Last fall, I was touring and performing my piece “Falsetto” every night. It’s a strange, physically difficult, fumbling, deliberately incompetent (or maybe a different type of expert) performance played almost entirely with small bells found at thrift stores, purchased with the criteria that they must in some way sound unusual or broken or just “not nice,” and also that they cost less than $5 each.
The sound of the bells is great. When layered, it’s a complex, weird, and unpredictable sound made with exceedingly humble means – literally just jostling a bunch of crap around that I found at Goodwill. However, the content and performance of the piece may cause some feelings of uncertainty and confusion in the unassuming spectator. One unhappy concert reviewer went so far as to say, “I thought I didn’t understand percussive theory anymore. Hell, I thought I didn’t understand music anymore.”
Much to my delight, this is the exact feeling the piece aims to provoke and the reviewer had actually captured my performance perfectly. Why *am* I drawn to art that I expressly hope will cause me to think, “What the hell is happening?” It’s a feeling not unlike the experience of figuring out that you’re trans at the age of 34, having lived mostly cluelessly outside the worn-out, “ever since I was a little kid, I knew I was different” trope. In fact, even among my other trans and queer friends, I don’t know a single person whose experience resembles my own (which, as it turns out, is a common feeling among many trans people… that we can’t relate to anyone, including other trans people). We look for ourselves in other people’s art and it’s not too often that I find something I recognize in myself.
Martha – “St Paul’s (Westerberg Comprehensive)”
We are not worthy to receive you / We are the daughters and the sons / We are the second-hand trousers / Blazers and blouses / Irredeemable ones.
José Esteban Muñoz wrote eloquently about queer fascination with the mundane and the impulse to see expansive worlds within things that most people dismiss as commonplace. He cites Frank O’Hara’s famous poem “Having a Coke with You” as signifying, “a vast lifeworld of queer relationality, an encrypted sociality, and a utopian potentiality.” It’s a similar impulse to my own, having exposed conventional percussion instruments and their bizarre acoustic inner life – simply by playing them – to the point that I concluded that any object is potentially fascinating if you just play it the right way.
Certainly, the act of “saving” thrown out objects that nobody wants will likely resonate (no pun intended) with most queer people. The “thrown out little bell” and its Ugly Duckling-style “story” in my piece “Falsetto” as representation of discarded queer life is not exactly a brilliantly conceived or nuanced metaphor, but it’s one that stings and feels necessary nonetheless.
1 Corinthians 14:34
Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.
Last year I took a class for trans women that aims to teach us how to speak in a way that sounds more like cisgender females than our “natural” voices. The purpose of the class is to find a new way of speaking for yourself that helps to decrease dysphoria and is less likely to unintentionally alert strangers that you’re a trans woman because, let’s face it, that doesn’t always turn out so great.
Most cis people don’t seem to know that when a transgender man takes testosterone, his vocal cords thicken and his voice lowers significantly. Trans women experience no such change. Our identities are quite literally betrayed by our own bodies and there is little we can do to change it, leaving us to grapple with a society that is actively trying to make us disappear.
When I’ve described “Falsetto” to friends and I say it involves, “small hand bells,” a common response is, “Oh, like in church?” Initially, I hadn’t thought about this at all and shrugged it off as an unintentional coincidence – “I just like the sound.” Then came the accidental discovery while researching singing styles that falsetto singing was invented with the express purpose of giving men the female voice parts in church choirs because women were not permitted. The place we most associate with the small hand bell – church – as it turns out, dictated the exclusion of women and now in the present day are dictating legislation that’s keeping trans women out of bathrooms with the unspoken ultimate goal that they’ll simply vanish from school, work, and society.
A six-year old girl asked Klaus Nomi, “Are you an alien?” and Nomi warmly replied, “Yes, little girl. I am.”
Klaus Nomi is one of the world’s most famous countertenors (or contralto, depending on gender) and his former vocal coach spoke at length about Klaus’s insistence on developing only his unusually high register capabilities. Klaus Nomi also created an elaborate persona for himself that involved him being an alien from another planet.
Was Klaus Nomi a closeted or repressed trans woman? Did he find it more plausible to exist in the world as “simply a gay man” who claimed to be an alien from another planet than to identify as a woman?
Even now, one of Klaus Nomi’s closest collaborators Joey Arias uses female pronouns and speaks openly having been drawn to dresses from a young age, but she can’t seem to say that she is transgender. Instead she has invented that she, “has the Z chromosome!” The repression and societal pressure against being transgender is so great, our policing of gender essentialist standards so aggressive, and sexism against women of all walks of life so intense and unmovable, that perhaps it subconsciously motivated Nomi and Arias to be unthinkable beings rather than just simply women.
This is, of course, all total speculation on my part but let’s call it an educated and familiar guess. Klaus Nomi’s most memorable performance of Henry Purcell’s “The Cold Song” when heard in a trans/queer context, coming from the mouth of a self-proclaimed extraterrestrial being, reads like a brutal tribute to chronic dysphoria (Nomi later died of complications from AIDS in 1983, one of the first prominent celebrities to do so). We do tend to recognize our own and the feeling is a familiar one as I set out again to bruise and blister my hands for another performance of “Falsetto.”
What power art thou, who from below
Hast made me rise, unwillingly and slow,
From beds of everlasting snow!
See’st thou not how stiff,
And wondrous old,
Far unfit to bear the bitter cold.
I can scarcely move,
Or draw my breath,
I can scarcely move,
Or draw my breath.
Let me, let me,
Let me, let me,
Let me, let me,
Freeze again to death!