Heartbeeps

Watched Lisa Rovner’s SISTERS WITH TRANSISTORS which is very good. A documentary history of women pioneers of electronic music. They’ve got such great archive — even the tape damage, or the cracks on an old polaroid, add atmosphere. Watched a few music docs lately and this one did the best job of integrating the music and giving it the right amount of prominence while keeping a narrative flowing — probably helped that the music doesn’t tend to depend on lyrics so it’s extremely suited to underscoring interviews.

Wendy Carlos turns up, and is the only one to get a negative review from another artist (all the interviews are audio-only, so we can enjoy more archive film and tape) — the suggestion is that recreating Bach etc was a retrograde move, where electronica should be about finding new forms.

But no mention is made of the fact that Wendy Carlos started as Walter Carlos, though in the film clip she has sideburns. This seems strange, almost squeamish. The story is an interesting one, and the fact of Carlos’ inclusion should obviate any suggestion of transphobia: a trans woman is being featured in a doc about women in electronic music. You could get all TERF-y and argue that Carlos enjoyed popular success as a man and so didn’t suffer under the handicap of starting out as a woman in a patriarchal society, but after all she had to battle through life with gender dysmorphia and survive publicly transitioning in a world even more hostile to trans people than to women, and continued her career under a new name. I guess addressing any of this would make the critique of her work as a step backwards seem awkward — but if I had the choice I’d rather pay tribute to Carlos than slam her, and I’d rather acknowledge her particular specialness than ignore it.

Of course I’m always overjoyed to get any Delia Derbyshire content — here I learned new stuff, like about her working-class origins and her studying mathematics at Cambridge. And I heard it in her own weirdly cut-glass voice, now perceptibly an overlay on top of less posh speech patterns. And she talks about being drawn to the air-raid siren and the all-clear signal as heard during her Coventry childhood (a city almost bombed flat in the war) — “that’s a sound that you hear, and you don’t know the source of it… as a young child… it’s an abstract sound… and it’s meaningful.”

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11 Responses to “Heartbeeps”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Kubrick loved working with Wendy Carlos, and that tops everything. Trans-phobes can take a fling prehistoric bone!

  2. Tony Williams Says:

    Delia Derbyshire deserves further acclaim for her pioneering work. While Verity Lambert is now recognized for her work as producer on both BBC and ITV, Delia’s status has an innovator within the now closed down BBC Radiophonic Workshop deserves more emphasis.

  3. She was instrumental in getting the workshop established, it seems: the BBC didn’t want an experimental music studio.

  4. I think Wendy Carlos had been Wendy since the late 60s and was doing Walter-drag in some early-fame appearances for fear of public rejection – she had glued-on sideburns and a literal pencil moustache. Public rejection never fully materialised, though, and she came to regard all the worry as a “monstrous waste of years”, which i suppose might seem like a sad thing for people who always look back the way, but a happy one for anybody who is aimed in a forward direction.

  5. Wonderful! Should have done my research.

    There may have been regret looking back, but the sense of relief going forward must have been tremendous.

    The trouble with the doc not mentioning any of this is it leaves the viewer wondering for no good reason.

  6. Fiona Watson Says:

    It’s interesting to note that Suzanne Ciani states that she was the first woman to compose a score for a Hollywood feature film (The Incredible Shrinking Woman 1980) and that it didn’t happen again until 14 years later. Wendy Carlos scored Tron in 1982.

  7. Angela Morley, who had done remarkable work for The Goon Show under her birth name, Wally Stott, scored lots of films, and was living as AM when she scored The Little Prince, a Hollywood film — but she’s uncredited on it.

  8. And Bebe Barron did Forbidden Planet back in the fifties. True, her husband Louis was co-credited, but he built the circuits for her to torture, she made the music. Due to the musician’s union’s pressure, the Barrons were only credited with “electronic tonalities,” but I think it still puts Ciani’s position in a new light, as part of an existing micro-tradition.

  9. Maybe Suzanne Ciani was the first woman to score a Hollywood movie completely solo and it didn’t happen again for ages? The TRON soundtrack had a couple of non-Wendy additions from Journey if one wants to pick nits (I don’t).

  10. Fiona Watson Says:

    Angela Morley was the first openly transgender person to get an Oscar nomination. In fact she was nominated twice, for The Little Prince 1974 and The Slipper And The Rose 1976. (they were both shared noms) I’m still fizzing that Bebe Barron (Forbidden Planet) didn’t get credit as a composer but they didn’t consider electronic music to be music in 1956. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p0AsvKqHduU Alone 1931 is the first film to incorporate an electronic instrument, the theremin, into a score. Alone was composed by Shostakovich. The film is available to watch and listen to on YouTube but I haven’t checked to find out if the theremin section is included.

  11. I now learn that Shirley Walker was active around the same time as Ciani, and got her first solo score credit in 1983, for John Flynn’s Touched. It’s still shocking there were so few so recently, but Ciani’s statement isn’t accurate.

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