Annika Socolofsky Tugs at the Complexities of Womanhood on “I Tell You Me”

“Sugar and spice, and everything nice. That’s what little girls are made of…” or so goes the well-known nursery rhyme. I, for one, always thought those attributes were a step up from the “snails and puppy dog tails” assigned to the boys, but composer and vocalist Annika Socolofsky would almost certainly disagree. With her defiant three-movement work I Tell You Me, she attacks the very heart of this question — and its lasting implications.

The eponymous recording, out Sept. 8 on Carrier Records, features Socolofsky performing with ~Nois saxophone quartet, which commissioned the work. Scored for voice, saxophone quartet, and amplified electronics, the cycle begins with “Sugar and Spice.” Socolofsky croons, “Of snails, of fear, of bones, of scales, of stones…” her smoky contralto set apart from a canvas of soft pulsations that punctuate her impassioned words. “Grease,” she growls, “and ice” — her voice rising lyrically, reciting a languid arioso that alternates between melodious passages and throaty exclamations. Socolofsky’s words are carefully chosen; grease and ice are slippery, hard to define, sometimes desirable, and other times best avoided. They are not simply sweet, savory, and enjoyable; grease and ice can be treacherous, unattractive, and easily underestimated.

“What Are Little Girls Made Of?” opens with a welcome a cappella vocalise that transforms into an explosion of sounds as the players’ crescendoing lines highlight the pathos of Socolofsky’s questions. “Who told [little girls] what they ought to be?”, she demands to know. “Who told them what little girls are made of? And why isn’t that me?” Socolofsky makes it clear that I Tell You Me is “a song cycle of feminist rager-lullabies,” and she doesn’t shy away from expressing her anger at the injustices that women suffer, beginning with the very interpretation of what defines the essence of young women, who has the right to provide those definitions, and why.

Annika Socolofsky -- Photo by Xuan

Annika Socolofsky — Photo by Xuan

“They Tell Us We…” Socolofsky chants slowly, as the third movement unfolds, warning us, “They tell us we are fragile, weak. They tell us we are delicate, meek. They tell us we are loose or naive. They tell us we are forward or cold, frigid or bold, overexposed — do what you’re told.” In other words, women are all too often damned and condemned, no matter what they do and say, and how they choose to share themselves with others — or not. And so, what must women do? Only the impossible, it seems. “Give endlessly. Mother everything. Heal.”

Socolofsky challenges the static categories that tell only a small part of each woman’s story, all while unyielding outsiders demand much — too much — from them. Take care of things. Don’t be hysterical, or delusional. You must give everything of yourself, but also, don’t forget to heal. Highlighted by the emphatic collusion of ~Nois, Socolofsky roundly rejects the head-spinning requests and chooses another path for herself, leaving behind the constraints of stifling societal conventions. “Sugar, spice, grease, and ice. Anything that will ignite. I tell you me.”

Socolofsky’s voice, the centerpiece of the album, is itself a dramatic wonder and a spectrum of vast timbral possibilities where speech and singing intermingle effortlessly, and thoughtful melodies emerge from furious mutterings. It is raw and honest and engaging. But Socolofsky doesn’t stop at finding her own voice; she shares the opportunity with three other queer artists — Phong Tran, Darian Donovan Thomas, and No Plexus — who each offers their own remix of a movement. Their interpretations are as unique as each artist, creating a prism of new sounds that expand upon their source material.

~Nois--Photo by Nick Zoulek

~Nois — Photo by Nick Zoulek

Tran’s “Chemical X Remix” sets stretched fragments of Socolofsky’s “Sugar and Spice” vocals against a canvas of morphing frequencies and static within a reverberant chamber. The words are broken apart into their most elemental syllables, with a few key words emerging from dissonant sheets of sound. Tran succeeds in capturing the emotional turbulence of the original, embracing the various timbres of Socolofsky’s voice, and highlighting the grittiest, darkest elements in particular.

Thomas’ “Verdan Murmurs Remix” reinterprets “What are Little Girls Made Of?” while leaving more of the original source vocals intact. Thomas enhances Socolofsky’s singing by intertwining it with strings, chimes, whistles, and waves of sound, moving upwards, then falling back like waves.

No Plexus’ “Transcendence Remix” capitalizes on the melodic and repetitive elements of “They Tell Us We Are” and transforms the song into a dance track, complete with thumping bass and a catchy hook. “I tell you me” becomes not only a singular statement, but a raucous celebration.

The defiance in Socolofsky’s final words reflect the impetus that drove the work’s creation. But I Tell You Me is not merely a rejection of the expectations of women; it is a heartfelt pondering, shaped from the composer’s experiences and struggles, wondering intensely about where she and others might fit in on a seemingly narrow spectrum of “acceptable” womanhood — not too weak, fragile, hysterical, or delusional, but also not too loud, bitchy, slutty, or nasty. Surely, there is a chasm between “virgin or vamp” or “angel or whore” — women are so much more complex than that, aren’t they?


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

You can support the work of ICIYL with a tax-deductible gift to ACF. For more on ACF, visit the “At ACF” section or