Originally published on National Sawdust Log, Nov. 29, 2017
Even for an artist as versatile and unpredictable as Sarah Hennies—a percussionist, improviser, and composer originally from Louisville, Kentucky, and now based in Ithaca, New York—her newest work represents a substantial achievement. Contralto, an hour-long work for vocalists on video with strings and percussion (either live or recorded), is named for the musical term that denotes the lowest female voice type. The principal source material is provided by a cast of trans women, filmed by first-time director Hennies as they speak, sing, and perform vocal exercises designed to help trans women develop a more conventionally female vocal sound.
Hennies is best known to new-music cognoscenti as a solo artist and for her work alongside fellow percussionists Tim Feeney and Greg Stuart in the protean percussion trio Meridian. In indie-rock circles, she's the former drummer for Austin combo The Weird Weeds, and the current time keeper for Philadelphia slowcore outfit Obody. For Contralto, which will be presented its world premiere on Nov. 30 at Issue Project Room in Brooklyn, Hennies has assembled a stellar band of old friends and regular collaborators: Meridian bandmates Feeney and Stuart, violinist Erik Carlson, violist Wendy Richman, cellist T.J. Borden, bassist James Ilgenfritz, and percussionist Ashley Tini.
Speaking by telephone from her home in Ithaca, Hennies talked about the personal and stylistic discoveries that led her to imagine and assemble Contralto, as well as the circuitous creative path that gave her the tools and determination to get it done.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: To judge by the evidence I've seen thus far—a video trailer, a descriptive essay, and some sections of the score—Contralto is unlike anything you created before it. So let's get rolling with the most basic question: How did you come to conceive this piece?
SARAH HENNIES: It started a few different ways. Around three or four years ago, when I was first dealing with any kind of trans stuff and I didn’t know anything, this friend of mine had this really squeaky voice: super, super high. The first time we hung out, I don’t even remember how it came up, but she was like, “Oh, I can still do my old voice.” She started talking in this really profoundly deep, low voice, and I thought it was so startling. So when I started to think about making a piece that was about voices, at first I wanted to try to get a bunch of trans women to expose their quote-unquote “natural” voices. And the more I thought about that, the more wrong it felt for a lot of reasons… not that interesting, and not something that I wanted to do, because I felt like it would sensationalize physical things and focus on body stuff instead of actual identity.
And then, there’s a course that is offered at Ithaca College for free that is basically like trans voice training. They say it’s for trans people, but really only women take it, because what I learned years ago was that when a trans man transitions, his voice changes, because when you take testosterone, it causes your vocal chords to thicken, and your voice drops and gets more profound. And that does not go the other way. So I started to think of this as: when you think about trans women’s place in the world, you can change all of these things and go to all of this effort to do what’s called “passing,” and kind of assimilate into society, but there’s this one thing that you just can’t fix… or I wouldn’t use the word “fix”…
Right. There’s this one pesky thing that none of us can really deal with. And what I found from the class… one of the women in the piece—the older woman in the pink sweater, her name is Dreia [Spies]—when we were filming her part, we talked about the class, because I met her there. She was asking me to explain the piece a little bit. I was like, well, I think the class is asking people to do something that is basically impossible. This is someone who’s taken the class repeatedly, and she was like, yeah, I think that’s basically true.
The class is designed to help you essentially pass, vocally?
Right, but what I found is that it does not… you know, it depends on the person. A different person, who I really wanted to be in the film, but she maybe just decided she didn’t want to, has one of the deepest speaking voices I’ve ever heard. I feel for her, because that’s really hard. But also, I started to think that the piece I needed to make was not that we all need to change our voices so that we can fit into society better, but that people need to change their definition of what they think a woman sounds like. This idea that it was trying to do something impossible is something that I was already doing in my music a lot. And from taking this class, there’s all of these exercises that started to remind me of pieces that I had already made before I ever thought about this class. [Laughs]
Oh, now that’s really curious and interesting.
The music in the trailer for the film, the kind of droney humming and sine-wave music, I actually made about six years ago. It was a test for a vocal piece that I never wrote, for a concert that a group I was in was doing in Austin, the Austin New Music Co-Op. We did a concert with a vocal group called Convergence…
A contemporary-classical kind of situation?
Right, right. The thing that ended up in Contralto I ended up releasing on a tape, just as its own piece. It’s a recording of myself multi-tracked four times, where all I’m doing is humming across my vocal range, so that one part is as low as I can possibly hum and one part is as high as I can hum. The highest part is kind of squeaky, it’s the only part that kind of wavers, and you can tell it was a little bit difficult. I wasn’t thinking about this in relation to trans- anything when I made the piece; I just made it. And there’s a lot of stuff like this where I can look back to 10, 20 years ago and be like: oh, that’s why I was thinking about this, and that’s why I was doing this.
Which tape includes the vocal piece?
It was called Casts. It’s on Astral Spirits. That tape ended up being sort of an odds-and-ends collection, just four pieces for something-plus-sine waves. There was one where I’m repeating a word over and over again, one for hi-hat, and one for vibraphone, and then this voice thing.
It’s interesting, [Contralto] is a convergence of all these things that I’ve been interested in, and they’re all just sort of happening at the same time. But it’s not explicit… I didn’t think of it as trying to do that. It just kind of happened on its own. I started to see that this was a link between all of these different things that I was doing. So that’s why I initially wanted to make the piece.
Had you worked in video previously, or is this a new undertaking?
This is totally new. I got a fellowship from New York Foundation for the Arts in summer of 2016, and as soon as I found out that I got that, my first thought was, oh, now I can make my film! [Laughs] I had already been thinking about it for like a year, and I just was like, well, I can’t afford a camera and I don’t know anyone with a nice camera, so I guess I’m not going to do that. So I immediately bought a camera and some lights. It took almost a year before I actually started filming people, but I had a lot of conversations with a friend of mine, Chloe Escott, who’s a comedian and was in a band called the Native Cats. We talked a lot about what should be in it and how to go about writing a quote-unquote “script.”
Then I just kind of took it from there. The—for lack of a better word—script kept changing a little bit as I would film more people. The more people I was filming, the more I was zeroing in on what was important and what was not working. So it very much dictated itself in a lot of ways. And most of the material that the people in the video perform came straight from this class that I was taking. Some of the stuff in the class I just thought was so absurd that I just had to laugh at it, and then other things I couldn’t believe like how similar it was to things that I had done in music. And I like that it was going to all this effort to do something impossible, [which] is something that appeals to me. [Laughs]
How did you incorporate these kinds of ideas when you were writing for the percussion and string players in Contralto?
I didn’t know what the music was going to be until really recently, actually, but the first idea that I had – before I even had figured out what the film would be – was that when I made the tape Everything Else [issued by No Rent] last year, those pieces I was thinking of at the time as getting ready to make this film.
The B-side of that tape, the title track, came about because I was thinking about this idea of “what is a percussionist?” The simplest definition is, a percussionist is a musician who hits things. Well, what about when you bow something? There’s all these things that percussionists do that fall outside of “one who hits things.” I remember Greg Stuart telling me, probably several years ago now, “I haven’t held a mallet and struck an object in, like, two years.” I don’t remember if he put it this way or not, but Greg was like: What does that make me? So I started thinking about this idea of “what is a percussionist?” and that it very much ties into this idea of, well, what is a woman?
There’s a Judith Butler thing… I didn’t have the head to read all of Gender Trouble, but in the very beginning of the book she said something like at some point modern feminism was running into a wall because no one could agree on what “woman” meant, which I thought was really interesting. The more I thought about this percussion thing… like Steve Schick says in his book, the thing that makes percussionists unique is that we don’t have an instrument, that we build our own set-ups, and that our objects don’t have a performance practice. He’s right, but I think that I would take it one step further, which is actually that because percussionists could be asked to do potentially anything in a piece of modern music, if that’s the case then we must be something other than the thing that we play. It’s kind of the same with identity: If this person with a deep voice is a woman, then what does that mean the word “woman” mean? It’s not clear. And I like that I play this quote-unquote “instrument” where it’s not even clear what it is that I am. [Laughs]
The music on Everything Else came about by making music with objects that aren’t considered to be instruments, using them in a way that is related to their intended purpose and just recording that sound. By using this vocal exercise content [in Contralto], it’s kind of the same thing; it’s just films of people making these sounds, and it’s removed from their intended purpose. The string players and percussionists, in one of the early sections of the piece, aren’t even playing their instruments; they’re just rustling paper or ejecting staples from a stapler, simultaneously while the women in the film are reading off these different syllables. It’s just the thing for what it is and nothing else, and they’re just happening at the same time, because I felt like they were connected in that way.
So if somebody is coming to this upcoming event having very little idea of your musical history, would it be fair to direct them toward Everything Else and the Astral Spirits tape as being works-in-progress that helped you develop the ideas you’re exploring in Contralto?
Everything Else, definitely; the Astral Spirits thing to a lesser extent, because I only found that there was a connection there later. This piece is definitely a lot different than anything else I’ve ever made, but I think you can tell that I made it. I don’t know, I’m thinking about other pieces… Everything Else I made with the purpose of getting ready to make this film…that piece from the Astral Spirits tape is just in the film, unedited – I dropped it in there as part of the soundtrack. I like that Xenakis reuses material, so I really like doing stuff like that, too, when I can – not out of laziness, but I just sort of like going against this idea that everything has to be channeled from the brilliant mind of the composer. [Laughs] I remember when I was an undergrad, a teacher showed me that a Xenakis orchestra piece, and then a Xenakis string quartet where all it was, he just took the string part from the orchestra piece and called it a new piece.
Glancing now at the Bandcamp page for Everything Else, I see you actually did articulate some of these ideas succinctly for your followers.
Right, and this is what I was trying to get at earlier: The thing that is interesting to me about percussion is that if you’re a cellist, O.K., you play the cello. If you’re a pianist, you play the piano. But if you’re a percussionist, you do this, and this, and this, and you might not do this, but you might do this. It’s kind of up to the person to decide what they are—if they decide to even realize that that’s a thing that they can do, which is be something other than what they think they’re supposed to be. And there’s such a clear connection between that and that no one can really pinpoint what “queer” means. If you say, “I am straight,” then you’re saying, I am a cisgender man who sleeps with cisgender women, and that is my identity. But there’s no opposite of that, exactly; “gay” or “queer” could mean, gay to a lesser extent – I like that it’s a space that allows a person to be whatever they want, but is this umbrella over this range or spectrum of identities, rather than, “I’m this – done.” And you could say that about gender, too; I’m not explicitly engaging in that, but it’s kind of what I’m trying to show with this piece, is that it’s like, well, if you see this, you either have to accept that maybe your definition of “woman” needs updating, or you have to just think that I’m full of shit. [Laughs] It’s kind of drawing a line in the sand, in that way; if you don’t believe this, then I can’t do anything for you.
A lot of ideas you put down on paper about Contralto were meant originally for a grant that you ultimately didn’t get. What was the issue there?
In the grant proposal, I wrote about how most of the media about trans people, most of the narrative about trans people, is directed to assist audiences, and only about the transition. There’s a trans woman writer named Cat Fitzpatrick, and I read a book review she wrote a year or two ago, which was about a so-called “trans memoir.” There’s tons of these books, where it’s autobiographical, it’s basically a person’s life story from birth to “…and then I transitioned, and now I’m normal”—end of book. I’ve read this complaint across a bunch of different trans writers: that this is the only thing publishers want. And actually the reason the book [Fitzpatrick] was reviewing was even a memoir is because [author Juliet Jacques] wanted to write a different book and the publisher said, “No, we want you to do this memoir.” So it’s this kind of cliché that you’re born, you realize you’re trans, you suffer your whole life, and then you transition and then you’re normal, and you assimilate into society and you become like everyone else. If you know any trans people, you know that we’re not.
So with this grant proposal, when I was trying to explain the piece, I said I wanted to make something where the content was accessible to trans people and recognizable, but if you were to just put it in front of the average person on the street, they would think, what in god’s name is happening here?
That’s what stuck with me, the idea about “building a bridge”—or failing to do so.
I explicitly said, I am making a piece that in no way is attempting to explain trans people to cis people. People in the piece… I don’t know what everyone’s idea of transition is, or whether they’re ever quote-unquote “finished.” But they are people who have already allowed to other people, “I am not a cis person,” and they’re all at points in their lives where the thing that is so often focused on in almost anything that you see about trans people has already happened. It was tricky for me to deal with something like voice training, and also not focus on the physical elements of transition rather than just saying, “Here these people are, this is what they’re like.” Because the piece is so strange, it takes that context out of it; you have to wonder what else is going on here, because you’re not being told anything.
There’s one section of the piece that does kind of hint at narrative, where everyone’s responding to the same question, but you don’t know what that question is, and their responses are cut up and edited. You only get kind of a hint at what they’re talking about. And then, the entire rest of the piece is nothing but these vocal exercises. The content is totally abstract, even though it doesn’t sound that way, because a lot of the vocal exercises are recognizable as words in the English language. It’s kind of like listening to a parrot talk, where the parrot is saying words, but you can tell the parrot doesn’t have any connection with what we think those words mean.
I remember after I finished filming in Baltimore and I was driving home, I was like, "I think she might have thought this was really stupid." [Laughs] You can see, as the piece goes on, that she’s actually getting irritated to even be doing it—which I thought was great. And in the piece there’s this range of responses to the material, because other than, I think, two people who took the class, the material in the piece actually was totally unfamiliar to the people that are in the piece.
By material, what exactly are you referring to?
The vocal exercise stuff. The people in the film, with the exception of two of them, who came from the class, had no context… very little context, anyway.
I just listened again for the first time in a while to your recent Signifying Something podcast appearance. There were two ideas that I came away with: first, that when you created the hi-hat piece featured in the podcast, Pressure, you didn’t necessarily know what it was that you were after, but then you looked back after several years and recognized something in it; and second, this predilection that you had for creating pieces that were physically challenging almost to the point of abusiveness, like Clots, pieces that were taking you well past the point of comfort. Can we talk about what signifcance those ideas had in your compositional path that led to Contralto?
Yeah, those two things are definitely related. Post-coming out and post-transition, I started to kind of take stock of my life… [laughs] One of the first things I realized about how I was making music afterward was, I had a moment where I was like, I’m not going to make these pieces anymore, where I’m harming myself on purpose. When I made Clots and when I made Work, I definitely thought it was cool to do something that was pushing myself physically—it seemed like kind of an edgy artistic thing to do. When I look back on that, I think those pieces were abusive, for sure. I mean, I think they’re really good pieces, too, but I remember that I said, I’m not going to do this anymore.
I saw a movie when I was in high school – I was probably like 15 years old – this documentary called Sick. It was about a performance artist [Bob Flanagan] with cystic fibrosis who just did these horrible, horrible things to himself, just absolutely stretching the limit of pain and abuse and what one could do to their body. And at some point in the movie, I remember, I mean, this is what we’re talking about: I spent close to 20 years, I always remembered this film and it was something that I told people about, but I never asked the question, well, why do I always talk about that? And there’s a part in that film where someone is like, why do you think you do stuff like this? And he was like, “I guess because my whole life I knew I was going to die”… it’s been a long time since I’ve seen it, so I’m paraphrasing, but what I remember is that it’s like, “enacting some control over my body, because I’m not in control.” And I would for sure say that that’s what I was doing, that it was this same kind of like, well, let’s see what we can really do here. If you’re someone who feels out of control of their body, then that seems like a rational thing to do, to kind of respond by being, well, fuck you, let’s see if you can take this.
On the same note, when I started to look back at pieces that I wrote and ask all these questions—well, why was I doing that?—they all seem to be related in some way to being trans, and I just didn’t realize it. Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is, the story that I repeat and that I tell everyone about how I started making music in the way that I do right now is that when the New Music Co-Op was doing a concert of Lucier’s music with [cellist] Charles Curtis, Charles was telling us how people always ask him why Alvin Lucier is so obsessed with echoes. And Charles was like, “Oh, he just is – he walks into a room, and he wants to know what the room is like.”
For different reasons, I thought that was really cool, and that really changed how I made music. But the thing I’ve been thinking about lately is that I thought it was great, and I used that story for my own benefit, but I never until recently thought about taking it one step further and thinking, well, why that specific thing? Why is it echoes that Alvin Lucier is quote-unquote “just into.” It’s always the word just, where it’s like, “oh, I just am.” Why is Michael Jordan so good at basketball?
“He just is.”
Right. If you stop accepting that as an answer, then I think you can really get at important things about yourself. I don’t know the answer to this, but one of the things that I realized in the last year that I had never asked was, well, why did I pick drums when I was nine years old? When I was five, I wanted to play piano, and I think my parents thought I was too young. I was already totally obsessed with music by that time, but it wasn’t until I was nine that I started actually playing music seriously. And when I think, “why drums?” I realized I didn’t really have an answer.
I remember when I was nine that the person I thought looked the coolest in my favorite metal band was also the drummer, and I was like, O.K., drums. But because of everything we’re talking about, with what being a drummer is like and what it means to be a percussionist, and how that’s kind of a weirder thing than being another type of instrumentalist, I feel like all these things must have been in there, somewhere. Obviously my nine-year-old brain was never going to think that way. And I think this is really interesting, for anybody, to be like, well, I have decided that I am a librarian, or a reporter; it’s like, well, why did I pick that thing? Or maybe a better question was, why was I drawn to that?
Have you found a satisfactory answer for yourself?
There’s lots of things that I could say that I like about it. There’s no way for me to know definitively, but certainly by the time I was nine years old, I was already subconsciously aware that boys needed to act like boys. I wasn’t good at sports, and I was not tough at all. This is total speculation, I have no idea if this plays into why I played drums, but, you know, drums are thought of as boys’ instruments. They’re loud. Drummers are supposed to be powerful and take up a lot of space.
There weren’t so many girls doing it at that time.
No. And that has been changing a lot, thank god! There are clichés, there are stereotypes, but they’re also kind of true: Closeted trans women do all these kinds of things to try to prove their masculinity. I never did stuff like that, but a lot of this is a conscious dysphoric thing. A really common one is: “I’m going to fix myself by joining the Army. That’ll really make me a man.” Or you get married and you have a bunch of kids, to prove that you’re a man to yourself. It seems impossible to me that that isn’t connected, but definitely when I was a little kid, I wasn’t consciously engaging with that feeling. I didn’t even know what a trans person was until college, probably—which is a sign that you may have grown up in the South. [Laughs]
It was just one of those things: I never thought about it, I never asked questions. I can remember being a teenager and having a specific thought of "I wish I were a girl." But I never told anyone that I thought that. It didn’t feel unusual for me to think that at the time—or I told myself it wasn’t unusual—and so it allowed me to just continue with my life, and not make a connection between saying that and doing something.
Could you describe the path of your formal training, as a percussionist and as a composer? You’ve mentioned Lucier and Xenakis, so obviously you're familiar with the classical tradition, and yet your performing history has taken you in some very different directions.
Every so often someone will refer to me as a “classically trained percussionist,” and every time, I’m kind of like… it’s not that I don’t like it, it’s that it doesn’t describe who I am at all. I started playing drums by taking drums in a music store, like rock drumming, when I was nine years old. I did not know anything about capital-P “percussion” until I was a junior in high school. When I was 16, I had already been playing in post-punk indie bands in Louisville since I was 13, and that was all I cared about. I didn’t even know that music school was a thing that someone could go to until I was 16.
Up to that point, I remember, I made my parents crazy because I was like, I’m not going to college, I don’t want to do anything but play music, I hate school, I’m not going. And music school was a way to satisfy my parents. I mean, I really, really wanted to go; once I discovered the world of composers and stuff, I got really, really obsessed with it. During junior and senior years in high school, I would go over to the music library at the college and just would look at scores. I was self-driven that way, and my music teachers didn’t like modern music, so I didn’t have anyone guiding me; I just was finding things and looking at them and deciding what I liked and what I didn’t.
So when I went for my supposed classical training, I had already been making a lot of weird music for a couple of years already, and was already doing… not noise in the sense of harsh noise, but improvisatory free-form music. Listening to a lot of drone music and all kinds of things. And even when I was in music school… I don’t know if people will roll their eyes at me for saying this, but I feel like a self-taught musician. I never studied composition with anyone formally. I wrote pieces, but I didn’t think I was all that good at being a composer for a long time, because I didn’t feel that I could do the thing I thought composers were supposed to do, which is sit at a desk and put notes onto staff paper—which I still hate doing. [Laughs]
Write a fugue on that paper, while you’re at it.
I was awful in theory classes, because I didn’t really like it. It’s not that I didn’t understand it; I just didn’t care. So my whole college experience, I just did whatever I wanted, and anything I had to do that I didn’t want to do, I just did the bare minimum to get by.
Where was college?
The University of Illinois. Then I went to U.C.–San Diego for two years for a master’s program. The last time that I was in school was in 2003.
Was that when you moved to Austin?
Yeah, and then I was in Austin for 10 years until I moved to Ithaca, where I am now. When I finished my master’s degree, I actually was totally sick of playing experimental music, and at that time it was like, I’m going to move to Austin, I’m going to start a band. I’m just thinking of this now as I’m saying it, but it was a really similar state of mind to where I was in high school: I don’t want to do this anymore, get me out of here. I should stress that I studied percussion in college; I was not a composer. I really don’t have a lot of interest in percussion as a technical craft; I really like the music, and I like a lot about what being a percussionist is like, but I really have zero patience for perfecting my snare-drum roll.
Meridian was on tour once, and we were talking about music school and practicing and stuff. [Feeney and Stuart] said they were really hardcore practicers – and I just wasn’t. I would get worn out and stop after being in the practice room for more than an hour and a half. A lot of people go into the practice room and stay there for hours and hours. I don’t even know how it came up but I repeat it a lot, because I really like that someone described me this way: Greg said something like, “When I was in school, I wasn’t like Sarah, where if I didn’t want to do something, I would just be like, ‘fuck you, I’m not doing that.’” [Laughs] I kind of laughed, and I said, oh, I guess I am like that.
Greg was saying that when he was still doing really hardcore percussion playing, he definitely wanted to be really good and play really hard pieces. I did, too, but it was always from a place of, “This piece seems really interesting, and I want the experience of playing that piece,” not from a place of like “I’m going to technically nail this thing.” I don’t know, I’m just wired differently from most percussionists. This idea of “screw you, I’m not doing that” is definitely part of the music that I’m making now… not explicitly, but even just my whole description to that grant-application, it’s kind of the same thing, where it’s just like: oh, yeah, I know what you want from me—and you’re not going to get it. Or the self-abuse thing in the Sick movie, where it’s like: screw you, I’ll show you what I can do to myself. I guess you could call it rebellious… or self-destructive. [Laughs]
You mentioned a shift in the way you’ve approached making your pieces since you transitioned. Can you articulate what that change has been? I’m fumbling a bit with this question, because I don’t want to fall into the same trap as those memoirs you described—“…and then I transitioned, and suddenly everything about my creative path became clear to me”—but I do want to know if you can assess what impact the change has had on the way you make your art.
Well, it kind of works both ways. Yes, it’s a cliché, and no, it’s not true that you become a totally different person afterward. But on the other hand, it is true. [Laughs] It is a big deal. It is hard, and a major change, but in other ways it doesn’t feel major at all. I’m struggling, because this is the kind of thing that I’m trying to do in music, too: to try to create this experience where it’s like everything, where it feels simple but it also feels complex, and it feels important but it also feels kind of light and sunny. I’m actively trying to make a situation like that.
This isn’t me not answering your question, but I can’t just easily be like, “Yes, I transitioned, and then my music became like this.”
Nor would I necessarily expect that you could, in some prosaic way; I’m just trying to get a sense of your process.
I have never, ever really consciously directed what I’m doing in any way at all; I really want the material to dictate itself. So if I made the decision to use trans women vocal exercises in a piece, then my question to myself is, what is this material telling me to do with it? Not me deciding that I want to craft it into something. What I noticed, and I did not notice this until after I had done it, was that the music I was making right before I came out was really physically demanding—I would say nearly abusive—and really intense. In all of those pieces in some way is a player who is stuck somewhere.
Beyond Clots, what pieces fit into this frame?
I’m thinking of Clots, and then the piece Expenditures on the album Work. Even the piece Settle [on Work], to a lesser extent: it’s only one thing that kind of fades. None of those pieces has a trajectory… I mean, Expenditures kind of does. But there’s no direction to them, and that was something I was consciously trying to do. And then I noticed that the first thing that I made after I came out was Gather & Release, which is the total opposite: It’s a thing that starts in one place and ends up somewhere else—in one case almost stupidly literally, where I held a microphone and walked up a gorge, and the piece is over when I get to the top.
So it seemed like there was a shift from doing things that kind of seemed stuck or repeating or locked into something to a place of doing things that are more sort of open and directional, and feel like they’re headed somewhere… although, I don’t know, that’s not true of… [laughs] I don’t know.
Surely there doesn’t have to be a single blanket category that covers all the work you’re creating now. But Contralto relates intrinsically to the transition that you personally have gone through. Did you feel a need to create a piece that addressed this experience, which is something that hasn’t been examined or expressed widely in the new-music world?
I thought about this a lot: Do I want to be a quote, capital letters “Trans Artist,” or do I just want to be an artist who is trans? I’m kind of toeing a line there, but the farther into making Contralto I got, the more I started to think, O.K., this is just a protest piece. Not in the sense of a ’60s Luigi Nono piece screaming about fascism or something, but what it seems like I’m now talking about when I’m talking about this piece, the important thing, is that there is absolutely no space where trans women outnumber cis people, anywhere, so I made that space. I think I wrote in that little essay I sent you that the whole idea of “I’m not going to give you the narrative that you want” means I know something that you don’t, and that means I have some sort of power. And trans women have absolutely no power, anywhere. There are wildly disproportionate numbers about discrimination, violence, and abuse. I don’t feel that music is a great tool for political protest, but I do think it’s a great tool for getting people to see that the world is a different place than they thought it was. In some sense, everything that I’ve been doing in the last 10 years is about having that experience. I don’t know if you’ve heard my five-minute woodblock solo…
Where is that one?
It’s on a CD called Psalms.
Then yes, I do know the piece you mean [Psalm 3].
Honestly, the recording… it’s fine, but it’s something that you need to hear live because of the acoustic phenomenon that happens. When I do artist talks now, it’s usually the first thing that I do: I say, “All right, I’m holding this block of wood. When you look at this block of wood, you probably have a pretty clear idea in your head of what will happen when I hit this thing.” And then you play the piece, and it’s just this completely wild, insane acoustic experience. Once you hear that, what happens, whether you engage with it or not, is: “Before I heard this piece, I saw that block of wood and I thought it would go [imitates sharp wooden sound] and you’re done. But now, I have heard this person play this piece, and I realize that this thing is not what I thought it was.”
That really is at the core of a lot of what I’m doing. Even before I was thinking about it, there’s all this playing around with identity. Exposing things to be different, or more complex, than you think they are, is like a running theme through everything. For Contralto I am engaging with it directly for a bunch of reasons, but I mostly don’t want to do that, just because the material that I want to work with doesn’t require that I do that. Certainly I can imagine myself making another piece that is explicitly engaging with trans-related topics. But mostly I feel like music is better at other things than that.
Sarah Hennies presents Contralto at Issue Project Room on Nov. 30 at 8pm, sharing a program with a premiere by composer Bryan Eubanks featuring Catherine Lamb on viola; issueprojectroom.org