5 Questions to Rylan Gleave (All Men Unto Me)

“I’m sorry in advance. I hope this provides you with some joy,” Rylan Gleave chuckles into a voice memo before launching into Mozart’s Voi che sapete an octave lower than written. The composer-vocalist has been on testosterone for eight weeks, and as he sings through Cherubino’s aria from The Marriage of Figaro, his voice strains over changing breaks.

This voice memo now appears as the “Interlude” track on Gleave’s new album, In Chemical Transit, which traces his vocal journey from mezzo-soprano to bass-baritone. Released under the moniker All Men Unto Me, the album incorporates red and anarchist black metal, Anglican church music, and operatic influences, covering extensive sonic territory while remaining thematically concise.

Voi che sapete is the clever throughline; the aria, heard twice on the album, serves as a reference point for Gleave’s changing voice. And, as a pants-role aria traditionally sung by a woman playing a horny adolescent boy, the queer subtext has been there since day one.

Gleave queers the aria even further with multiple recontextualizations. In “Interlude,” his performance of Voi che sapete isn’t meant to be pretty or polished; it is the vehicle through which he documents his newly-shifting voice. A hint of subtext is added when the recording abruptly cuts off after the line “E per me nuovo, capir nol so” (“It’s new for me, and I understand nothing”). In “senza saper,” Gleave duets with a recording of his 14-year old, pre-T, mezzo-soprano self, singing Voi che sapete. The elder Gleave adds grumbling drones and bass notes to the perky aria, sounding harmonically disconnected at first, but ultimately reconciling with the recording (and, by extension, with his past self).

In Chemical Transit is a thoroughly well-constructed and performed work that makes for a riveting listen. I caught up with Gleave to ask about the album a month after his launch concert in Edinburgh.

Rylan Gleave (All Men Unto Me) performs live in Edinburgh -- Photo by Louise Mather

Rylan Gleave (All Men Unto Me) performs live in Edinburgh — Photo by Louise Mather

Voi che sapete is a brilliant throughline that operates on a number of literal and metaphorical levels in your album. How did you go about recontextualizing this well-known work, and are there any particular moments in the album that you’d like to draw our attention to?

Voi che sapete is such a love/hate aria for me. I think I’ve only ever sung it in its full operatic context twice. I used to sing it for auditions and recitals as a stand-alone piece, so it was usually part of a broader programme, contrasted with French and German art song, and English oratorio. Selecting repertoire as a young, not-quite-out trans man with a mezzo-soprano range threw up a lot of problems, and I ended up switching to study composition instead.

When I found the recordings of me as a teenager singing Voi che sapete in full, I knew I wanted to use the aria as a clothesline to hang particular moments and experiences from. The big ‘pay-off’ moment where you hear the oldest recording is in the last track, senza saper. I’ve contrasted it by opening the track with voice-deepening exercises, which I used to try before I got my testosterone prescription. There’s an odd sense of humour in it that I exaggerated live, reminiscent of clowning and avant-garde drag. I lip-synced the Interlude, too, in the live show, which is a voice note of me around nine weeks on T.

I wanted to have funny moments alongside the more serious stuff. I find Voi che sapete a really funny aria. The teenage angst and weirdness of puberty, intertwined with the trouser role, always made me think of drag as a teenager, and later about transness. I don’t think it’s a stretch to read it with a queer lens. In Chemical Transit is then perhaps more about giving my own life as context, and filling in the blanks of the ‘broader repertoire programme’ idea with things that have resonated with me.

When you recorded this album in 2021, your voice was still “in transit” after 2.5 years on T. What was it like to finally perform the album last month (in 2023) now that your voice is more settled?

It was honestly such a joy to return with a more solid voice. There was a worry that I wouldn’t be able to match the recording, but this turned into a creative challenge when practising before the show. My falsetto has changed timbrally and where it sits in my range, so many of the higher vocal parts that were a struggle in 2021 were easier. This actually wasn’t good news as a performer; I’d written those higher parts with the intention of my voice breaking on them, and so I had to re-learn them with different techniques. I was deliberately lowering my larynx to give the higher parts a more strained sound, which I’d learned working with Oliver Vibrans and Paraorchestra for a re-imagination of Scott Walker’s The Drift.

That’s one of the nice things about revisiting the work; I’ve done so much vocally since then that I’m approaching it with a more controlled voice. The recording represents the start of the journey with a new voice, and the live show was a celebration of how much I am able to do with it now. Projects with Ashenspire, class-work, and Paraorchestra have meant that I’ve been able to expand my vocal style and delivery from the classical training undertaken as a teenager. I think that confidence made for a convincing performance, as I was then free to think about both intuitive and choreographed movement, and audience interaction. It was a beautiful evening, and a wonderfully queer space. Chamber Music Scotland very kindly supported the launch, as part of their Embedded Musician’s programme, covering the East of Scotland. I felt so blessed that folks both locally and from faraway corners of the U.K. made the journey and enjoyed themselves.

You collaborated with a number of artists on the album — cellist Simone Seales, pianist Edward Cohen, percussionist Ewan Millar, Ollie Hawker on electronics, mixing engineer Scott McLean — and every instrument (including your voice) conveys such a unique personality. Can you speak more about the collaboration and how these artists contributed to your vision?

Most of the album, apart from ma pur mi piace languir cosi and some sections of FREEZING / FLAMES is entirely composed and scored out. I was incredibly fortunate to work with the artists on the album, and their creativity is showcased in those fluid moments. The most collaborative track is ma pur mi piace languir cosi, with Simone having a lot of freedom. I wrote out material in boxes, with brackets and time estimates to align with the electronic track. I’d made the electronic track out of a super time-stretched version of the Voi che sapete piano accompaniment, and some recordings of my voice one year on testosterone. Their sensitivity when playing to the electronics was just stunning, and it’s lovely to have kept working with Simone on a variety of projects.

When Scott was mixing the album, he wrote to me about ma pur mi piace languir cosi, and asked if it was okay if he did a bit more in the way of sound design. He said he could hear what I was going for, but the electronics hadn’t been ‘composed’ in the same way as most of the acoustic music. I was pretty new to electronics, and whilst I’d messed about with EQ and reverb, I knew he’d be able to do a lot more with it. It was honestly a bit mind-blowing getting the mix back, and I’m still not sure I understand everything he did with it. That was another great thing about the collaboration; the learning curve feels exponential, especially in the early stages. I like finding people to create with who have skillsets different from mine.

"In Chemical Transit" live performance in Edinburgh -- Photo by Marilena Vlachopolou

“In Chemical Transit” live performance in Edinburgh — Photo by Marilena Vlachopolou

Why did you choose to record the album live (and in just three hours) rather than tracking it incrementally in a studio?

This wasn’t so much of a choice as a way to make it happen, but I’m pleased with how it worked out. It was recorded in lieu of a performance at PLUG Festival, in my final year at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, due to performance restrictions with COVID-19. We had a rehearsal the day before, and the performers had been practising the score for about three months, so it came together quickly. I could say it was done intentionally to reiterate that ‘time capsule’ element, because it captured a very particular moment in time, but it was a case of using the resources available to make something happen.

In hindsight, it is fitting that we recorded in this way, as I couldn’t have practised the vocals for recording. Whilst my voice had dropped, I wasn’t able to control it, and trying to do so would have been pointless. I do still cringe slightly at some of the breaks, where I’d had an idea for a particular ‘rough’ sound and completely missed it, but that’s part of the piece. It’s an authentic vocal recording and it reflects how weird my voice was at that time. I think if we’d tracked it incrementally in a studio, I’d have gotten hung up on small details, and it wouldn’t be as representative of the whole.

What does the future hold for All Men Unto Me? Do you have any upcoming projects, goals, or visions?

We’ve nearly finished recording the second album, which is modeled on a traditional requiem structure, but explores patriarchal power, survivorship, queer reverence, and forgiveness. It’s written for voice, guitar, bass guitar, drums, cello, and church organ. It has been supported by Sound and Music’s New Voices programme, and Paraorchestra / Sky Art’s Musician in Residence programme. I’m again collaborating with Simone (cello) and Scott (guitars, recording and mixing engineer), and we’ll be going back to Abbey Road to work with Alex Wharton on mastering.

It’s worth noting that In Chemical Transit feels like new music with other elements, whereas this new work feels like doom metal with new music elements. It seems appropriate, as the second album explores a wider world than my contemporary classical study. I have yet to figure out where in the musical spheres it sits, but I had the same apprehension with In Chemical Transit.

I like that the lineup changes for each project, and that All Men Unto Me is flexible. I’m hopeful that the work following overlaps with Paraorchestra on an album with larger forces. Currently it’s nice to be still in the recording headspace, and to think about how sounds fit together. It’s been interesting relying less on scores, and more on my ears. I’m looking forward to the upcoming final days of recording before Scott gets stuck into mixing, and then a trip to London to leave it in Alex’s very capable hands.

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