For the latest in the RNCM’s Decontamination series, its programmed Sarah Hennies’ Contralto – an hour-long work for video, strings and percussion. The project utilises the sound of transgender women’s voices in order to explore transfeminine identity, examining the intimate and peculiar relationship between gender and sound. Existing in a space between experimental music and documentary, the project receives its Manchester premiere at the RNCM.
Based in Ithaca, New York, Sarah Hennies is a boundary-smashing composer. Her work is concerned with a variety of musical, sociopolitical and psychological issues including queer and trans identity, love, intimacy, psychoacoustics and percussion. Primarily a composer of solo and chamber works, she’s also active in improvisation, film, performance art and dance.
First premiered in 2017, Contralto looks at the impact of the voice on gender dysphoria among trans women. Unlike trans men, whose hormone therapy causes their voices to drop in pitch, trans women’s voices remain unchanged by the process. Contralto – which defined in musical terms means ‘the lowest female singing voice’ – shines a light on the resultant difficulties faced by trans women who feel their voice doesn’t match their gender.
The film uses aspects of ‘voice feminisation therapy’ as artistic material. It features a cast of trans women speaking, singing and performing vocal exercises which are sometimes used to help modify a perceived male-sounding voice into a perceived female-sounding voice. The showcasing of transfemale voices in such a beautiful way has generated a wave of critical praise, and has had an affirming impact on many trans women.
The cast of Contralto will be accompanied by a dense and varied live score for string quartet and three percussionists. They will explore a variety of conventional and nonconventional approaches to sound-making, and interact with the film in real time. It promises to be a thought-provoking screening/performance, and one that just might change how you categorise a ‘feminine’ voice.