A Note from PICA Staff: PICA accepts and honors a multiplicity of interpretations and responses to our curation and presentation, including feedback, critique, call-outs, and call-ins, in addition to affirmation and praise. A.M. Rosales’ response to TBA Festival performance Contralto, with lead curation by Third Angle New Music Ensemble and co-presented by PICA, is unpacked below with eloquence, thoughtfulness, criticality, rigor, and generosity. Their sentiments toward and critiques of the piece are shared and have been conveyed to PICA by many others in the trans community and by audiences at large. While we support artists’ freedom of expression and curate with the understanding that not every project, performance, or exhibition will be received identically or event positively, we will specifically strive to more carefully consider in future how we present, describe, discuss, and price/ticket work by trans artists to a majority cis-gender audience, and invite trans community members–including artists, audiences, and advocates–to be part of that process with intention, ethics, and care. We appreciate that Rosales’ assessment of CONTRALTO is wide-ranging, and that while they had sound criticism, they also found many aspects of it to empathize with and praise. Finally, we wish to acknowledge the time and labor that went into writing this piece for Rosales. While we do provide modest compensation to our writers in exchange for TBA blog posts, the education and emotional labor that trans individuals and communities provide and perform on a constant basis to cis-gender society is impossible to compensate or economize, and we wish to name this and express our gratitude for it.
- Roya Amirsoleymani, Artistic Director & Curator of Public Engagement, PICA
A Note from the Author: Before responding to this performance, we need to reconsider how art venues and festivals curate, promote, and present art and artists that draw from the transgender experience. The experiences of transgender people – our identities, our gained insights, and our lived-in moments – are experiences that we carry in our bodies and exact effort from us every day of our lives. Monetizing these experiences comes with a high risk for exploitation. When such performances and events become inaccessible to the trans community itself – especially trans women of color who empirically face a lot of barriers to financial stability – it contributes to the radical othering of trans people. When this performance was first announced, tickets were set at $35. This in spite of local corporate sponsorship. Contralto, as it was initially offered by Third Angle and the PICA’s TBA Festival program, was an exploitation of transgender experiences.
When members of the trans community voiced these concerns, including Kerry Yamaucci, an accomplished vogue performer and a feature of the local ball room scene, PICA responded by engaging the co-presenters, establishing a sliding scale, and offering comp tickets to members of the LGTBQ community. While this was swift and corrective action, it came a day before the first performance was scheduled to occur and no doubt left many members of the community scrambling. It is necessary for Third Angle New Music Ensemble, PICA, and the composer Sarah Hennies to seriously reconsider why this event was initially curated as it was and be very concerned for how this work may be presented in the future.
- A.M. Rosales
Contralto is an experimental work of music and film with a score for percussion and strings and a non-narrative documentary element with a cast of transgender women performing a series of speech feminization therapy exercises. The work of composer Sarah Hennies, a trans woman herself, was co-presented by Third Angle New Music Ensemble and PICA as part of the 2018 TBA Festival.
Contralto exists outside the confines of traditional music; it is inherently anti-capitalist by rejecting commercialization. Sarah Hennies belongs to a whole subset of musicians that ask the audience to reconsider songs and consider all intentional sound as music. The score relies heavily on repetition and endurance and offers a dense sound palette. Its instrumentation features a collection of found percussion and a deliberate use of strings that mimic the vocal exercises being performed by the women on the prerecorded footage.
The sound vocabulary in Contralto is enigmatic and certainly contains allusions and associations. Some of the percussion used include: keys being tossed (doors, locks, travel, cars); coins being dropped in a bowl (money, cost, expense); paper being crumpled (drafts, mistakes, bills, receipts); cards being shuffled (chance, luck, randomness); a chain being picked up and dropped onto a metal plate (attachment, confinement, burden, weight) among others. The strings appear to mimic the vocal exercises, as they play specific notes and tones – a cold reminder of the brutal exactitude of our idea of pitch and key. I enjoyed the contrast offered by the two-dimensional movements of the cello players against the three-dimensional movements of the percussionists, although a cluttered stage obscured the element of music as choreography. All of the sounds in Contralto work in conjunction with the sounds made by the cast of trans women. These are sounds not commonly found in performances, recordings, or the public space. These are the sounds of trans women undergoing vocal feminization therapy. The title Contralto is a reference to the lowest female singing voice as socially constructed in the classical and liturgical traditions of western music (soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, baritone, and bass) although no single system of voice classification is universally accepted.
The women in the footage are projected onto the screen, their faces detached from their bodies, in a documentary view that borders on voyeuristic as they repeat these sounds, bits of phrases, and tones. The performers on stage provide all of the physical movement dislocated from the facial expressions of the women on screen. It is this iconic and problematic feature that perhaps would take Contralto out of the realm of experimental music and onto wider audiences. It is impossible to witness the footage of transgender women performing exercises designed by speech pathologists to “feminize” the range, resonance, and intonation of their voices without calling attention to the long history of pathologization of the transgender community.
It may be useful to establish a timeline, so that we can summarize quickly. The Stone Wall Riots occurred a year after the first edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders was published. It is crucial to note that while “homosexuality” was removed from the manual four years later in 1973, various clinical criteria to diagnose and treat “transvestism,” “transsexuality,” or “gender identity disorder” remained in the manual thru all future editions until 2012. One cannot watch these women on screen without acknowledging that the modern gay rights movement was launched by trans women of color, the very same women that would not benefit from the psychiatric normalization experienced by the gay community in the early 70’s. Those women would be subjected to a variety of “therapeutic interventions” rife with mistreatment, abuse, and violence for an additional forty (40) years. While the medical community, including speech pathologists, have recently acknowledged that transgender identities are a matter of diversity—not pathology—progress has been slow and many forms of clinical intervention remain as intrusive and as problematic as ever. In a society where artistic expression is often the only means by which marginalized people can participate in the social discourse, it is artistically irresponsible to present Contralto to a majority cis-audience without any context.
The subjects of the film are so vulnerable, yet unable to verbalize their stories. They exist in the words of others, in the words of pathologists. I wondered, where is the composer’s voice? Where is Sarah Hennies’ voice? Why are these women recorded instead of performing with the musicians? As I watch these women on screen, their humanity hangs by a string. I wondered, have those women found community? Are they being compensated for sharing their likeness? Are they being paid as much as the performers on stage? I was especially concerned for trans women of color. Do they have stable housing? Have they found a source of income? Are they safe?
Contralto arranges these women and their voices as just another component of its score, which centers percussion at the core of its arrangement. As a sound composition, it carries a lot to its merit, but art that centers trans people needs to acknowledge that transgender people exist in every culture, come in every shape and size and every skin tone, belong to congregations of every faith, and are born to families of every social standing and economic position. Our community as a whole intersects and samples the most diverse range of human experiences – but especially amplified experiences with the ills and injustices of our society. If poverty is harsh, it is harsher for a transgender person. If having a disability is tough, it is tougher for a transgender person. If racial profiling is bad, it is worse for a transgender person. If immigration is hard, it is harder for a transgender person. If the industrial prison complex is brutal, it is even worse for a transgender person. It is even more brutal. And if the inclusion of transgender artists and their voices is an attempt to include and center trans people, then that work must come with some deep introspection about race and equity because these matters aren’t marginal or peripheral for the trans community.
With 80% of Americans reporting that they do not personally know a transgender individual, our community is not very visible in the public eye; certainly not in our own terms. Beyond stories of awe and shock-value reserved for daytime television, our community is often the subject of documentary features that offer us the same reverence afforded a defunct cult or a species of sea slug never-before photographed in the wild. I can think of no other group in the history of digital media that has been more publicly vilified than transgender people. Our humanity is constantly being called into question, with trans women being projected as proto-rapists during election cycles all over the country, regardless of which party controls our political institutions. Progress has been so slow largely because of that long history of pathologization. And while transphobia hurts us every day, it is this culture of indifference and callousness towards trans people that in the end kills us. It is important that we come together, have conversations, and struggle collectively, in order to acknowledge that the intersectionality of our experiences does not come from sharing a label, but from encountering, surviving, and enduring the brutal hurdles that come from living on the underside of American life. Contralto fails to address this is any meaningful way.
As for me, a transgender immigrant from South America, I wondered where speech pathology could take me. If exercises created by pathologists could transform my accent, a tell-tell sign that English is my second language, and allow me to speak perfectly unaccented Standard American English like they do on NPR; and if exercises created by pathologists could feminize my voice so perfectly – what would I sound like? And what does a transgender immigrant from Bolivia sound like, anyway? And what is this relationship we have with ourselves, our trajectory through life, and our voices?
Sarah Dougher, professor of music and gender studies at PSU, interviewed Sarah Hennies, on Thursday afternoon and I was able to hear some of their exchange. I found myself learning about Hennies, and empathizing and identifying with her experiences. I, too, survived my adolescence by making sounds. I spent hours recording an old guitar on a four-track recorder with a cheap microphone. As I picked up other instruments, I too developed my own unique and intentional relationship with sound. When I was learning to play the drums, I remember practicing rim-shots on my snare drum. I would just sit there for a long while. Counting in time. Repeating this motion. Attempting to produce the right sound. Time after time. Day after day. Week after week. Those of us who also developed a relationship with performance, with rehearsing something until it becomes completely natural to do it in front of strangers, must ask ourselves: when did we discover that we were musicians? Do sounds have a gender? And what does every instrument sound like? And aren’t our voices just another instrument? And what is to be said about our difficult relationship with silence? For most of my adolescence, I was speechless. I had just emigrated from Bolivia and I couldn’t speak English, I was essentially voiceless in America. But even in my native Spanish, I couldn’t very well explain in words how come it was that I was transgender. Even to myself. All I knew is that I was profoundly unhappy. It is here, at this very personal level, that I connect with Contralto. This musical composition comes to me as a profound meditation on voice and a prolonged exercise in discomfort. Which is an apt and very valid metaphor for dysphoria.
As for the cis gaze – what would I want the general cisgender audience to take away from this performance?
I hope they heard something that unsettled them, that unnerved them, that maybe even unhoused them a little. Because there is no new knowledge created, no maturity or growth gained, without an intense experience of discomfort.
A.M. Rosales is a multidisciplinary artist from Cochabamba, Bolivia presently based out of Portland, Oregon. They hold a Literature degree from George Mason University and their favorite rodent is the capybara. A Pride Foundation Scholar, a Teacher Apprentice at Writers-In-The-Schools, and an MFA Fiction candidate at Portland State University, they draw on the liminality of their immigrant and transgender experiences to create visual, written, and performed works of art.