FOLKS’ SONGS Centers Trans, Non-Binary, and Gender Minority Artists

Speaking, singing, shouting, and howling, the voice is front and center in FOLKS’ SONGS, the debut E.P. from the Scotland-based concert series and trans music-making world of OVER / AT. Developed and curated by Rufus Isabel ElliotFOLKS’ SONGS features three newly-commissioned audio pieces by composers Malin Lewis, Matthew Arthur Williams, and Harry Josephine Giles that explore how trans, non-binary, and other gender minority folks use the voice as an instrument. The collection of tracks is simply brilliant — scintillating, self-aware, full of humor, and piercingly clever.

In Malin Lewis Are We?, a low voice, mid voice, and high voice sing “ah” in rough unison. The held notes form the bedrock of the piece, and though the pitches are wobbly, searching, and struggling, they strive in concerted, earnest effort. The voices take turns relaxing into melismatic improvisations, and on top of all the singing, a spoken voice cycles methodically through alliterative words and phrases, as if practicing a speech therapy lesson. “Main / Mine / Mean / Moon,” the voice sounds, pleasant and courteous, spoken with a smile, perhaps inquisitive eyes. “Many moons / Many more / Morn or noon / My name / Many miles.” The text is a tongue twister, but the speaker plods along, sure and steady, maintaining careful and consistent spacing between each line. A drum and a violin enter, cycling through repetitive lines of their own but never with perfect consistency. Toward the end of the track, the droning voices become more steady, while the speaking voice ends with a set of philosophical, stream-of-consciousness questions. “Are we?” the speaker ends in a moment of isolated thought.

Malin Lewis--Photo by John Slavin

Malin Lewis–Photo by John Slavin

ASKING is a hypnotic dance track by Matthew Arthur Williams that revolves around an electronic groove and a simple spoken message: “You’re asking too many questions.” The lyric, saturated in reverb and delivered in a calm manner, is echoed twelve or so times throughout the piece with slight variations in volume, emphasis, and inflection. Sparse synth loops add an otherworldly flavor that some may recognize as polytonality, and others may feel as worlds almost colliding. It all feels like a dream. A four-on-the-floor house beat reminiscent of 808 drum machines holds everything together, driving the energy forward like an insistent metronome, and the looping of these elements—uncanny synths, metronome drums, and whispering lyric—convey a sentiment of wearied patience, as if to say “Look, I’m tired. How many times must I repeat myself? I’ll repeat this a hundred different times if I have to, but please stop asking so many questions.” In the making of this track, Williams enlisted the voice of punk drummer Joel Cu, “who doesn’t usually sing,” but contributed whispers nonetheless.

Matthew Arthur Williams--Photo by Hollie Myles

Matthew Arthur Williams–Photo by Hollie Myles

Last of the new commissions, Out of Existence, is a suite for solo voice or chorus composed by Harry Josephine Giles in collaboration with singer Vivien Holmes. Each of the five movements is named after a transphobic acronym that serves as a springboard for the corresponding text and music. The suite is an impressive work that doesn’t shy away from conjuring emotion, but while it stirs up pain and anger, it takes care of both the audience and performer at the same time.

The score to Out of Existence is like a visual poem in five (beautifully typeset and formatted) acts, the instructions of which are a vehicle for transmitting lyrics, dynamics, texture, and pacing rather than melody and harmony. Untethered to notes, singer Vivien Holmes gives a captivating and courageous performance based on her own musicality. In movement I. AGP. Allegro moderato, Holmes duets with herself, bouncing playfully and chaotically through staccato syllables “au / to / gy / no / phi” arranged in various permutations. At the end, she breaks into an unexpected round of major arpeggios, the result of which is hilariously underscored by the loud, unedited snort as she catches her breath.

Movement III. TIM. Presto is another standout track for both the score and recorded performance. Here, Giles lays a transphobic acronym out to bear by sounding it out, layering it, and repeating it incessantly, to great cathartic and comedic effect. This is by no means a reclaiming of the awful term; however, weaponized language sure sounds sillier once Holmes has sputtered “timtimtimtimtimtimtim” a hundred times in an exaggeratedly stiff, judgmental tone, complete with loud breath-catching, mouth smacking, and lip trilling.

Harry Josephine Giles--Photo by Rich Dyson

Harry Josephine Giles–Photo by Rich Dyson

Out of Existence is a rich work defined by its conceptual clarity, openness to performer interpretation, and unapologetic centering of trans voices and experiences. “This music may only be sung by those to whom these terms are given,” Giles writes at the top of the score. The community care demonstrated by Giles and the rest of the FOLKS’ SONGS crew is heartening, and this whole project is made by a team of 100% trans, non-binary, and other gender minority folks. OVER / AT’s debut E.P. is exciting, authentic, and a groundbreaking work full of exceptional creativity and execution—a promising sign for more trans-centered music and art to come.


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF. 

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