Re-Sisters review by Cosey Fanni Tutti – take three foreign women | Biography books
Ffirst, some introductions. Cosey Fanni Tutti – her name is a pun on Mozart’s borderline misogynist opera Cosi fan tutte (literally “that’s what women do”) – is a multimedia artist who first rose to prominence as a member of the 1970s arts collective COUM Transmissions and their sonic heirs, Throbbing Gristle. Her 2017 memoir, Art Sex Music, was as shocking as it was celebrated, chronicling a lifetime of challenging the mainstream through industrial music and mind-bending art. It also laid bare just how abusive and controlling his longtime former partner was: Genesis P-Orridge (d. 2020), Throbbing Gristle’s much more lionized chief irritant.
Delia Derbyshire shouldn’t require any thumbnail sketches. Often the only woman in the famous BBC Radiophonic Workshop, she was largely responsible for the Doctor Who theme music as well as many other pieces of incidental music. A lack of recognition, for electronic music in general and her own compositions, hampered her during her lifetime. To add insult to injury to the men who take credit for her work, this math and music prodigy had a complex personal life, in which alcohol, snuff and romantic partners hurt chosen have also compromised the expression of his talents.
After Art Sex MusicTutti was commissioned by actor and director Caroline Catz to score a documentary about Derbyshire life, Myths and Legendary Bandspairing one tenacious electronics pioneer with another.
Around the same time Tutti was listening to hours of loops of antique tapes found by the Derbyshire partner following his death in 2001, Tutti’s own Art Sex Music was itself transformed into a film with his collaboration, opening up questions of representation, truth and understanding of the inner life of others. In the little free time she had, Tutti (who now lives in East Anglia) read about the 15th century religious visionary Margery Kempe (of King’s Lynn) whose life story is considered the earliest known autobiography of a woman never recorded. .
Everywhere, parallels spring up in Tutti. And so Re-Sisters is a three-part account of foreign women and their works; how all three struggled to express themselves in male-dominated settings, often fighting oppressive injustice to make their “recordings” (whether on tape or paying a scribe-priest to lay it down on parchment ); how somehow the underrated Derbyshire, self-proclaimed mystic Kempe and the once reviled Tutti (much of his early work was pornographic in nature) were no longer just vindicated but greeted. As much as Derbyshire and Tutti were able to express their sexualities (being there in the late 60s and 70s helped), Kempe took control of his in a way that was unheard of for the time. She earned the church-given right not to sleep with her husband so she could remain chaste for Christ.
As far back as Kempe’s time was, Tutti and Derbyshire, meanwhile, often lived and worked within walking distance of each other in London in the 1970s, facing the same problems – the sexism that plagued the so-called egalitarian collectives – but never met, to Tutti’s great regret. Derbyshire has often been written about, but Tutti brings to her work the understanding of an electronic composer, as well as the insights one supposedly ‘difficult’ woman might have about another.
And while Re-Sisters Looks like a publisher-pushed book, Tutti has proven to be as fearless, knowledgeable, and incisive a writer of words as she has been an experimental left-wing artist. Still, Re-Sisters could have used a haircut anyway, cutting the tales of train and car journeys, avoiding some of the repetitions that are perhaps a little too often Tutti’s point of view.
But the parallels stand. If P-Orridge was a bad job, medieval clerics wrote the book on abusive control. Perhaps Margery Kempe’s greatest achievement is not chronicling her holy pilgrim’s progress, but staying alive as long as she did, surviving attacks and flouting authority. nun knowing better the scriptures than the big shot misogynists she met. Derbyshire was also often the most capable person in the room. The life of each of these women was their art, and their art their life, and Tutti pleads for an ipseity that must be expressed at all costs. But even as you applaud the stubborn streaks of these three women, you balk at the fact that the progress made between the 15th century, the 1970s and today isn’t much greater.
Re-Sisters: The Lives and Recordings of Delia Derbyshire, Margery Kempe and Cosey Fanni Tutti by Cosey Fanni Tutti is published by Faber (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply