I’m a Trans Composer. What the Hell Does That Mean?

In the last few months, there have been a number of highly-circulated articles about women and contemporary classical music. There was Amy Beth Kirsten at NewMusicBox, arguing that the term “woman composer” is anachronistic; Kristin Kuster in the New York Times challenging that idea on the grounds that a composer’s success is never “all about the music”; Melissa Dunphy‘s post about the need for women to be visible in a world where most composers are “white men of average build with brown hair and glasses”; and Ellen McSweeney, also at NewMusicBox, examining some possible reasons for women’s underrepresentation in the new-music world.

Reading all these articles got me thinking about the role that gender plays in my own musical life. For those unaware, I’m transgender and genderqueer, and while I wouldn’t exactly describe myself as a “woman,” it’s a lot closer to the mark than “man.” So here are some thoughts on what it’s like to be a composer on the trans-female spectrum in the early 21st century.

 
Defining My Terms

Before I get to the “composer” part, let’s talk about the “trans” part. There are about seven million different words that describe the various nuances of gender identity, and sorting them out can be pretty daunting, so I’ll start by explaining the terms I used in the previous paragraph.

When I say I’m “transgender,” I’m talking about two related but distinct ways in which there’s a mismatch between the gender I currently identify with and the gender I grew up inhabiting. The first has to do with my internal sense of what my body is supposed to look like — what the brilliant biologist, activist and theorist Julia Serano calls “subconscious sex.” For example, I find the presence of hair on my face intensely alienating, as if there were something inexplicably wrong about its being there. (I’m currently in the very slow process of permanently removing it.) And when I see people and think “I want to look like that,” those people are always female or androgynous — never male.

The second type of mismatch has more to do with social meanings than with physiology, and explaining it requires a bit of a digression. Let me start by saying that I find the way many people talk about gender to be overly reliant on stereotypes. It’s tempting to define the social aspects of gender in terms of particular kinds of clothing, particular tastes and hobbies, and particular ways of talking and moving. But that approach is too simplistic. It can’t account for, say, butch women who nonetheless identify as women. I think it makes more sense to describe gender as a lens through which all those things are given social meaning. If that doesn’t make sense, imagine walking into a bar and seeing a person with a flannel shirt, a buzz cut, a beer, a swagger, and a picture of their pet Rottweiler in their wallet. You don’t know how that person identifies, but interpreting them through a “male” lens produces a different social meaning than interpreting them through a “female” lens. The clothing, tastes, and behavioral affect haven’t changed, but they come across differently, in the same way that the same painting comes across differently if you think of it as being painted in the 20th century than if you think of it as being painted in the 16th.

So when I say that I identify as female(ish), I don’t mean that I think of my personality as an inherently or specifically female one; I’m not even sure that means anything. What I mean is that I feel comfortable, embodied and sane when I view myself through the interpretive lens called “female,” whereas I feel alienated, disembodied and panicky when I view myself through the interpretive lens called “male.” One produces meanings that make emotional sense, and the other doesn’t.

So why all the qualifiers — “female(ish),” “trans-female spectrum” and so on? That’s why I describe myself as “genderqueer” as well as “transgender.” The word “genderqueer” means “not identifying solely or consistently as male or female,” and it includes people who identify as both at once, people who identify as one or the other at different times, people who identify as neither, and people who identify as a third gender. In my case, it doesn’t mean that I sometimes or partially think of myself as a guy. Rather, it means that the arbitrariness and constructedness of gender as a set of meanings imposed on human bodies is a part of my gut-level experience of myself and of the world. Or to put it less technically: I often feel like an anthropologist from Neptune sent to Earth to study the ways of humans — but I’d rather be an Neptunian disguised as a human female than a Neptunian disguised as a human male. At times I’ve also listed my gender on forms as “80s” or “Daria.” These descriptions might sound inconsistent, but they’re all different ways of getting at the same idea: a kind of gender in which unreality is an essential component. Many trans women would be terribly insulted by the suggestion that they are in any sense “not real women,” but my reaction to that would be “yeah, that’s kinda true” — just not for the reason that transphobic people would think it’s true.

 
Women’s Music?

One of the issues that comes up a lot in discussions of gender and music is the question of whether men and women compose differently (with the implied question for me personally: is my music somehow “female”?) As far as I can tell, the answer is no. Life experience, social conditioning and biology can all affect a composer’s music, but those things vary enormously among men as a group and among women as a group, and how people react to them artistically is idiosyncratic and unpredictable. Certainly I can think of plenty of pieces that fly in the face of gender stereotypes, and I’m sure you can too. (First example that comes to mind: the violent, noisy music of Annie Gosfield.)

That said, I have noticed that certain specific attitudes toward music seem to correlate with gender. In particular, it seems like nearly every composer-performer whose work depends on an intense, profound, almost mystical relationship with the artist’s own body is a woman; and nearly every composer who sees music as a purely abstract, formalist construction, free of emotional, social, psychological or political meaning, is a man. Given how our society is put together, the existence of those correlations shouldn’t come as a surprise. But I don’t feel any connection with either of those points of view, and my own approach to music, which has to do with cultural history and the fuzzy boundary between humor and horror, doesn’t seem to be a particularly gendered one.

 
Trans / Genderqueer Music?

While I don’t think of my work as specifically female, I do think of it as specifically genderqueer. Just as I often feel like I’m standing outside the world of gendered meanings, aware of them but never seeing them as inevitable natural facts like so many humans seem to do, I also tend to feel like I’m standing outside the world of artistic meanings. The discourse surrounding music tends to take certain value judgments for granted, although the value judgments vary with the musical style being discussed: complexity is better than simplicity, or emotional expression is better than cerebral formalism, or change is better than repetition, or raw authenticity is better than glitzy artifice, or whatever. But when I look at the world of music, I see an elaborate, sometimes gloriously absurd game, in which all of those rules are arbitrary conventions. Even though, objectively speaking, I’m an insider in the classical music world — I’ve been studying it formally since I was a kid, and I’ve been in academia for ten years — I always wind up feeling like an outsider, no matter what city or scene or university department I’m in. The fact that I’m a composer rather than some other kind of artist feels more like an accident of my personal history than something that was destined to happen. That’s why so much of my work looks at culture “from the outside,” to the extent that that’s possible — whether it’s commenting on mid-century love songs, faux world music or TV sound logos.

The four songs of Behind the Wallpaper go one step further. In that piece, I tried to convey an outsider’s view not just of music, but of the experience of living in the world. I’ve written before about wanting to address trans issues in my work, and this set of songs is as explicit as I’ve gotten — especially “Unnatural,” which describes seeing people’s clothing and hairstyles as a set of social signifiers and concludes with the line “you make me feel like an unnatural woman,” and “This American Life,” which includes the image of someone in an uncomfortably tight dress being laughed at by a drunk person in a bar. Both songs can be interpreted in other ways — Connie Volk, who premiered the piece, clearly had no trouble relating to “Unnatural” despite not being trans herself, and one listener interpreted “This American Life” as being about a cisgender woman who feels uneasy about what she has to wear to work (the song also mentions a tedious part-time job). That’s fine with me; my hope is that anyone who’s ever felt alienated, for any reason, will be able to relate to the piece on some level. But I also wanted to create something that my fellow trans and/or genderqueer people in particular could listen to and say “yeah, I know what that’s like,” or maybe even “you mean I’m not the only one who’s experienced that?” And it was important to me to make something that fills that role while at the same time being mysterious and subtle and strange, since, frankly, I find most trans art heavy-handed and way too fond of the word “fierce.” (Imogen Binnie’s novel Nevada is pretty fantastic, though. Go read that.)

 
Performance and Performativity (isn’t that a Jane Austen novel?)

In 2007 and 2008, I wrote a large-scale narrative piece called The Travels of E.C. Dumonde. It was the first thing I’d written for myself as a vocalist (mostly speaking, occasionally singing), and I performed it seven times in and around New York. At the time I thought of myself as a guy, albeit one with gender-bendy tendencies. In the video of me performing the piece at Roulette in 2008, I have a beard, and I deliberately use the low part of my vocal register; I was afraid at the time that my naturally high voice came across as un-adult.

I started describing myself as genderqueer, and began my ludicrously slow and still ongoing transition, right around when I left New York for Chicago in 2009. I didn’t perform Dumonde for a few years after that. The way I talked gradually shifted, along with the way I dressed, the way I carried myself, and the pronouns I preferred (for the record, I’m fine with either “she” or “they”). Last fall I finally revived the piece, as part of a show with Grant Wallace Band at Gallery Cabaret. And when I did, I found that performing it was a totally different experience. Not only did I use a different part of my vocal register — that’s so automatic at this point that I don’t think I could sound the way I did in 2008 even if I wanted to — but the piece’s affect had changed. Dumonde in 2012 is less stentorian than Dumonde in 2008; it has more of a raised eyebrow and smile in it, influenced by Miranda July’s unsettling spoken-word albums from the 90s (which, appropriately enough, were what got me interested in vocal performance in the first place, along with my old favorite Laurie Anderson). I also feel vastly more comfortable in my own body when I perform than I used to; or, to put it another way, I now feel like I have a body, rather than a thing that carries my mind around. (Despite what I said about composers who have intense relationships with their bodies above, I think this has more to do with coming out and transitioning than with anything female-specific; I know trans men who have described feeling the same way.)

But here’s the strange thing: not only do I feel more at ease with myself performing Dumonde now than I did in 2008, but I also feel more at ease with myself performing Dumonde than I do in everyday life. And this, once again, has to do with being genderqueer as well as trans. Since I often think of my gender as performative anyway, actually performing on a stage is incredibly freeing. It means I can give myself permission to make use of femme iconography without getting self-conscious and worrying about whether other people will see it as somehow “fake.” (Although of course, fake can be just as good…)

 
A Bit About Politics

The one thing I haven’t addressed in this post is the political aspect of working as a trans, more-or-less female-identified composer. There are certainly stories I could tell. In the past few years, I’ve started to experience the sexist microagressions that I’d previously only heard about, including uncomfortably intense compliments from older male colleagues, the assumption that I must be a singer, and questions like “did you do the electronics yourself?” (something I was never asked once when I presented as male). On the flip side, I’ve had a couple of professional experiences where my gender identity wasn’t taken seriously, including one that looked an awful lot like blatant discrimination. But the truth is, I haven’t been out for long enough to have a clear, big-picture view of this aspect of the social landscape. I don’t even necessarily know how people are perceiving me at any given time, especially given the slowness of my transition, the persistence of old versions of me in other people’s minds, and my androgynous name. So keep reading this blog, and maybe I’ll have more to say about the political side of things in a year or two.

4 Comments

  1. Posted July 26, 2013 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

    Great article, Alex!! I’m always so interested in what you have to say…about anything, really, but especially about this very personal….uh….I hate the word “journey”, but you know what I mean.
    I hope we can work together someday on some musical project!!
    xoxoxox Kathy

  2. Posted July 27, 2013 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    Fantastic blog, Alex! Thanks for expressing the complexity of your trans/genderqueer experience so eloquently. All the best -Lydia

  3. n
    Posted July 27, 2013 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    Thank you so much for this! It was exactly the thing I have been wanting to read for awhile now. I am so happy to read it and so happy to know of you and your work.

  4. Posted July 30, 2013 at 2:16 am | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing, Alex! A fascinating conversation.

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