PORTLAND, Ore. – Contralto, an unusual work that fuses film with a live chamber ensemble to explore the voices of transgender women, received its incisive U.S. West Coast premiere on Sept. 14 by the Third Angle New Music Ensemble as part of the Time-Based Art Festival. Created by Sarah Hennies, the one-hour piece combined elements of music therapy and documentary in a manner that was both thought-provoking and puzzling.
The performance took place in a large warehouse-like building that serves as the headquarters of the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art. PICA launched TBA in 2003. It has grown steadily. Last year the two-week extravaganza drew 26,000 people.
The term contralto refers to the lowest singing range of the female voice. Each of the performers in the film (including Alexandra Brandon, Alyssa Green, Anna McCormick, Dreia Spies, Sarang Umarji, and Josie Zanfordino) had undergone sex reassignment to become a woman. As the program notes stated, higher levels of estrogen do not affect the voices of trans women. Being a trans woman with a male voice can lead to many problems, including dysphoria, harassment, and violence.
In her introduction to Contralto, Hennies, a composer and percussionist based in Ithaca, NY, took credit for the music and the film. The text was written by speech pathologists. The percussive music (performed by violinist Searmi Park, violist Kim Mai Nguyen, cellist Valdine Mishkin, bassist Nina DeCesare, and percussionists Paul Owen, Luanne Warner Katz, and Chris Whyte) seemed to invoke the emotional struggle that the trans women went through as they tried to find their new voices.
The piece unfolded slowly and was not separated into movements, but it did have several brief pauses that gave it a semblance of structure, beginning with a guided meditation. Each person closed her eyes and followed the suggestions, such as “Notice your neck and throat. Let them be soft. Relax. Let your face and facial muscles be soft.”
After each trans woman was told, “Take a breath and, when you are ready, open your eyes,” the musicians went into action, crumpling paper, dropping water into a bowl, tapping on the sides of their instruments, and making many other sounds that had no sustained tone.
In the next sequence, each participant said an aspirational word like “how,” “hike,” “help,” and “hoist,” and sentences beginning with those words. After speaking a series of phrases that often started with the word “if,” each participant recited a snippet of medical advice from their vocal-training period, such as to avoid whispering and avoid smoking.
When the instrumental ensemble played a sustained tone, each transgender woman attempted to sing that tone and go up the scale. Most of them barely opened their mouths, and stepped up just a few notes. When the women tried nasal sounds, the instrumentalists rang tiny bells is if to encourage them. All of this culminated in a long drum roll and upward glissandi by the strings as each participant tried to push her voice higher.
In the final sequence, each participant spoke a number of sentences addressed to someone named Peter, such as “Help me, Peter, help me” and “Miss me, Peter, miss me.” The orchestra accompanied them with sounds that seesawed back and forth, suggesting the inner struggle of each woman. One of the drummers repeatedly tossed a small object in the air, caught it, and tapped various instruments.
About midway through the piece, the pauses were punctuated by a sung chord that reminded me of a factory whistle. The chordal blasts suggested that the performers would meet each other and perhaps form an impromptu choir, but this never happened. Instead, we were left with portraits of individuals who were hopeful but still anxious to have fully accepted women’s voices.
That ending left me wondering what would happen to them. Would they be successful in finding their new voices? Hennies didn’t tie everything up in a neat bundle. But the unresolved conclusion and perhaps the absence of sung music caused some listeners to grumble. I heard the couple behind me wondering if they could get their money back.
Perhaps Hennies will make another film with the same group a few years from now to give us an update.