Sarah Hennies’ ‘Contralto’ Lets Women’s Voices Be
Speaker 1: 00:00 This weekend, local musical ensemble, project blank presents a live performance and screening of Sarah Haney's experimental documentary and composition control. Toe honeys is a contemporary composer who studied percussion at UC San Diego. This piece explores gender and sound with a cast of trans women, performing vocal exercises and reciting fragments of speech therapy texts all alongside a score of percussion strings and found instruments. Composers, Sarah Hennis recently spoke with KPBS arts producer, Julia Dixon Evans. Here's that interview Speaker 2: 00:39 Let's start with the work's title concerto, which is the musical term for the lowest women's vocal range. What does this work say about gender and about sound? Speaker 3: 00:51 Well, this is actually a big topic in a choral pedagogy right now, especially in like high schools and colleges, because choral teachers are starting to see more and more students transitioning at younger ages. And they've suddenly realized that like the intensely gendered world of vocal music, uh, is causing them a lot of problems because they want to treat their students with respect. And, you know, they now have female students who might be, you know, in the bass section, it's a very straightforward, easily understandable version of like, uh, really what the piece is titled after, which is that this idea of the so-called female voice does not exist. That a female voice is the voice of a person who is female. Speaker 2: 01:41 I'd like to play a short clip from the work. Speaker 1: 01:45 Hi, Speaker 2: 02:18 Sarah trans women's voices are unaffected by increasing estrogen levels in the body and not in the same way that trans men's voices are impacted by increasing testosterone. How does this work touch on what is known as voice feminization therapy? Speaker 3: 02:39 The original seed of this work was that I wanted to create a trans woman only space. And I was thinking about before I had the title or before I had this, um, kind of speech exercise thing in the piece, I was thinking about the social condition of, of like never having your own space. Um, of usually just being like the only person in the room who is trans much less a trans woman, like basically almost all the time without those spaces. There's really intense pressure on trans women to, um, assimilate in ways that are, uh, easier for trans masculine people. Because the things that physically happen to trans masculine 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, there are similar things going in the other direction, but voice is not one of them. Speaker 3: 03:43 And so I found the voice to be really like the perfect sort of distillation of this issue of trans women unfairly, uh, being forced into conforming to these like cisgender stereotypes of what being a woman means. Um, so I, uh, took a class at Ithaca college where I live several years ago, that the class is taught by speech pathology professionals and grad students for trans people. And of course the name of the class specifies trans people, not trans women, but when you attend the class, there are no trans men there. It's only a trans women, which is not to say that trans men don't feel uncomfortable with their voices because I know that that's true, but it's a different kind of discomfort where a trans woman's voice can actually like cause them to be unsafe or cause us to be unsafe the way that the class is set up. Speaker 3: 04:44 And I will say, I'm very careful to say this, that I do not find the practice of teaching, uh, components of cis-gender female speech to trans women, to be a bad thing. Like I completely understand and empathize with people who would like to speak differently than they currently do. But I will say that the way that this vocal instruction is set up and not just to Ethica college, but in general, the impulse by speech pathologists is to look at cis-gender female speech and say, all right, this is what a woman sounds like. And here are the Sonic components of that. And now you try to imitate that because aside from that being, you know, physically impossible, for lots of reasons, it sets up this internal monologue that the thing that you are trying to do is unattainable. And so we are made to feel that we are less than in a way that like we cannot control. And so I really think that the way these speech classes should be taught is to help someone based on their own unique needs and characteristics find a voice that makes them feel comfortable rather than telling them here's what CIS women do. And now you try it, which I think is, is really fraught for a lot of reasons. Speaker 2: 06:07 Concerto is described as something that exists in the spaces between traditional documentary and experimental music. What can be gained from live scoring films, especially ones where sound is so important. Speaker 3: 06:27 Uh, well, I always say that the it's not a film with a score. It's a piece of music with a film, you know, with most films that have music, the music is there to support the film, but in contraltos the musicians are an equal partner. Like obviously the, the video is the focus of the piece in terms of like subject matter. But the musicians are almost this kind of like Greek chorus. You know, part of the experience of the piece is that the instrumental parts are very physical, the pieces an hour long. And 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. Contralto is a performance piece. It's, it's a, a piece of live music with a video Speaker 2: 07:17 And you have ties to San Diego. You studied with Steven Schick. I [inaudible], what does it mean to you to bring this work here to a place you've lived and worked in? Speaker 3: 07:30 It's amazing. I really wish I could be there in person. The two years that I spent at UCS were really important to me and I went to a somewhat conservative, um, big state school for undergrad. And I remember being 21 and just so excited to go to a school where everyone was just totally entrenched in experimental music. It just was a really great experience for me. And also I started to write more sort of, for lack of a better word, proper compositions, you know, like dots on paper type of pieces. And so it was only two years of my life, but it's still, uh, an experience that like is important to me and that I still think about a lot. So yeah, I'm really happy that the work gets to be presented in San Diego. Speaker 1: 08:17 Sarah hen is, is the composer of the experimental video and music work control too. And she spoke with KPBS arts producer, Julia Dickson Evans controlled her will be performed by project blank and screened online Friday at 7:00 PM and Sunday at 2:00 PM.