Politics, Aesthetics, and Deconstructed Binaries
Trans people are used to seeing ourselves refracted through the eyes of cis artists. Sometimes it’s done very well; more often it’s not. But what happens when we’re the ones making the art? Much has been written about video games, novels, and rock and pop music by trans artists, but our presence in the contemporary classical world has largely gone undiscussed. So here are nine pieces by trans composers which in some way reflect our experience of moving through the world—sometimes directly and sometimes obliquely, through text, symbolism, deconstructions of classical music’s traditional binaries, and deep dives into esoteric online subcultures.
Chrysanthe Tan - “if you lived in your body”
Chrysanthe Tan’s “if you lived in your body” (2016) is autobiographical and deeply personal. Its text is a response to a mantra suggested by Tan’s therapist—“if you lived in your body, you’d be home”—which set off a cascade of dysphoric thoughts. “My body is a terrible host,” they say at one point. “Would you want to stay there?” In a spirited defense of confessional literature, Leslie Jamison observes that its critics often use the language of the body, describing authors as “spilling [their] guts or bleeding on the page.” And it may be precisely for this reason that the confessional mode is so prevalent in trans art: it’s a way of externalizing a bodily situation that’s invisible to outsiders. Jamison also notes that “much of the writing that has been dismissed as simply ‘confessional’ is actually full of technical innovation and artistry, formal play and micro-mythologies.” That’s true of Tan’s piece as well, with its cycling and varying textual repetitions, many of them incorporating the words “body” and “home.”
Mari Ésabel Valverde - “Crossing”
Mari Ésabel Valverde’s “Crossing” (2017) takes a different approach, oriented towards the community rather than the individual. This time the text is not by the composer, but by one of her frequent collaborators, the queer two-spirit poet Amir Rabiyah. Valverde describes the poem as a metaphor for the risks of coming out: “The way of crossing is never easy, someone always looks down. We tremble knowing how far we can fall.” The chorus she wrote the piece for was 80 percent gay men, and in rehearsal, she asked them to name things that made them tremble. Their answers included scenarios like “walking home and being followed at night” and “being approached by a group of men saying ‘are you gay?’” “If you are not vulnerable,” the composer says, “you are not going to perform this piece accurately.” This sort of vulnerability is usually associated with confessional art, but the focus here is broader—“universal in tone,” as Valverde says of Rabiyah’s work.
brin solomon - “New Year’s Eve”
Where Tan speaks to their personal experience, and Valverde and Rabiyah speak to broad swath of humanity, brin solomon seeks to represent a variety of specific and often contradictory perspectives—what they call “the incoherence of trans experience.” Their song cycle “Defiant, Majestic and Beautiful,” which is still being written, includes both a song from a genderqueer point of view and a song from the perspective of an older trans woman who’s uncomfortable with nonbinary identities. Another depicts a clash of opinions at an activist meeting. The final number, “New Year’s Eve,” is an autobiographical account of going to an all-trans social event for the first time. “I felt like I could breathe freely for the first time in my life,” solomon sings in a breathy head voice, the harmonies blurring the boundary between musical theater and so-called art song. These days, they told me, they’re more comfortable singing in a baritone register, and one of their artistic goals is to decouple the traditional classical voice types from particular gender identities and presentations.
inti figgis-vizueta - “a bridge between starshine and clay”
inti figgis-vizueta works in a very different musical language from the three composers above, using indeterminate notation to unsettle the fixed roles of composer, performer and listener. “a bridge between starshine and clay” (2018), for instance, tells the pianist to “make space for [their] own interpretation.” figgis-vizueta describes this sort of instruction as a “liberatory practice,” designed to give greater agency to the performer and informed by her own position as a composer of color working within—and attempting to change—the social hierarchies of predominantly white institutions. But despite their different styles, backgrounds and methods, figgis-vizueta shares solomon’s interest in problematizing the relationship between gender and register. Here the high and low registers of the piano are connected by the systematic alternation of the performer’s hands, and at the end, there’s audible sympathetic resonance between the two. The bridge between starshine and clay, as the composer writes, is one “that joins, but also dissolves.”
Natalie Braginsky - “noises i made without using my vocal chords”
Another more abstract approach to the complicated and messy feelings that many trans people have about voices is simply to avoid using them—thus the title of Natalie Braginsky’s “noises i made without using my vocal cords” (2015). When Braginsky transitioned, she abruptly shifted from writing instrumental music to working primarily with electronics. She attributes her use of abrasive noise to the anger she felt at the time—a common feeling among trans people confronted with a world that’s not built with us in mind. Beyond that, the title suggests that these sounds are meant to take the place of the human voice—still a kind of personal expression, but one that’s detached from verbal signification and mediated by digital technology. Much of Braginsky’s work deals with ideas of construction and simulation; the URL of her website, for instance, is “natalie.computer.” And she’s not alone: the idea of the artificial self is an appealing alternative for many trans artists who have been failed by the concept of the “natural self”—the one that “Nature” or “God” or “Biology” provided at birth.
Jess Rowland - “Spambots”
Similar tendencies appear on Jess Rowland’s album “Spambots” (2014). In the title track, the composer approaches the idea of artifice from a variety of angles: the de-humanization of the voice through the use of speech synths, the abstraction and formalization of language through repetition (similar to Steve Reich’s early tape pieces), and the fact that the texts themselves appear to have been generated by actual spambots. At this point we are 180 degrees from Tan’s confessionalism and Valverde’s humanism, both expressed through real human voices. But I still hear this as distinctly trans music, and in fact, Rowland’s descriptions of her own work point to yet another corner of the trans media landscape. She calls her album “experimental muzak,” as well as “the sonic ruins of consumer bliss point singularity.” These descriptions are heavily evocative of vaporwave, a niche genre of electronic music and digital art that emerged at the beginning of this decade, influenced by mall soundtracks, smooth jazz, elevator music, and nostalgia for 1980s computer technology. And vaporwave itself has had a strong trans presence from the beginning, with artists like Ramona Xavier, Angel Marcloid, and Christa Isobel Lee.
Charles Céleste Hutchins - “The Dream of the 80s”
Unsurprisingly, the influence of vaporwave has begun to show in some corners of the contemporary classical world. Charles Céleste Hutchins, for instance, was drawn to the genre by its remixing of gendered iconography, particularly in its color schemes, and he has quite a few pieces that allude to it, including a plunderphonic Christmas album called “Christmawave.” His most direct tribute, however, is “The Dream of the 80s” (2016). Based on an actual ad for Cupertino Inn, it uses many common vaporwave techniques, including digital image glitching and slowed-down, looped musical samples. And like vaporwave, it has an equivocal relationship with its subject matter. “I thought it was extremely odd,” Hutchins writes on his website, “that they made an advert in 2010 that so completely and unintentionally embraced ‘80s nostalgia and human misery.” And yet, he admits, “early ‘90s muzak” was “a formative musical influence.”
Hedra Rowan - “hypnosis tape 1”
Vaporwave is an example of what Hedra Rowan calls “YouTube rabbit holes”—niche online cultures that seem to grow bigger the more you delve into them. The third and longest track on her album “feminization hypnosis tape 1” (2017) draws from another one: videos that purport to hypnotically transform the listener into a woman. The ostensible target audience is male crossdressers, but for obvious reasons, they also appeal to many trans woman before and in the early stages of transition. Like Hutchins, Rowan has a complex relationship with her material. “A lot of that stuff is really fucked up,” she says, referring to the genre’s often very patriarchal notions of womanhood, “but...if that worked, I’d be really happy.” (Of course, the “fucked up” elements of these videos are part of their appeal: like a lot of kink, feminization fantasies derive power from the cathartic eroticization of societal problems, anxieties and taboos.)
But Rowan takes her equivocal stance a step further, defamiliarizing the source material by using YouTube auto-captioning to transcribe it, which introduces surreal errors (“every time I put on my legs, I will carry them deep inside”). She then uses a speech synth to “perform” the text, which creates strange pauses and a sense of artifice similar to that of Rowland’s Spambots. Like Braginsky—whose music she’s released on her cassette label, Bodymilk Tapes—Rowan has a strong affinity for the digital. In a recent conversation, she told me that she’d been “reading, like, embarrassing amounts of Donna Haraway.” For her, Haraway’s notion of the cyborg works as a metaphor for the conscious creation of a new identity, which echoes the transformations we see in feminization hypnosis fantasies, but in a way that leaves their patriarchal elements in the dust.
Neo Hülcker - “copy!”
The image of the cyborg reappears in Neo Hülcker’s “copy!” (2016), which the composer describes as an “ASMR-cyborg-performance.” ASMR, short for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, refers to a pleasurable tingling sensation that some people get in response to certain stimuli, such as whispering voices, quiet crinkly or crumply sounds, and being touched in a nurturing way by hairstylists and manicurists. Unsurprisingly, another YouTube rabbit hole has sprung up around ASMR, with immense numbers of videos designed to elicit this response. Most of them feature young women, who are often positioned as caretakers, and sometimes portrayed as seductive. Hülcker themself creates ASMR videos under the name Thousand Tingles, and they frequently incorporate that persona into performance art and chamber music. In “copy!,” for instance, they whisper into a microphone and demonstrate the sonic characteristics of small objects while surrounded by laptops showing other ASMR artists’ YouTube channels.
As a nonbinary artist, however, Hülcker comes from a different perspective than the women who typically make these videos. When they first started doing it, they told me, they found it “liberating” to be able to perform in a female-coded way and have it understood as a performance, as opposed to having binary gender imposed on them in their day-to-day life. The cyborg trope appeals to them for similar reasons: “cyborgs have always [held] this potential of being these non-binary beings, non-binary in a gender way but also in a human/machine way,” which raises “questions about biology, artificiality, naturalness of a body or a body’s performance.” And if there’s any common element in these nine pieces, it’s a rejection of dichotomies: between composer and performer, song cycle and musical, high and low register, direct expression and formalism, art and advertising, real and constructed, human and nonhuman, male and female, and any framework that tells a simplistic story about what it means to be a person and have a body. Not all of these are explicitly related to being trans, of course. But many are—and as for the rest, I can say based on my own experience that the experience of discovering that there’s no place for you in our culture’s dominant model of gender can often lead to questioning other oversimplified accounts of the world as well. ¶