Speaking Together: Rufus Isabel Elliot on the Trans, Non-Binary, and Gender-Diverse World of OVER / AT

Rufus uses it/its pronouns.

Rufus Isabel Elliot is a composer, musician, and the creative force behind OVER / AT, a trans, non-binary, and gender-diverse music-making world based in Scotland. In March 2021, OVER / AT released their debut EP, FOLKS’ SONGS, a collection of newly-commissioned tracks exploring how trans people use the voice as an instrument. FOLKS’ SONGSis brilliant. We reviewed it here on I CARE IF YOU LISTEN, and the EP went on to become shortlisted for a Scottish Award for New Music.

Next up for OVER / AT is a solo release by Rufus Isabel Elliot itself featuring Scots traditional singer Josie Vallely. A/am/ams (come ashore, turn over) is a mysterious, apocalyptic story told through music that arrives as a limited edition tape and digital release on November 28, 2021, with the help of the Greater Lanarkshire Auricular Research Council (GLARC). We chatted with Rufus in anticipation of this release and learned a whole lot about OVER / AT, composing, and what organizing principles have guided the creation of this trans music-making world.

Rufus: I feel alienated from the narrative of “I always knew I wanted to be a composer.” I wasn’t, you know, compelled from on high to be a composer. It’s not like I did an undergraduate degree in music, then a master’s degree in music, then a PhD in music, and knew all the time exactly what I was trying to do. I made a lot of active choices to be here.

Chrysanthe: How did you discover composing for yourself then?

Rufus: I was required to compose a piece for my music A-levels (my final qualification) and admitted to a teacher that I was quite anxious it. I told him that I didn’t know how to compose, didn’t think I was good at composing, and found it really hard. I’d written some Bach chorale/four-part harmony kind of thing for the assignment — probably full of mistakes — and my teacher just said, “You know you don’t actually have to write like that.” That opened the door for me. It sort of gave me permission to not be this classical music theory buff person who wrote symphonies when they were 11.

Rufus Isabel Elliot

Rufus Isabel Elliot

Chrysanthe: How did OVER / AT come into existence in the midst of your practice?

Rufus: Part of it was that I was writing a lot of music that was engaged with my experiences — my body, gender, voice, whatever — and was aware that there were a lot of other trans artists who were speaking to similar areas. I wanted to have a gig where we could all speak together and have it be a conversation rather than each speaking alone in our rooms. We can do a lot more if we’re speaking together — not necessarily raising our voices in unison, but being part of a conversation.

Chrysanthe: I love that “conversation rather than unison” part. There’s a lot of pressure foisted on trans projects to perfectly encapsulate everything about the trans experience and to be responsible emissaries for the “community.”

Rufus: To be honest, that’s always been a fear of working on the project. No project is going to encompass all the different voices. We’re not the one trans way of making music. OVER / AT almost exists so that other people can do it differently. It doesn’t exist to be a defining testament…

Chrysanthe: Like “the first and only” trans music-making world.

Rufus: Yeah, exactly. Because the idea of “first trans role on the Met Opera stage” or “first trans” anything is just another way of not engaging. It’s tokenizing. It relates to the sort of scarcity model in the arts, the idea that you need to have something special, and it’s a problem when that something special is just “trans-ness.” It crushes the nuance and subtlety of our differences. OVER / AT is entirely provisional. It’s a way of bringing people together and speaking now.

Chrysanthe: To be honest, the geographical specificity of OVER / AT surprised me at first. I’m so used to things being virtual and either “everywhere” or involving “everyone.” The fact that OVER / AT was born from a gig and has this “come together and speak now” approach makes it feel very tangible, despite its ephemerality. Speaking of which, what inspired you to “commit” some of these conversations to the tangible medium of an EP?

Scots traditional singer Josie Vallely performing in Elgol--Photo by LiveLoveRun

Scots traditional singer Josie Vallely performing in Elgol–Photo by LiveLoveRun

Rufus: A friend was taking testosterone, which caused his voice to break in his mid-20s, and he was a classical singer before that. So I suggested that we tried some kind of improvised recording, and I wrote some lines to try. A year later, a couple of other trans people I know who aren’t musicians appeared in the piece. One of them was suffering a lot of mental health problems and had started taking singing lessons as sort of a balm. The singing lessons ended up being a really beautiful thing, so we made a bunch of recordings. Then, they listened to the first recordings and sang along to themselves on the recording over and over, and it sort of became this little mini choir of trans voices. It had this really beautiful and humane sound of it, and that’s where the idea came to make an EP with lots of singing and different kinds of music.

Chrysanthe: That’s incredible.

Rufus: It was really important to me that the OVER / AT EP involve people with really different musical backgrounds. It wasn’t like I went and thought, “Who are the up-and-coming conservatoire kids?” It was more like, “Who’s kicking around the idea of making music?”

Chrysanthe: The way you curated the EP definitely hearkens back to your own circuitous path to composing. One last question, if you don’t mind. Can you tell me about the name OVER / AT?

Rufus: Yeah..I…it was a joke. When I’m driving around the Highlands, like ricocheting around doing stuff, there’s a lot of time spent being on one mountain looking “over” there “at” the other mountain. It’s kind of within reach but still distant from you. It’s like “trans,” which implies something that’s over there, something across from, etc… Anyway, I’m now here looking “over” there, but some other time, I’ll be over there looking “at” somewhere else. OVER / AT. The hopefulness and the provisionality are built into it.


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