentary, Sisters With Transistors

(Peggy Weil)

It was many years after Caroline Catz first heard the Doctor Who theme tune — a piece of electronic music that would, over time, help to demystify the art form in the minds of the British public, but that “terrified” Catz as a child and sent her “diving behind the sofa along with pretty much everyone I knew who watched it” — that she finally learnt who was responsible for this otherworldly sound.

“It wasn’t until the Nineties that I actually knew the theme — that powerful, atmospheric soundscape — was created by this female composer who I’d never even heard of,” Catz says. “And I remember thinking, why have I never heard of this person? She sounds incredible.”

The woman in question, Catz soon found out, was Delia Derbyshire, whose time spent within the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop in the Sixties, splicing tape reels and manipulating sound to open up a portal to this strange new sonic realm, shaped electronic music as we know it. It has also inspired Catz’s latest film, Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and The Legendary Tapes, a fittingly abstract and deeply felt retelling of the pioneer’s life and work.

The project roots back to 2007, six years after Derbyshire’s passing, when a trove of 267 reel-to-reel tapes were found in her loft. “I was straight onto the phone saying, ‘Is there any way I can come and listen to these?’” Catz remembers. When she did get to hear the “handcrafted tapestries of sound”, as Catz describes them, “it felt like an invitation to enter the world that Delia created”, a sort of “proto-virtual reality”.

“She entered my imagination”, says Catz, who plays Derbsyhire in the film, which she also wrote and directed. “It was a really powerful experience, spending time in the company of someone whose spirit is so strong that she continues to inspire even after her death.”

Caroline Catz as Delia Derbyshire in her new filmBBC/Anti-worlds film and television
Caroline Catz as Delia Derbyshire in her new filmBBC/Anti-worlds film and television

Those tapes proved just how prolific Derbyshire was, but it is the Doctor Who theme, released in 1963, that remains her most famous achievement. However, it wasn’t until just a few years ago that she was given proper credit. Ron Grainer wrote the score, and it was the brilliance of Derbyshire’s musique concrète techniques, morphing the noise of a plucked string and test-tone oscillators, that birthed this alien sound. Grainer asked for Derbyshire to be given a co-composer credit, but the BBC wanted members of the Radiophonic Workshop to remain anonymous. It wasn’t until 12 years after her death that Derbyshire’s name was featured in the closing credits of a Doctor Who episode.

“I often wonder — and this is a hunch — if it was a male musician who had been an electronic music pioneer and realised the Doctor Who theme tune, whether or not you would have heard about them,” Catz says.

That idea of underappreciated female genius getting its long overdue credit is something that runs through Sisters With Transistors, a new documentary that celebrates a number of the 20th century’s most important electronic pioneers; women who forged new paths, both artistically and societally, with their craft.

Built on a wealth of archive material, the film brings its subjects to life with revelatory effect. The shots of the Lithuanian musician Clara Rockmore giving a virtuoso performance on the theremin, played by sculpting thin air rather than touching the instrument itself, feels like something close to wizardry; witnessing American artist Suzanne Ciani navigating the unwieldy tangle of wires on the space-age Buchla synthesiser, you wonder how she’s coaxing out a sound that is quite so beautiful. Even just hearing them speak, or watching the footage that captures them in more unguarded moments, gives the women a warmth so lacking in the male-dominated history of electronic music.

The women in Sisters with Transistors (Derbyshire among them) “were all interested in the same medium, but their music is so idiosyncratic and unique,” says filmmaker Lisa Rovner. That said, there were some strands that loosely tied them together, in spirit if not necessarily sound. Their instruments were “tools of resistance and liberation,” Rovner says. And not only were “they fighting the societal barriers of the sexist, patriarchal world,” she adds, “they were also fighting against the establishment, and people who didn’t consider what they were doing to be worthy of being called music”.

The documentary tells us about Bebe Barron, who, alongside husband Louis, crafted the first ever entirely electronic film score for the 1956 sci-fi movie Forbidden Planet, but were forced to refer to it as “electronic tonalities” after the tech-fearing Musicians Union kicked up a stink. In Catz’s film, we learn of the genuine concerns from some corners of the medical community that these unearthly noises could cause serious mental disturbance, were somebody to be exposed to them for too long. And then there were the moments of blatant, dismissive sexism: Derbyshire being told that Decca Records doesn’t employ women, or the French composer Éliane Radigue having to endure the casual misogyny from male technicians while working in a studio, when she was “just there to learn”.

Daphne Oram, co-founder of the BBC’s Radiophonic WorkshopDaphne Oram
Daphne Oram, co-founder of the BBC’s Radiophonic WorkshopDaphne Oram

So while there are a number of reminders how these women were, as Catz says, “working in systems not designed for them, which is basically [the case] a lot of the time, and still goes on”, neither film is lacking in examples of how they triumphed over opposition — like Daphne Oram, whose perseverance led to the set-up of the the Radiophonic Workshop in the 1950s, after she cobbled together any equipment she could get her hands on, and worked after hours in the corridors of the BBC until the organisation finally acquiesced.

It speaks volumes of Oram’s deep desire to experiment with sound that she turned down a hugely prestigious place at the Royal College of Music to instead work as a junior studio engineer at the BBC. “It’s a kind of crazy confidence, right?” says Rovner. “They’re all risk takers and boundary breakers, and truly courageous women.”

Even today, female representation in electronic music leaves a lot to be desired — at Creamfields, one of the UK’s most prominent dance music festivals, the line-up is 93 per cent male — which means Rovner’s and Catz’s films resonate very much within the modern world.

“And it’s not just women,” Rovner says. “It’s people of colour, it’s people from lower income backgrounds — it’s the whole world [that] needs change. But I definitely feel like now is a good time to do that work, and I think the only way we will really get there is by sharing these stories, by being open to rewriting history and reconsidering: what is the canon?”

Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and The Legendary Tapes is on BBC Four in May, presented as part of the BBC’s programming around the Coventry UK City of Culture 2021. Sisters With Transistors is in virtual cinemas from April 23, with information on how to watch here.

Read More

Will the 2021 Oscars be the weirdest ceremony in Academy history?

The new TV shows and films landing on Netflix in May

Film al fresco: London’s top drive-in cinemas and best outdoor cinema

Sound On: how TikTok became the world’s radio station