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Sarah Hennies’ ‘Contralto’ Lets Women’s Voices Be

This idea of the so-called female voice does not exist. A female voice is the voice of a person who is female,” said Sarah Hennies, composer of “Contralto.”

Composer Sarah Hennies' 2017 audio-visual work

Credit: Mara Baldwin

Above: Composer Sarah Hennies' 2017 audio-visual work "Contralto" will be presented in a livestream by Project [BLANK] on Friday Mar. 26 and Sunday Mar. 28, 2021.

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"Contralto," is a groundbreaking work of experimental documentary filmmaking and music by composer and UC San Diego music alum Sarah Hennies.

Aired: March 25, 2021 | Transcript

"Contralto," is a groundbreaking work of experimental documentary filmmaking and music by composer and UC San Diego music alum Sarah Hennies. The work will be screened with live accompaniment this weekend by Project [BLANK] musicians, and broadcast live online.

Project [BLANK] presents 'Contralto'

Friday, Mar. 26 at 7 p.m.

Sunday, Mar. 28 at 2 p.m.

Livestream tickets here, $10-25


  • Carolyn Chen: "Some Dragons." Batya Macadam-Somer, violin/vocals
  • Sarah Hennies: "Contralto." Musicians: Arianna Aviña, percussion, Leah Bowden, percussion, Elizabeth Brown, cello, Fiona Digney, percussion, Shayla James, viola, Batya Macadam-Somer, violin, Kathryn Schulmeister, bass.

The project features a filmed cast of trans women speaking fragmented lines from speech therapy texts, and performing vocal exercises. It’s all set to Hennies' original composition for percussion and strings.

But before Hennies delved into the intricacies of the piece, she knew she wanted it to create a space for trans women, particularly after attending a class for voice feminization therapy.

"I was thinking about the social condition of never having your own space," Hennies said.

When a transmasculine person increases their testosterone levels, it can successfully alter the sound of their voice. However, trans women's voices are unaffected by increasing estrogen levels in the body — a trans woman's voice cannot be changed through hormone therapy.

"There's really intense pressure on trans women to assimilate in ways that are easier for transmasculine people because the things that physically happen to transmasculine people make them more identifiable as a cisgender male than trans women typically do. Meaning their voices get lower. They can grow beards. And there are certainly similar things going in the other direction, but voice is not one of them," Hennies said. "So I found the voice to be really the perfect distillation of this issue of trans women unfairly being forced into conforming to these cisgendered stereotypes of what being a woman means."

Hennies said that choral teachers are now having to tackle this issue with singers. "They've suddenly realized that the intensely gendered world of vocal music is causing them a lot of problems because they want to treat their students with respect," Hennies said.

In traditional choral vocal ranges, the lowest female voice is the "contralto," the namesake of the project, but some female students may be in the bass section, said Hennies.

Some trans women turn to voice feminization therapy, which is an approach that Hennies wanted to study and scrutinize in the work, without necessarily casting judgment.

"I'm very careful to say this, that I do not find the practice of teaching components of cisgender female speech to trans women to be a bad thing. I completely understand and empathize with people who would like to speak differently than they currently do," she said, pointing out the real unsafe feelings some trans women may feel about their voices. "But in general, the impulse by speech pathologists is to look at cisgender female speech and say, all right, this is what a woman sounds like."

Through it all, Hennies wants this work to express that the idea of a female voice does not exist. "A female voice is the voice of a person who is female," Hennies said.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Project [BLANK]

A still from the video portion of "Contralto" by Sarah Hennies.

Her compositions and performances focus on psychoacoustics, or the relationship of sound and a space. The live music composition for "Contralto" is experimental and unsettling, often using household objects as instruments, layered noises and unconventional techniques on the string instruments. The live performance even sometimes laces into the film, volleying notes between performers and documentary subjects, and building towards sustained, harmonious chords from the women on screen.

The performance will take place at El Salon in San Ysidro, a former church-turned-performance venue affiliated with The Front Arte and Cultura. Audiences, however, will be viewing from home, on a screen.

Hennies said that the performance is not so much a "live score" to a film, but specifically a two-part film and orchestra format, honoring the physicality of a live performance.

"Obviously the video is the focus of the piece in terms of subject matter, but the musicians are almost this kind of Greek chorus. Part of the experience of the piece is that the instrumental parts are very physical and that the piece is an hour long — so by the end of the piece, you have very tired performers working really hard, and that visual and experiential aspect of the piece is really important to me," Hennies said.

Hennies studied percussion at UC San Diego and now lives and works in upstate New York. Having this work performed in a city that helped her find her own voice as a composer is an exciting moment. "It's amazing. I really wish I could be there in person," she said. "I remember being 21 and just so excited to go to a school where everyone was just totally entrenched in experimental music," she added.

Photo credit: Annette Hornischer

Contemporary composer Carolyn Chen's work from her "Some Dragons" song cycle will be performed by Project [BLANK] musician Batya MacAdam-Somer on Friday, Mar. 26 and Sunday, Mar. 28, 2021.

Carolyn Chen's 'Some Dragons'

Before Project [BLANK] performs "Contralto," violinist Batya MacAdam-Somer will perform four brand new movements of "Some Dragons," contemporary composer Carolyn Chen's song cycle for solo violin and vocals.

MacAdam-Somer, who studied experimental violin performance at UC San Diego, also performs with the classical string quartet Quartet Nouveau and in the Kate Bush cover band Baby Bushka. In recent years, she's been drawn to playing the violin and singing at the same time.

Chen began writing this work specifically for MacAdam-Somer in late 2017 and early 2018, but the latest parts have yet to be performed. Each piece sets to music historic texts written by female adventurers and explorers, like Amelia Earhart, a 19th-century Chinese pirate named Ching Shih, long-distance swimmer Lynne Cox and journalist Nellie Bly who traveled around the world in 72 days in the late 1800s.

"The sound is very intimate, and personal," MacAdam-Somer said of Chen's new compositions, adding that Chen's work is influenced by the pentatonic scale. The pentatonic scale uses five pitches per octave (if you know your do-re-mi's, it's do-re-mi-so-la), and is known to be pleasant sounding and found in simple folk melodies.

Photo credit: Courtesy of the artist

Violinist Batya MacAdam-Somer will perform as part of the ensemble during "Contralto" and will also present a solo work for violin and voice, "Some Dragons."

"Carolyn spoke of these pieces as being songs, almost like pop songs, even though they don't function that way," said MacAdam-Somer. "I'm not a classically trained singer, so there's a quality of it being something, like maybe you're singing to a friend or you're just telling a story to somebody."

Don't adjust your expectations, though: MacAdam-Somer's voice is as agile and bewitching as it is honest.

Together, "Some Dragons" and "Contralto" are a program that spotlights the intersection of the individual and the collective, centering voices and expressions of women without pigeonholing.

"Just looking at the story of women right now, the voices of women, women being able to be heard — women being able to be heard in a way that's their own way, that isn't prescribed as like, OK, if you're going to be heard we need you to sound like this," said MacAdam-Somer.

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Julia Dixon Evans
Arts Calendar Editor and Producer

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI write the weekly KPBS Arts newsletter and edit and produce the KPBS Arts calendar. I am interested in getting San Diegans engaged with the diversity of art and culture made by the creative people who live here.

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