We listen back to an interview with Sarah Hennies, the composer of a piece called “Contralto.” It’s part music, part documentary, and it features the voices of transgender women.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
DAVE MILLER: The artist and musician Sarah Hennies’ piece, “Contralto” is based on a physiological fact you may not be aware of. When trans men transition and take testosterone, their voices deepen, but when trans women take estrogen, their voices stay the same. Hennies knows this well. She’s trans herself and a percussionist and composer. After she transitioned, she took what’s known as a voice feminization class. It eventually led her to create her work “Contralto”. I spoke to her in 2018 when the piece premiered at Portland’s Time-Based Art Festival. I started by asking her what a contralto is.
SARAH HENNIES: In traditional choral music, there are different categories of singers that are separated by gender, male and female. So the ones most people know - soprano, alto, tenor, bass - are the kind of standard choir. A contralto is considered the lowest of the female singing voices. So when I was trying to think of a title for this piece, that just kind of came to me one day where I don’t even remember how I thought of it. But at some point there was that thought of, well what do you call something lower than an alto? And it’s contralto. And on the other side for masculine people, a male singer in about the same range as a contralto is called a counter tenor. But I just thought it was, as far as a title, pretty good at being very direct, but also kind of summing up what this thing is.
MILLER: How did you decide you wanted to go to this kind of class?
HENNIES: After I transitioned, I was very resistant to voice change when I was first transitioning. And a friend of mine who was one of the initial inspirations for this piece had transitioned several years earlier. She speaks in a very high squeaky, cute voice. And one day I was hanging out with her before I started transitioning and she [said], “I can still do my old voice, look”. And she started talking in this really deep voice. At that time, I didn’t know that your voice doesn’t change when you transition. It was a joke I always made. It’s like a fun little surprise on the way. Eventually, you have that moment where you’re like, ‘you mean my voice isn’t going to change?’ And that was one of the initial inspirations for this piece.
MILLER: That ‘surprise’ you mean?
HENNIES: Yeah. One of the things she said to me that day or not too much later, when I was [saying], ‘why do I have to change my voice? I don’t wanna do what society makes me do, blah, blah, blah’. She [said], “Oh, I felt that way too, but the more and more people start perceiving you as female, the more and more uncomfortable you’ll be with a deep voice. And she was totally right. And even now, I haven’t really drastically changed the way that I speak from how I spoke several years ago. And I’m uncomfortable about it all the time.
MILLER: What’s an example of when that might happen? - When the disconnect that people experience between what they see of you and who they think you are and what happens when you start talking. When do you feel that?
HENNIES: One of the most common [times] is on the phone. The job that I just left a few months ago, I was a receptionist and an events coordinator and I was just talking to people constantly. Every single time the phone rings, there’s that tiny little part of you (or maybe not so tiny part of you) that [says] they’re gonna think you’re a man. That happens all the time. And it’s very hard because it’s different when they can’t see you because oftentimes if someone sees you and immediately reads you as male or female, then they’re willing to accept a lot more variation in what they considered to be conventionally male or female.
MILLER: Because you’re getting these other visual cues or whatever? And so then they have a bigger aperture of what’s humanly possible, right?
HENNIES: And there’s a great trans woman writer by the name of Julia Serano who, in her book Whipping Girl, talks a lot about how people are constantly all day every day, making snap judgments about what they think, the [gender of the] person they’re looking at, without realizing it. It’s just something that we do innately as people. As soon as you walk into a room part of you is [thinking] man woman, and it’s just delineated into these hard categories. It’s very difficult for people who are not obviously one or the other.
MILLER: So you started out, in the process of transitioning, being resistant to the idea of changing your voice and then your friend, it turns out, was right in terms of what you would experience as that went on. And so you change your mind about the class and eventually decide to take these voice feminization classes. Is that a fair way to put it?
HENNIES: Yeah, I did it because I was so frustrated and I found it, for some reason - I don’t know if it’s because I’m a musician, I’m a sound person or what - but for some reason I have found this one thing very difficult. So I [thought] ‘well I’ll take a class and then that will help me’. It didn’t really work out that way, unfortunately, but then I got this great piece of art out of it. So not a total wash.
MILLER: You should make a t-shirt [that says, laughingly] ‘I took voice transition class and all I got was this amazing piece of art’. Can you describe the first day of your class?
HENNIES: This class is offered for free at Ithaca College. This kind of class is really unusual. I should say it’s very cool that they have that, especially in a town as small as Ithaca. But actually one of the people in “Contralto” is the speech pathologist who founded this class. I got her to be in it [the film]. So you walk in and you’re around the table. They say that the class is for anyone anywhere on the trans spectrum who wishes to change their voice. But of course there are no trans masculine people in this class. I’m sure that some have taken it because I’ve had trans men tell me that this piece has resonated with them because trans men’s voices change. But they often may not change in a way that makes them feel comfortable.
MILLER: Not as much as they might be hoping for?
HENNIES: Exactly. So I don’t mean to say that trans men don’t need this kind of class. But by and large, the people that take it are transfeminine people. It was a very, very interesting experience. I had a lot of issues with how it was taught and the content of the class. But one of the things I noticed is that - I live in a pretty rural area surrounded by a lot of rural towns - there were multiple older women who were there because they did not know that Ithaca has a support group for trans people. One person even said, “this is the only time I’ve ever been out in front of anyone, ever”.
MILLER: This was a kind of stand in for a support group for people who didn’t know or who didn’t have access to what was truly envisioned as a support group?
HENNIES: Part of why this ended up becoming the whole focus of this piece, “Contralto”, is because I found the class so emotionally charged. Because, each class would start and you’d walk in and Josie, the class teacher, would say, “how’s everybody doing?” And there were a lot of people there who really badly needed to talk to other trans people. So the class had this whole other arm of people getting to be around and be themselves and speak openly about who they are. And then we would break off into little groups and you would go sit in a little room with your partner and then just do these weird vocal exercises for an hour. And then you’d go home and come back to do it all over again the next week for a whole semester.
MILLER: I want to hear one of the excerpts from the piece, which may actually be a version of one of the exercises that you can tell us about. But it seems like you gave the women in your piece and your performance a really hard task. We hear some tones, some of them contrasting at different frequencies at the same time and then they had to sing one back. That’s what we’re going to hear. Here is an excerpt from “Contralto”:
[excerpt alternates between dissonant tone set and a human vocalizing in an attempt to replicate the pitch]
Uh huh. Oh. Mhm. Uh huh. Mhm. Oh no. Um
MILLER: That was an excerpt from my guest Sarah Hennies’ work “Contralto” which is going to be having its West Coast premiere tomorrow and Friday nights as part of the Time-Based Art Festival here in Portland. Is that what we just heard? [00:09:48.110] Is that a version of the kind of exercise you have to do in the actual class?
HENNIES: That is one of the many many warm up exercises. But it seems a little bit like torture. I mean the human voice can’t sing two things at once. Well, the exercise in the class does not have multiple pitches. They would use a little piano and the pitch goes from an octave below Middle C up to G and then back down. And that range is what speech pathologists say separates what will always be read as male and what will always be read as female.
And I don’t remember the frequency in hertz numbers but it’s that bottom C = male, high G = female. And in between = gender neutral. So I put this warm up of going from C up to G and back down. But then, I messed up the example tones on purpose because I had a lot of conversations with a good friend of mine in Australia named Chloe Escott who’s a great band called The Native Cats and also is a comedian writer. She’s amazing. But we were trying to figure out a different part of this piece and we collectively came up with the fact that we thought a good way of describing dysphoria is when you have to do really normal stuff. But then there’s this other thing that makes everything much harder than it needs to be because you have to deal with two things at the same time or many things obviously. It was kind of a little joke that I would have this very dry, dull vocal warm up and then have the example pitches be wrong basically.
MILLER: One of the reasons I want to play that is because they’re also parts that we can even hear that are funny despite the really intense emotional aspect to a lot of this and the pain that’s embedded in the experience of some of these women. You also capture some of the humor here. Why did you want to do that?
HENNIES: There’s a lot of reasons for that. I won leading up to this piece. I have a solo piece called “Falsetto” that I have been playing a lot that is very similar. It is very funny, but then it’s also very dark. And I really liked creating this experience of doing something where it’s not exactly clear what you’re supposed to think of it. And I had it happen.
Someone came up to me after a solo performance once and he was very nervous and said, “can I ask you, is it, is it okay that I laughed at that?” And it’s like, ‘well, did you think it was funny? Yeah, then it’s okay’. And so I, as a composer, really like creating these situations where you have to decide for yourself, how you feel about something. And that is a big conceptual part of this piece. There’s something internal to this piece that trans people and trans women especially have access to that cis gender audiences do not. And there is no compensating for that.
MILLER: What do you think as a cis gender straight guy talking to you right now. What do you think I didn’t have access to? [Something] I simply couldn’t get watching this performance?
HENNIES: It’s not like there’s a list of things exactly. But I guess a good example is that I make a connection between experimental music and being trans. Because there is this tendency if your average person on the street has never heard experimental music before or if they’ve never met or heard of trans people before. And you’re like this person was born as one thing and they decided that they needed to be this other thing or you play them some experimental music and the reaction is, ‘these people are crazy.’ And they’re not crazy.
There’s actually a very complex sophisticated system of rules and logic that are governing both of these things. It’s just that if you don’t know that, your first instinct is that these people are crazy. I guess I’m trying to make a piece that presents itself where these people are obviously not crazy but not telling people why they’re not crazy. So that’s kind of where it’s leaving off to the viewer. So cis people don’t have access to the thoughts and feelings of trans people and so I made a piece that centers the thoughts and feelings of trans people.
MILLER: I want to play another excerpt from the piece. This is part of a time when you have the women read some of the directions that I assume came from the teacher? Here it is:
[Percussion instrument sounds mixed with voices]
VOICE 1: Mhm, avoid smoking;
VOICE 2: Avoid secondhand smoke when possible;
VOICE 3: Avoid when possible alcoholic beverages
VOICE 4: At least during the transition period for a voice and communication therapy;
VOICE 5: Resume in moderation after discussing with the speech language clinician;
VOICE 6: And your personal care physician;
VOICE 7: Remember that decongestants and antihistamines usually dry out the laryngeal and inferential mucosa very easily;
VOICE 8: Use safe coughing;
VOICE 9: Use soft throat clearing;
VOICE 10: Avoid whispering.
VOICE 11: This can be more detrimental to the laryngeal area than talking.
MILLER: The upshot of all of that, safe coughing, no alcohol, no caffeine, no secondhand smoke, no smoking, soft throat clearing. It almost seems like you have to treat your voice like it’s a delicate baby bird. What did it feel like to be given all of these directions about how to treat your voice?
HENNIES: That was kind of at the point where part of me was ‘this is ridiculous’. I don’t have to do all these things to be a woman. And that’s why this list of hygiene things is in there. I mean, one, because it’s funny. But also the idea of ‘here’s this list of 40 things to do for your voice and if you do all these things then people think you’re a lady.’ It’s really one of the primary focuses of this piece, that we shouldn’t have to do all this stuff just to get treated the way that we should be treated.
A great example of that is my partner in the class. She was someone with an incredibly deep voice, one of the most profoundly deep speaking voices I have ever heard? And I started thinking about her and I really wanted her to be in the piece actually, but she did not want to.
MILLER: But how did she feel about her voice?
HENNIES: I don’t know. Everyone’s so guarded and on edge at the same time, so she didn’t share a lot. She always seemed to be presenting what I perceived as a little bit of an act of the kind of jovial cute lady who’s always joking. But this is someone who’s taken this class repeatedly over and over and over again and I started thinking about her and there’s nothing that she can do to change her voice that will ever make her sound what’s conventionally considered female.
That was a big shift for me, where it’s not that we need to change our voices. It’s that everyone else needs to change what they accept as female and their expectations. That to me is really critical because transition is really about two things. One, it’s about making yourself comfortable with yourself. But it’s also about making it possible for you to move through society in a way that you’re not harassed or in danger.
MILLER: And it’s interesting because there’s a kind of Venn Diagram overlap of those but they’re really separate. Do you feel comfortable? Do you feel like the voice you’re speaking in right now is your authentic voice, the way you want to sound?
HENNIES: No, I’m nervous and uptight all the time. I do not like how I sound. But I haven’t found a way to change my voice that is acceptable to me that doesn’t feel fake and put on.
MILLER: In some ways maybe even worse?
HENNIES: Yeah, it is because, like the cliche, living your true self and that feels even less of my true self. And so it’s this kind of Catch 22 where I can’t use the phone without being worried that I’m going to be called a man. But at the same time like if I used the phone and people wouldn’t assume that I was a man then would I still feel this desperate need to change my voice? And the answer is yes, probably. But it wouldn’t be as intense because I wouldn’t be so scared that somebody was going to hurt my feelings all the time, basically.
A perfect, really intense example of this is when I was at a conference in April at McGill [University] in Montreal that was focused on trans artists. This performer friend and I, both trans women, were sitting on the sidewalk talking and these drunk guys got off of a bus to come talk to us because they thought we were hot. In that moment she’s like ‘if I start talking and these people realize that I’m trans, they might kill me because I don’t know who these people are’. They’re obviously drunk, there’s like four of them and that’s a really immediate, clear, specific danger. If people just changed their idea of what equals female, then that wouldn’t be a problem, which I realize is like not going to happen, but you know, we can try.
MILLER: Do you think it’s not? There have been massive societal shifts just in the last 10 years, five years about this issue?
HENNIES: I mean, I hope so. But I do think that there’s something so deeply hardcoded in our brains about gender and male and female versus cis gender people that I don’t know.
MILLER: It’s interesting you point out that that’s for cis gender people. Do you find yourself making the same assumptions despite everything you’ve just been talking about? When you’re on the phone with somebody, you do the same without realizing it… decisions or guesses about who somebody is?
HENNIES: Definitely. I mean every time I use the phone, you’re not consciously like that’s a woman. But you do that.
MILLER: You put people in a box?
HENNIES: I think because I’m trans, if I hear something that’s ambiguous, I wouldn’t just assume. I would probably say ‘they’ for that person just to be safe. But that’s really the difference. I am aware of it. I’m aware of the fact that the person on the other end might not be the gender that I think they are. But I’m definitely guilty of doing that to people.
MILLER: Sarah Hennies is a composer of the piece “Contralto”. She’s currently working on a piece called “Passing”. We spoke in 2018.
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