Voice, sound, technology and binaries: an audio essay featuring Sasha Geffen

Aimée Theriot-Ramos, Alex Harris, Constanza Castagnet, Luca Soudant, Margaux Koch

We, a group of five, came together because of a mutual interest in sound. We are interested in how we listen and how sound is being used in its own materiality to foster experimental and border-crossing ways of making and thinking. At the end of 2020, we started a small online reading group where each one of us proposed a book they wanted to read. One of them was Sasha Geffen’s book Glitter up the Dark, which explores the intersections of gender, pop culture, the body, and technology. We reached out to Sasha and asked if they would be interested in collaborating with us. The following audio is composed by a mix of excerpts from their book, Sasha’s own voice, songs, samples, and voices from our friends.

Radio Rietveld · Sounds Beyond Binaries

About the author:

Sasha's work has appeared in Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, NPR, and others. Their writing focuses on the interplay between gender, pop culture, the body, and technology.

Excerpts from the book Glitter Up The Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary:

  • The notion that only two genders exist, and that each gender prescribes specific behaviors, movements, and relations, has always been undercut by a thriving spectrum of deviant expressions that white capitalist patriarchy seeks to erase.
  • Music shelters gender rebellion from those who seek to abolish it. In music, drag is not an aberration but a form of play. Women can sing with masculine bravado and men can adopt transcendent femininity: poses that were often dangerous to display offstage and outside the recording studio for people of all genders. There's no pop music without artists who reveled in lashing out against the gendered expectations levied upon them from on high.
  • Music's ambiguity also enables the covert expression of queer desire and identity. Because music is a language of subliminal expression, because it hides in paradox and contradiction, it has historically served as a safehouse for manifestations of non normative gender and sexuality.
  • Listening to music is inherently a sensual exchange. Music enters the ear, causes pleasure, and inspires identification in the listener, who is not merely a passive participant in the encounter. The listener joins the singer in the song's ambiguous and ephemeral space, and is changed by the act of attentive, emotional listening.

Transcript of Sasha’s voice:

"In her 2019 book The Race of Sound, Nina Sun Eidsheim makes use of the concept of “the acousmatic question” the impulse upon hearing a voice to ask “who is that?” “who’s there?”

In and of themselves, recording and playback technologies challenge this query. Upon hearing a human voice, the body automatically assumes that there is another body very much like it nearby. Recorded music transmits the voices of people who are nowhere in proximity to us. We respond somatically as if there is a resonating human body within earshot and instead see a different type of resonating body: a gramophone, a speaker, a pair of headphones. By severing the link between sound and its presumed source, music recording inherently takes a queer vantage on embodiment. Further manipulations of the supposedly natural sound of the human voice make things even stranger. Two or more identical voices can sing to you at the exact same time in uncanny synchrony.
A voice can have parts of its soundwaves hollowed out and replaced by the interpretations of a computer, creating a cyborg. Pitches can be spiked and lowered beyond what a typical vocal apparatus can produce on its own.
A voice can jump from note to note without any glissando, crystalizing inside a machine. The merging of the voice with synthesizers is easy to read as a trans gesture.

Since the 20th century, trans people have had a specific enmeshment with medical technologies like surgeries and synthetic hormones, and as such, we tend to scan as artificial. Beings only made possible through modern medicine. The figure of the trans person ruptures habitual ideas of naturalness, even though a vast number of cis bodies are also mediated through biochemical interventions under what Paul B Preciado calls “the pharmacopornographic regime.”

In The Race of Sound, Eindsheim contends that the voice does not originate in the throat, it originates in the ear. The phenomenon called voice begins when soundwaves vibrate the eardrum, triggering a spasm of information to the brain. The pleasurable moment of bewilderment that comes when the ear generates a voice that the brain cannot easily categorize can be a powerful opportunity for emancipatory play. In an essay accompanying the 2019 art exhibition Dire Jank Porpentine Charity Heartscape wrote: “why quote lyrics that are meant to be heard with music? It would be like telling you about a friend by showing you a printout of their genetic data.”
What comes alive in a song is not the sequence of words alone but the way the words animate the vocal apparatus, the way they bring the lungs, the windpipe, the larynx, the tongue, lips and teeth, into concerted sequential action. The way the voice within or beyond its tesitura, the way the body strains at the edge of certain notes. These gestures convey feeling more urgent than what could be held in syntax. They quiver at the living edge of meaning, bringing the listener into spontaneous play, asking them to activate their own body in somatic echo of the singer. Voice invites presence, it asks you to come alive in a way that at its most pleasurable disintegrates habitual reiteration of old patterns, rules and thoughts.

I also find myself frustrated with the mainstream adoption of non-binary as a third gender term. It fixes my position in the negative, whereas I feel my place to be more generative and abundant. I like the music inherent in words like androgyne and gynandromorph because I consider myself to be more both male and female, than neither. They fit me a little better. But these words also call back to the binary. They are additive, rather than negative, but they present a comparable problem. When I first started thinking of myself as trans, the term “gender queer” was in vogue, a word that I like more than non-binary, even though it sounds dated now. It speaks to the strangeness and confusion of my gender position rather than trying to smooth it out.

There’s a song on Purple Rain called “I would die for you” where Prince sings: “I’m not a woman, I’m not a man, I am something you will never understand.” The word non-binary covers those first two lines, but it neglects the third. To me, being unintelligible to the gendered order presents an exciting opportunity for dissolving it. Names and phrases that just retort incomprehensibility of gender hold more fire for me than labels that seek to square my experience safely away. Lately I’ve been attached to the talmudic gender called timtum, one of several ancient jewish genders and one that designates concealment or confusion. A word you use when you’re having trouble fixing someone in a gender schema. It also carries a connotation of foolishness, which feels perfect for my present iteration.

In music, unburdened play can spark moments of productive confusion, where the relationship among the players, musicians and listeners alike is in flux. I think that’s why I find myself in music more than anywhere else. Because my experience of gender has not been fixed. It has never felt settled. It changes continually, always emerging into something new. Pop music especially seeks novelty, the ear opens to sounds and voices with which it’s not yet familiar, which it can’t file away as a known quantity. Change and confusion feel inherent, both to the music I like most, and to the way I experience my gendered embodiment in the world."

References in order of appearance:

  • Lucy Liyou - "Unnie"
  • Excerpt from Geffen, Sasha. Glitter up the Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary. First edition. American Music Series. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2020.
  • Dua Saleh - "umbrellar"
  • Sasha Geffen’s voice I
  • Eidsheim, Nina Sun. The Race of Sound: Listening, Timbre, and Vocality in African American Music. Refiguring American Music. Durham: Duke University Press, 2019.
  • Paul Preciado: 2018-11-27 Conversation with Paul B. Preciado: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p1g01eFWei4&t=1040s
  • Colin Self - "Transitions"
  • Sasha Geffen’s voice II
  • Holly Herndon - "Frontier"
  • Sasha Geffen’s voice III
  • Lyra Pramuk on pitch-shifting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mTfIvm6V3XE
  • Desire Marea - "Tavern Kween"
  • Sasha Geffen’s voice IV
  • Excerpt from Geffen, Sasha. Glitter up the Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary. First edition. American Music Series. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2020.
  • Holly Herndon - "Frontier"

If you like their music, please support these artists on Bandcamp.

We warmly thank: Ahmet Köken, Francesca Miazzi, Kleoniki Stanich, Lucia Vives, Mohamad Dib, Octave Rimbert Riviere, Stella Lydakis, Violeta Paez Armando and the Extraintra platform for supporting this project.

If you want to know more about our sound reading group you can get in touch via ssssound.info@gmail.com

This publication is commissioned by the Editorial Board as part of the series 'Future Practices'

'Future Practices' is the framework for a series of publications on current topics that stimulate or question intercurricular education at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie. Various interdepartmental or interdisciplinary duos and teams have been asked to create a contribution in a format of their choice, such as a podcast, a text or an audiopiece. These collaborations originate in the first Open Call for Intercurricular Programmes in November 2020. Because of the many promising proposals, the editorial board decided to select 6 collaborations and asked these to publish their research via extraintra.nl in 2021.

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