Review: Contralto

Kate Bradley reviews ‘Contralto’, a one-hour work for video, strings, and percussion that features a cast of transgender women, which showed at the Royal Northern College of Music on Friday 22 March 2019.

Ercole de’ Roberti, Concert, c. 1490

On my way to the Royal Northern College of Music on Friday night to see ‘Contralto’ by Sarah Hennies, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew that it was a film accompanied by live music which explores trans identity, but I wasn’t sure exactly how. I had seen a series of portraits of trans women at Manchester Central Library which had been interesting, and I thought this might be something similar: a spotlight on trans narratives from a broadly supportive perspective to counter transphobia in society.

It turned out that ‘Contralto’ was much more than this. The piece was based around a film showing a series of trans women working through vocal exercises used by voice coaches to help trans women attain a more ‘feminine’ voice. As the trans women spoke odd fragments such as ‘swing me, Peter, swing me’, it highlighted the strangeness of language and the idea of a feminine way of speaking. While the women spoke in short video clips, live musicians played string instruments and percussion, using everyday items like bells and torn paper to fill the room with a chaos of percussive sounds. The music built to an intense, deafening pinnacle as the trans women in the film were asked to sing a glissando – a deep C note usually associated with a ‘male’ vocal range, gradually rising to a slightly higher pitch of G, associated by vocal coaches with cis women’s voices1. The whole experience was quite disorientating but very emotionally charged, leaving me with an unsettled feeling that is difficult to describe.

During the performance, I was mesmerised by the humour and humanity of the film’s expressive subjects. The head-and-shoulders shots of each person created a sense of intimacy. Each woman’s different character shone through in their facial expressions and their short excerpts of speech. As the vocal tasks became more and more absurd, the performers reacted, some finding their inner drama student and others mocking the tasks or refusing to participate fully. It would be hard, I think, to leave that performance without being deeply endeared by each of the women (and one 14-year-old girl) in the film.

Still, I left concerned that my gaze (an hour spent staring at trans women’s faces and listening to their voices make mostly meaningless sounds) was objectifying, since the film encouraged the audience to pick apart the trans women’s efforts to ‘achieve’ a femininity that I, as a cis woman, would be offended to be held to. I worried that a transphobic audience would enjoy the film as a caricature of trans women, especially since it made no attempt to tell these women’s stories or incite empathy.

So it was with eagerness that I went to the Q&A with director and composer Sarah Hennies after the show to find out what she had been trying to achieve. Early on, an audience member asked her very frankly about her own experience of transitioning. Unfazed, she replied: ‘What are you looking to get from my answer?’. She explained that she is critical of having to put trans narratives on display, whether they are her own or other people’s. She told us about a trans woman she knew who got a book deal who was forced to change her writing from a book of short stories to a ‘trans memoir’, a genre of autobiography in which trans people bare all for a paying cis audience (a more lucrative audience to aim at than the trans minority, which would likely count to profit-making publishers as too much of a niche). The example shows the limitedness of the representation that trans people have so far received, even in Anglophone zeitgeists that have recently pushed a handful of trans women to the fore. In the current media climate, trans women are allowed to have simple stories that can be scrutinised by cis audiences, but are still almost never brought into the public eye to talk about other subjects than their own gender identities. This in turn fuels the transphobic caricature of trans people (especially women) as self-obsessed, fetishistic or as gender dilettantes. This caricature seen at its most bizarre and unpleasant in The Silence of the Lambs, but it is also present in the daily discourse of trans-exclusive radical feminists, who often focus on trans women’s supposed obsessions with feminine clothes or make-up (ignoring that the majority of cis women have similar inclinations, for better or for worse).

Hennies was very aware that she didn’t want to replicate the objectifying standard approach to trans themes in her talk or her film. She pointed out that there are incredibly few trans-women-only spaces in society, so when she asked several trans women to come together to film their segments, she wanted to create a trans women’s space and didn’t want to give unfettered access to the audience. Instead, the film is cut into short clips of no longer than about five seconds, played in a rolling sequence that gives audience members only partial access to each woman’s vocal exercises and accompanying comments. Whilst this approach was frustrating for the audience, and I found myself wanting to hear more from each person, it was interesting that we became so piqued by not being given ‘full stories’ by the trans women in the film. Perhaps I have become so used to the usual autobiographical approach to trans visibility that I was taken by surprise by a piece of art which explores trans themes differently. After the Q&A, I felt that this lack of access was a good challenge to set for the audience, aesthetically and politically. After all, cis women are rarely asked to explain why they wear their hair long or wear make-up, who they desire and in what ways, or why they identify with female characters in books. Cis people being able to answer questions like these eloquently is certainly not made a condition before others will treat them humanely or support their basic rights – and nor should it be for trans people.

To transcend the common transition narrative, Hennies told us that she wanted to explore the indescribable parts of being trans that can’t be easily captured without a ‘multisensory experience’. She cited David Lynch as an inspiration, and said ‘I like the idea of making something with music that I can’t just tell you’. The performance certainly felt like it caught something ineffable to me. Throughout, I had goosebumps and chills, feeling a tension in the music that emerged as a strange mixture of thought and emotion – doubt and excitement and discomfort all together.

The music was challenging, but some of what the performance expressed was very straight-forward. The trans women’s awkwardness in being asked to sing and vocalise sounds while being scrutinised on camera was hard to watch, but painfully clear in how it replicated what many transfeminine people go through every day to ‘pass‘, either to reduce gender dysphoria or to preserve their safety and comfort in an often hostile society. Like trans women being told to make subtle alterations to their whole manner in vocal coaching, the musicians onstage were given too much to do as they played the soundtrack, struggling to play instruments and make percussive sounds like ruffling paper and ringing bells simultaneously. The discomfort of watching the musicians struggle to perform their demanding tasks was a very effective part of the experience, and kept the hour engaging even as the film cycled between the same few faces.

Although I am a defender of mass pop culture most of the time, ‘Contralto’ reminded me of the place of difficult and ‘highbrow’ art in left-wing politics – not art that is difficult for its own sake, but art that expresses something difficult to understand, or that stretches your mind rather than simply repeating back to you what you already know in comfortable, aesthetically pleasing ways. The exhibition of portraits of trans women I saw several months ago had been comfortable for me, demonstrating a recognition for trans women, but little more. By contrast, ‘Contralto’ wasn’t comfortable or aesthetically pleasing, overloading the senses with discordant sound and images and leaving me questioning myself and the performance quite deeply. Despite this, and maybe because of this, it was a really worthwhile experience. I encourage others to go and see it if they get the chance.

You can watch a preview of ‘Contralto’ and read more at Sarah Hennies’ website here. Thanks to Jessica Bull for her proof-reading.

1 A note on language: some people object to the uses of terms such as ‘cis’, ‘transfeminine’ and ‘gender dysphoria’ either as too new-fangled and academic, or as making concessions to trans ideology. For those who believe the former, I use the relevant words and phrases without simplifying them here because I think they are important pieces of vocabulary to learn to begin to understand how trans communities discuss their rich variety of experiences, as well as their oppression in society. I’ve linked to definitions of terms in-text, so click through on the highlighted words if you would like to see their meaning. However, if you think I’m making concessions to ‘trans ideology’ (to clarify, trans ideology doesn’t exist, it’s a right-wing meme), you’re wrong – I’m fully embracing it. I hope you watch ‘Contralto’ and do the same.

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