LGBTQ+ Composers Open Call: Jamie Elless

Listen to a new work by Jamie Elless, created as part of the LGBTQ+ Composers Open Call 

As part of our continuing partnership with the LGBTQ+ Music Study Group, we are delighted to share '[...] i now know [...]', a new work by Jamie Elless. 

Jamie Elless is a composer, performer, artist and researcher exploring alternative notation, queer(ing) sound(s), storytelling in medieval European music and acoustic phenomena. She is currently a Gareth Neame scholar at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance.

“[...] i now know [...]” is an audio documentary produced in collaboration with composer/performer Rylan Gleave. The piece lucidly explores queerness, performance and community, with Rylan describing his personal experiences of navigating the performance world as a trans man, all the while being interrupted and overtaken by gritty instrumental noise. The struggle for prominence between the voice and the violas attempts to mirror institutional attitudes towards queer music, how some organisations are happy to include our voices to fill diversity quotas, but then “go back to Beethoven” once the buzz dies down. For more information about Rylan and his work, visit his website here.

This work was created as part of the second nationwide call for new sonic works celebrating queer histories, stories and sounds on the British Music Collection – read more about the other works selected here. 

 Jamie Elless - [...] i now know [...]

Q&A with Jamie Elless and Heather Blair, Creative Project Leader, Sound and Music
Can you start by telling me about yourself? How did you start to make music and what are your influences and inspirations?

I suppose I’ve always really been a folk musician, although the more music I make, the less I feel it’s accurate. I got a bouzouki one Christmas, aged 13, on the back of watching Bill Bailey play one in a live show. My dad drove me up from Birmingham to Holmfirth – the only place in the UK we could find a cheap one – to try-before-we-buy(ed). From then, I gradually started working through the Hobgoblin catalogue of string, wind and reed instruments, teaching myself old tunes and songs by listening to Maddy Prior, Tim Hart, Martin Carthy, Peter Knight, and bands like Planxty and Fairport Convention. Eventually, I realised that making stuff up on these instruments was more fun than learning already composed music that could be played “wrong:” no one can tell you off if you play your own piece badly. I started discovering works by Meredith Monk, Julia Wolfe, Sarah Hennies, Wendy Carlos, David Borden and Simeon ten Holt, listened to Field Recordings by Bang On A Can pretty much on repeat, and began to write music that included a minimal, spiritual and/or experimental concept. Over time, my music became less florid and less decorated as I started stripping back unnecessary musical elements that clouded my intentions, although I don’t know how true that is of what I write at the moment. I wouldn’t cite any style or artist in particular that I’m trying to emulate – I find inspiration in almost everything as a general rule –, but Mall Grab, Gus Dapperton, Grove, Gilla Band, COBRAH and Ellen Arkbro are some people I love right now. I think my music now is often monstrous and grotesque, economical and sparse, meaning listeners are maybe cathartically satisfied when a fleeting moment of eerie, uncomfortable beauty comes through the fog. Or not – maybe people may hate it altogether.

“[...] i now know [...]” draws on your interest in the voice, and its role in creating and reinforcing incorrect assumptions around gender. Would you mind talking a little more about some of the ways these perceptions play out in musical practice more broadly?

For a lot of people, their voice has a useful correlation with their gender: higher voices are attached to women, lower to men. This relationship is problematic for trans+ and non-binary people though, as many experience dysphoria when their physical characteristics don’t match oversimplified binary definitions of gender. Perhaps the most clear example of this within music performance comes from the choral tradition, especially within English music from the past couple of centuries, where, reinforced by notational convention, music is specifically written for gendered voice types rather than vocal ranges and qualities – Neptune from Gustav Holst’s The Planets is scored for “female chorus.” A trans man with a high voice is not a woman, so if, for example, a choir director looks over at the sopranos and says “women, sing louder at bar 34…”, they actively exclude a certain number of high singers and again reinforce incorrect gender definitions. Even in relation to cisgender singers, these definitions are not always helpful as, throughout history, young boys conventionally have sung higher parts, men sing countertenor in both early and new music, and some women’s ranges often extend far into the “male” categories of tenor, baritone and bass. Overhauling and/or redefining the musical voice and its complex relationship with gender would benefit both trans+ and cisgender singers, and could provide more compositional clarity when extending this redefintion into new notation practices.

You set out to create a documentary piece that centres the experiences of trans+ performers navigating the modern musical world, can you expand a little on what led you to want to explore this format as part of this commission?

Letting trans+ people talk about their own lived experiences is crucial for gaining an understanding of the highs and lows of trans+ living. Right away I knew I wanted to work with another trans+ artist to both present their own perspectives to listeners and learn from them personally. Working with Rylan in particular was so beneficial – a lot of his responses to loosely-arranged questions from me directly chimed with my own thoughts and experiences, and also gave me a powerful insight into how trans men navigate the performance scene in the UK. Rylan spoke very openly about how his voice has changed since starting HRT, especially how he had to queer repertoire he had already learned to make it more comfortable for him to sing with his broken voice. Also, he has a lovely voice, so working closely with it for a couple of months has been nothing but wonderful. Aside from all that, I’m always looking for an excuse to experiment with the recorded voice, so I was very grateful to get a clear opportunity to do it here with such an important topic in mind.

What changes would you like to see for LGBTQ+ folks making music, or for the sector more widely?

I’m so pleased that out, proud, beautiful queer people are gradually being accepted more as role models in our society, even if that inevitably does expose us to more active discrimination. That being said, queerness is not always media-friendly, and constantly seeing a sanitised, watered-down version of queerness is a little disheartening. What I’d like to see celebrated is queer mundanity, the side of queer living that happens in living rooms, in domestic spaces, in comfort, safety and solidarity. A queer friend asked me recently where or when I feel most comfortable in my gender: it’s when I’m not even thinking about it, when I’m sat in the world’s baggiest hoodie under my freshly-washed bedsheets, drinking water, half-asleep, just resting, nonetheless transfeminine. I think all queer people share a similar experience, where just being is itself joyous and euphoric – that’s the kind of thing I want to see queer artists talk about more, and being allowed into established institutional spaces where our work gets shown off to wider audiences is a great starting point for that.

What’s next for you and/or the project?

Well, experimenting with the voice, recorded or live, will always be something I want to do in the future. It’s been enlightening working with another performer and listening to their voice in such a sensitive and musical way, so that’s definitely something I want to repeat. Working with Rylan again on another project, whatever that could be, is on my to-do list for sure. I’ve hugely appreciated the opportunity to learn directly from another queer person about how they go about their life, the result being a strange, lucid documentary of just a short few minutes of our chat. I think that’s what I’ve enjoyed the most: presenting a personal learning experience in a way that I can also share with other people. It would be wonderful to open this project up to larger groups, maybe including more voices in a longer piece… with live musicians… in a large gallery space… with evocative lighting… and movement artists… and installations… and food… and… and… and…

You can hear more of Jamie's music on Bandcamp.