Review: Together Together and Sisters With Transistors

Modern love and future sounds.


Together Together is a romcom without the rom. It's an offbeat inquiry into the possibility of platonic love between a man and a woman. Ed Helms and Patti Harrison are just about perfect as Matt, a lonely, 45-year-old app designer, and Anna, a 26-year-old barista whom Matt has hired as a surrogate mother for the baby he wants to ground his life with.

"When I hang out with my settled friends," Matt says, "I feel sad for what I want and don't have. And when I hang out with my single friends, I feel sorry for what I have and don't want."

Anna plans to use the money Matt is paying for the use of her uterus to finally get a college degree. She's a little puzzled about Matt's motivation for seeking single parenthood. "Why are you doing this alone?" she asks. "Because I am alone," he says. (His last romance lasted eight years, "but it just didn't work out.")

Issues arise, of course. Matt is a naturally warm kind of guy, but Anna wants to maintain boundaries. When he asks if she'd like to move into a spare room in his house, she says, "I think you've watched too many Woody Allen movies." He also says things like, "Let's get some houseplants." But it soon becomes clear that he's not hitting on her. Their relationship is fundamentally bittersweet. Although they'll soon be parents, Anna is unable to share in any of the traditional prenatal glow. (When she convinces Matt to have a baby shower and agrees to attend it herself, she finds herself awkwardly surrounded by his friends and family, and introduced around as "the surrogate.") The script, by director Nicole Beckwith, probes Matt and Anna's relationship more deeply than you might expect going in.

Ed Helms is a master at projecting warmth and concern, and Patti Harrison, who steps up into stardom here, creates an irresistible portrayal of a slightly sour young woman who's already logged some serious pain in life, but isn't ready to give up. In the end, she tells Matt that she actually does love him—"but not in a gross way."

Sisters with Transistors

Computer music was once dismissed as cold and inhuman, but Suzanne Ciani, a veteran of the electronics avant-garde, has argued against that notion from the outset of her career. In Lisa Rovner's Sisters with Transistors—a revelatory repositioning of several pioneers of electronic music who happened to be women—we see Ciani at a 1974 art gallery performance. She is standing in front of an iconic Buchla synthesizer, a welter of knobs and dials and patch cords controlled by a small keyboard. Addressing her audience, all sitting in the traditional position of cross-legged meditation on the floor, she is refuting the cold-and-inhuman canard.

"I think they're sensual," Ciani says, looking back at her own introduction to music synthesizers. "The machine was alive, it was warm, it communicated. You could move something just the littlest bit and a whole new expression would open up."

"Women are naturally drawn to electronic music," says Laurie Anderson, the perfect narrator for a documentary about this subject. "You didn't have to be accepted by any of the male-dominated resources: the radio stations, the record companies, the concert-hall venues. You can make music with electronics and you can present it directly to an audience. And that gives you tremendous freedom."

So we see. Among the musicians assembled here is Clara Rockmore, a Lithuanian violinist who came to America, met the Russian physicist Leon Theremin, another immigrant, and helped him refine his misterioso electronic invention, the theremin, which was controlled by two antennas (the player never had to touch the instrument) and is often thought to have been used in the score of the 1956 movie Forbidden Planet.

That's not so, though. Forbidden Planet, did have the first all-electronic movie score, but it was actually the work of the New York team of Bebe and Louis Barron, who created some of the film's otherworldly sounds by overloading electronic circuit boards. "The dying of Morbius," Bebe says in the film, "was the actual dying of the circuits." Somewhat outrageously, the American Federation of Musicians refused to allow the Forbidden Planet soundtrack to be marketed as "music."

"We were barely acknowledged as composers," says Bebe, still pissed after all these years.

Also royally screwed over was Delia Derbyshire, an English composer and mathematician who was employed by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in the 1960s. Derbyshire attained a kind of sci-fi immortality in 1963, when she created the soundtrack theme for a new BBC show called Doctor Who. The theme had been written by another composer, Ron Grainer, but Derbyshire's electronic ministrations utterly transformed it. Naturally, the BBC decided that since she was a mere staffer, she couldn't be credited for her work, which was featured on Doctor Who for the next 17 years.

Let us not dwell on injustices, however. Another electro-composer examined here is Maryanne Amacher, a woman who is frankly all about the noise. ("I didn't want to push around dead white men's notes," she says.) Amacher gives off a strong mad scientist vibe, and we see her rattling the walls of her bomb site home while cranking up the volume for two visitors—Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore (whose forefingers are pressed tightly into each of his ears throughout).

One of the most captivating musicians interviewed here is Laurie Spiegel, a 1970s denizen of the fabled (and now defunct) Bell Labs synth music research center in Murray Hill, New Jersey. Unusually, Spiegel is both a folkie and a ukulele player (and writes her own software, too). Spiegel sees the synthesized music of today as only a beginning. "We want to put music back in touch with itself," she says. "We've only begun the scratch the surface of what's possible."