First, some introductions. Cosey Fanni Tutti – her name is a pun on the borderline misogynist Mozart opera Così fan tutte (literally “that’s what women do”) – is a multimedia artist who first made her reputation as part of 1970s art collective COUM Transmissions and their sonic heirs, Throbbing Gristle. Her 2017 memoir, Art Sex Music, was as shocking as it was celebrated, recounting a lifetime of challenging the mainstream through industrial music and eyebrow-raising art. It also laid horribly bare how abusive and controlling her long-ago former partner was: Throbbing Gristle’s far more lionised irritant-in-chief, Genesis P-Orridge (who died in 2020).
Delia Derbyshire should require no thumbnail sketch. Often the sole woman at the BBC’s famed Radiophonic Workshop, she was in great part responsible for the Doctor Who theme tune as well as numerous other pieces of incidental music. A lack of recognition, for electronic music generally and her own compositions, stymied her in her lifetime. To add injury to the insult of men taking the credit for her work, this maths and music whiz had a complex personal life, in which alcohol, snuff and ill-chosen romantic partners also compromised the expression of her talents.
Derbyshire was often the most capable person in the room
After Art Sex Music, Tutti was commissioned by the actor and director Caroline Catz to score a documentary about Derbyshire’s life, The Myths and the Legendary Tapes, pairing one dogged female electronic pioneer with another.
Around the same time as Tutti was listening to hours of antique tape loops found by Derbyshire’s partner in the wake of her death in 2001, Tutti’s own Art Sex Music was itself being made into a film with her cooperation, opening up questions of representation, truth and understanding of another’s internal life. In what little spare time she had, Tutti (who now lives in East Anglia) was reading up on the 15th-century religious visionary Margery Kempe (of King’s Lynn) whose life story is held to be the earliest known autobiography of a woman ever recorded.
Everywhere, parallels leapt out at Tutti. And so Re-Sisters is a three-pronged account of outsider women and their works; how all three struggled to express themselves within male-dominated milieus, often fighting against oppressive injustice to make their “recordings” (whether on magnetic tape, or paying a priest-scribe to lay it down on parchment); how, somehow, the underappreciated Derbyshire, the self-publicising mystic Kempe and the once-reviled Tutti (a lot of her early work was pornographic in nature) were now not just vindicated but saluted. As much as Derbyshire and Tutti were able to express their sexualities (being around in the late 60s-70s cusp helped), Kempe took control of hers in a way that was exceptional for the time. She earned the church-given right to not sleep with her husband so she could remain chaste for Christ.
As far away as Kempe’s time was, Tutti and Derbyshire, meanwhile, were often living and working within short distances of each other in London in the 70s, coming up against the same problems – the sexism rife in so-called egalitarian collectives – but never meeting, much to Tutti’s regret. Derbyshire has been written about often, but Tutti brings an electronic composer’s understanding to her work, as well as insights that a so-called “difficult” woman might have about another.
And while Re-Sisters has the air of a book urged on by a publisher, Tutti has proved to be as fearless, knowledgable and incisive a writer of words as she has been a left-field experimental artist. Still, Re-Sisters still could have used a haircut, trimming the diarist accounts of train and car journeys, avoiding some of the repetition that drives Tutti’s point home perhaps a few times too many.
But the parallels stand up. If P-Orridge was a nasty piece of work, medieval clergymen wrote the book on abusive control. Margery Kempe’s greatest achievement is, perhaps, not telling of her saintly pilgrim’s progresses but in having remained alive as long as she did, surviving attacks and flouting religious authority by being better versed in the scriptures than the big-hatted misogynists she came up against. Derbyshire was often the most capable person in the room too. Each of these women’s lives were their art, and their art their lives, and Tutti makes the case for a selfhood that must be expressed at all costs. But even as you applaud these three women’s stubborn streaks, you boggle at the fact that the progress made between the 15th century, the 1970s and now isn’t far 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