Launched at Glasgow’s Glad Cafe in the weeks just before the first lockdown back in March 2020, Over/At has grown to become more than just a concert series. It’s now more like a “trans music-making world,” to quote the project website, encompassing record releases, published sheet music, and new commissions. Supported by the Sound and Music charity’s Composer-Curator initiative, the project was founded by Rufus Isabel Elliot, a composer originally from East London who now lives in Scotland.
Later this month, Over/At, in association with Greater Lanarkshire Auricular Research Council (GLARC), will release Elliot’s latest composition, “A/am/ams (come ashore; turn over),” a “kind of one-act play” scored for violin, guitar, and bass, with the voice of traditional Scottish singer Josie Vallely. I met up with Elliot in the canteen of the British Library in London to discuss narrative, tradition, voice, and identity.
VAN: How have you been finding Sound and Music’s Composer-Curator scholarship?
Rufus Isabel Elliot: I think they are actually really good. They’re clear on what they’re going to do for you and what they’re not. I think a lot of organizations get a bit carried away thinking that they’re going to do everything. Then you’re left a bit in the lurch when that doesn’t happen. Apart from anything, them getting on board with it sort of legitimized the project, which otherwise people might have thought was quite risky.
How did Over/At start and what was the idea behind it initially?
I started thinking about it in the summer of 2019. I had been working on a piece, “helands heallands,” with Rylan Gleave, who had been a classical singer and then had gone on testosterone and more or less quit singing.
Then a year later, someone who I was close to was quite unwell and was unemployed and generally not having a nice time—[they are] a trans person—and took up singing to try and have some joy and purpose in life. It all became quite bound up with friendships and healing and working with trans people I knew who weren’t necessarily musicians but who wanted to do some music.
You know what it’s like when you’ve found one thing and then you start spotting it in other places as well? I started noticing pieces by other composers, like Sarah Hennies’s “Contralto.” Then I was randomly at the Tramway and saw Robbie Blake performing. I kept noticing these things. And I thought it would be a good idea to try and bring them together, so I put on a gig to do that.
I just thought there was something in it. Transness and voices. With any aspect of identity, it obviously crosses over with the voice and how you speak and how you sing and what you sound like and how people hear you. But maybe with transness, there are some quite tangible ways that happens: Vocal therapy can be a part of people’s transition, people go on T and it causes their voice to break later in life. Or [for] people who might have had high levels of testosterone when they were a teenager, going on estrogen doesn’t change that, so you might have vocal therapy. Some people have vocal surgery. And in between all of that, there are people just figuring out how they sit with their voice and their gender.
Then there’s the metaphorical side of it: people’s desire to not listen to you if you’re trans, or to mishear you. I think there aren’t that many chances as a trans person to tell your own story—you only have to look at the media for ten seconds to see that.
When you referred to the project as seeming “risky” before Sound and Music got involved, what did you mean?
Well, the dark side of the Over/At idea is, I don’t know that I’ve ever done a gig or a commission or anything in the professional composer world without some element of misgendering. Maybe invasive questions through varying degrees of people who are well-meaning but get off on the wrong foot. And then [there are] people who aren’t well-meaning and got off on the foot they intended to get off on. But it made me think that there needed to be—or that I wanted personally for there to be—some space where you could leave all that stuff behind and just be like, We already know the basics and we can move on. There wasn’t anything else in Scotland that was focused on trans and non-binary stuff in music. Now, a couple of years have passed and there are plenty of people younger than me who are graduating from conservatory and starting to do something who are trans or non-binary. But at that point, there wasn’t so much.
Whenever you approach anyone about something to do with transness, there is the risk that they’re going to think that it’s a bit niche or you don’t know whereabouts on the spectrum of acceptance they are going to be. Even writing to journalists, some people who I have been in contact with quite regularly and have included things that I’ve done before, wrote back and said, “Thanks for your advice on that other article we ran about trans stuff, but we had a lot of people unsubscribe from us after that, so we’re not going to be featuring your stuff anymore.” So it puts you in the firing line a bit.
Your new work, “A/am/ams (come ashore; turn over),” is about to be released by the Glasgow-based label, Greater Lanarkshire Auricular Research Council (GLARC). What was your starting point for that?
I was having an open-ended conversation with a singer, Lea Shaw, a mezzo-soprano in Glasgow. We were just talking and improvising and thinking about our voices and our experiences, doing some recordings and seeing how our voices change when we talk about different things. I started transcribing a load of our conversations, thinking about going down a verbatim theater route. But then after a while, I became aware of how her voice has a really big range–it goes over several octaves in the space of a few words–whereas mine… doesn’t. That was the first thought.
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Do your works often develop out of these kinds of processes of improvisation and dialogue?
Not really. It’s happened a few times. But with other pieces, I do a lot of reading and writing, and quite often the writing starts to become musical. To me, maybe it’s more like: At some point the ideas stop being ideas that you can talk about, and I start to relate them as feelings or some other impulse that makes me want to relate to them as music.
In several of the works of yours I’ve heard, there will be these stretches for solo instruments that feel very raw and exposed.
I think it partly comes out of a bad habit of thinking of the instruments as characters, and then I want them to stay with their character. I often imagine it like a play where everybody says their own thing, and it becomes quite hard to make them speak at the same time when you imagine them all with their own agendas, moving in different directions.
You’ve spoken elsewhere about how lockdown became an opportunity to reconnect with instruments you haven’t played for a while. I got a sense of you experimenting with the physicality of different instruments as objects or as sounding bodies…
My partner was living with me and they wanted me to teach them a bit of violin. Plus I used to play bass and I hadn’t for years, and it was really nice to pick that up again. Then at some point, working on “A/am/ams,” I realized that the instrumentation is just the instrumentation that I had in my house at the time: guitar, violin, voice. It became an accidental lockdown thing. It was just those instruments I was able to pick up and try.
A lot of what I wanted when I started working on the music for “A/am/ams” was things like touch—but touch between you and the instrument. Me and Lea did some experiments, which I think initially we both found quite upsetting, where I held the viola and she held the bow and we tried to play. The violin is quite closed; you’re in your own bubble when you play it. And if you’re in this protected space, how then could I explore these questions about violation? So that was an attempt to pull open the closed bubble. Touch and intimacy are there in the way that it’s played as well as in the theme of the piece.
Do you feel like studying English literature as an undergrad at university affected your approach to music in important ways?
Yes. I was kind of gutted at the time that I didn’t study music, but I’m glad now because I studied critical theory, feminism, alongside 1,500 years of written words—which gives you quite a lot to draw on. If you’ve only studied music and you’ve just been on this hamster wheel of competitive playing, you might be in a stronger position in some ways, you know more people, people know you, but you don’t have as much to think with at that point. And you might not even know that you’re missing it.
When did you move to Scotland?
After I finished my degree, I went up to Inveralligin in the Highlands to do a couple months’ work on a croft. There were a few fields that hadn’t been used for quite a long time, which meant cutting down all the bracken, then digging up all that ground and pulling out all the bracken roots and putting them on the bonfire, pulling out all the stones and putting them somewhere sensible.
I’m struck by the influence of traditional music on the soundworld of your compositions. Is that partly a product of living and working in rural Scotland?
It’s true that if you’re studying in Scotland and part of the Scottish music scene, the trad scene is much more a part of everyone’s life than it might be in England. People go to trad gigs as a normal part of their lives, in a way that I don’t think they do so much in England. If you think of people like Alasdair Roberts, there are people who are very much traditional musicians but also part of experimental circles. But the basis for me is actually, as a teenager, I was a person who, when I heard a band, I wanted to find out about all the bands they listened to and then listen to all of them, and then find out who they listened to. Obviously, doing that, you end up finding out quite a lot about the last 50 years of music and how it all fits together. That’s really the origin of my interest in it, more than just being in Scotland and being surrounded by people who play the pipes—which I am.
Have you ever found that Scottish traditional scene a little forbidding or hard to relate to as an English person?
I am half Scottish, but I’m very definitely an immigrant in Scotland. It’s not forbidding, it’s just that, as with any folk music, you want to be aware. There are lots of online archives of sound recordings that you can get lost in for hours and perhaps that can become a bit, Ooh I’ll have a bit of that—helping yourself to a tradition that you’re not really a part of. But, no, I think it’s kind of amazing, because you get to be around people who are working in lots of different modes. With “A/am/ams,” the singer on the recording, Josie Vallely, doesn’t read music at all. She has this style of singing that she learned initially from recordings from the Scottish sound archives of Lizzie Higgins, who is quite a famous traveler-singer in Scotland. That’s great to be around.
Listening to recordings of your music, I can hear this very defined sense of place and of being situated somewhere.
In “A/am/ams,” the guest on the recording is the [highway] M8. It’s recorded in Glasgow so you can hear the motorway. That’s the bass. In “helands heallands,”’ it’s different because I was working with these singers who are not professional performers, so part of it was about finding a moment to record. One of them we recorded in his flat. We just closed all the blinds, switched the fridge off and recorded.
With the other person, we ended up going to the far west of Tiree [in the Inner Hebrides] and camping in bivvies on the far west tip. It was maybe October so it got dark quite early. We were listening to the sea and it was too dark to read, so we said, What shall we do now? They said, Maybe we can do the recording now. That was really good. They’re in a particular place and you can hear that. That gave them a confidence they wouldn’t have had if we were in their home or in a recording studio where they might have frozen up.
What are your plans for the future of Over/At?
The near future of Over/At is rest. It’s not going away, it’s just resting. It’s been a year and a half working on the stuff that’s come out this year. Doing all of that in lockdown, mostly quite isolated in the Highlands, was hard, and I’m tired. For all that I said Over/At was something I started because I wanted to have this space that wasn’t being run by cis people that I needed to appease and make them feel good about their righteous behavior, that doesn’t mean it was a project about me finding my community. The trans community is quite a fragile concept. It’s not like we’re held together by anything else, other than—you might hope—some sort of intersectional solidarity. But maybe people can misunderstand that I’m trying to speak for the entire trans community, or that the project is. That can lead to tensions. I have learned quite a lot about the complexity of the idea of a community and whether you can belong in it or not. I want to think about that a little bit and see what the way forward is. ¶
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