Issue #132 Dissonance: A Suite on Trans Femme Noise

Dissonance: A Suite on Trans Femme Noise

Eva Pensis

Cake da Killa performing in 2017, License: CC BY-SA 4.0

Issue #132
December 2022

I. “in shrill, teary, falsetto voices unlike any woman’s or any man’s”1

I am tired of writing about music that rarifies music and sound, as if they are separable from the people that make music or contribute to its experience. I am tired of the often-implicit assumption that to talk about the conditions of sound’s production is besides its critical aesthetic value or import. It must be possible to make space within music criticism to advance something other than the audiophile’s perspective—the practices of close reading or close listening that are installed as proper aesthetic judgment. Can you hear it?

I am tired of journal issues on music that cannot or will not address issues in music. As if that’s beside the point. As though where criticism takes place is completely separate from where music is produced, recorded, performed, rehearsed, expressed, remixed, and commercialized. Can you hear it now? Maybe it’s the sound of the spitfire Black queer rapper Cakes da Killa, shouting out to the audience at the start of her concert one warm summer evening in Paris in 2018: “Who was on the guest list? Raise your hands if you paid to get in!”

I am a lifelong musician, a pianist, an artist, a survivor, a dancer, and a nightlife performer. The “I” in this sentence is not just me, the author, but it stands collectively for a whole host of trans women and trans femmes who, if not centerstage for the revue, wait in the wings, stand in the DJ booth, or powder their necks backstage, waiting for the cue. Maybe it’s the sound of famed Canadian trans woman and drag entertainer Michelle De Ville uttering, several decades ago:

The drag queen inside the gay world is meant to be on the stage, or “walking” the streets. Don’t get off the stage baby! It’s like the bird in the gilded cage … All those guys I told you about before, the gay guys that feel me, or grab me by the waist in bars. Do you think that I’ve seen any of their houses? That I’ve ever been invited over for a coffee, or a meal? Forget it! To them, I’m a party animal. A drag queen.

This kind of thing is so pervasive that it makes some TS entertainers give up the gig. Noise, like screaming at the top of your lungs but no one listens. Noise, like sharing your account of being harassed by esteemed cis male producers only to have it stripped of its context and twisted, such that you must relocate to another city to exist beyond its distortions. What did you expect would happen? Did you expect someone to hear you on your own terms?

Noise is most often defined by what it is not—organized sound. “Noise” and “noisiness” refer to sounds that have not been ordered according to respectable notions of music, song, and composition. Noise is difficult to analyze; it resists comprehension in the theoretical sense. Perhaps this is why noise is also a go-to metaphor and index for those considered socially undesirable. As ethnomusicologist David Novak writes, noise is “a powerful antisubject of culture.” The negative cultural construction of noise carries overtones of nineteenth and twentieth century Western music chauvinism, but can be traced back as far as the transatlantic slave trade, where accounts of European colonizers describe the music and speech indigenous to enslaved people as “noise” in order to domesticate, authenticate, and subjugate those expressive practices as part of the colonial project.2

According to communication studies and information theory, noise is defined as the “byproduct of technological reproduction that interfere[s] with reception of a message (i.e., static in a radio transmission, distortion over a loudspeaker, or hiss on magnetic tape.”3 Noise is sound that is not produced correctly. Where songs sing, noise swarms, buzzes, rattles, and distorts. Noise’s incomprehensibility is precisely what makes it potent. Noise not only disturbs, it interferes in hearing. While noise can express outcry or protest, there’s a general sense that noise is meaningless, indirect, and distracting. There’s a certain stigma to noise—it’s something unwanted.

still from SOPHIE — It’s Okay To Cry

II. “They were neither here nor there, neither female nor male, but lost and dithering somewhere in between”4

Writing on trans feminine people and nightlife by trans women at the turn of the twenty-first century shares a considerable emphasis on reframing how we commonly think about identity and power in the US. This writing urges a shift from an identification-based model to one that centers the shared experiences of disenfranchisement and dehumanization that also coincide with the racializing and racist visual schema of perception. Whereas public acceptance of homosexuality in the US has framed sexual difference as a matter of object choice rather than ontology, transsexual activists and writers have for nearly just as long advanced the notion that the state produces trans (and gender nonconforming) people through uneven procedures of power, including racialization, criminalization, feminization, and sexualization.5

I find this distinction in how power operates critical in considering or referring to this thing called trans femme noise, in part because it renders anti-trans violence as a systemic issue rather than an individual instance of powerlessness. While not all trans feminine people will encounter the same experiences of violence, we are all by virtue of our embodiment subjected to the threat of social disposability, navigating a shared proximity to violence. What happens in this routine exposure to quotidian violence and lack of care? What do you do with that? Where do you go? Who do you turn to?

From artists like Ariel Zetina and SOPHIE, to Ayesha Erotica and Honey Dijon, electronic and digital soundscapes have provided trans femme cultural producers with spaces that can function simultaneously as archive, fabulation, memorial, and truth-telling for self- and collective articulation. In a roundtable artist talk one Chicago afternoon in June 2021, digital artists Cae Monāe, Zolita Makeda, and Him Hun affirmed that noise is a fact of life. “Everybody is making noise, producing sound … So when everyone is creating noise but one instance of noise is pissing you off … why should we stop?” All three artists use noise in their music to encode cultural archives, citing Black transsexual foremothers like Octavia St. Laurent, while also twisting, distorting, and playing with sonic qualities to make music out of noise—a process of fragmenting sound and telling multiple stories with the fragments.

Monāe further spoke to her experience of living as a Black trans woman artist and waking up, every day, with this immense pressure surrounding her. As a shorthand for anti-Black, anti-trans, and anti-femme violence, this pressure has a ceaseless quality, said Monāe, such that expressing it musically “is the only way people are going to understand.” Citing trans performance artist Nina Arsenault’s work on screaming and penetration, Monāe underscored the value of repetition: “Why did white people hate repetition? Because repetition is central to Black and brown musical practices. Like, let me repeat it till it hurts, until your stomach turns and you think, ‘When is it going to stop?’ You either get it or you don’t! If you aren’t going to scream, who else is going to scream?” Noise, for Monāe, indexes some of her own experiences of ordinary life and acts as a sonic valve to let out some of the pressure of navigating a phobic world.

Trans historian and critic Leah Tigers arrives at a related observation in her essay “A Sex Close to Noise.” Sampling an array of trans artists, from Kim Petras to Backxwash, Tigers conceives of noise as a way of existing and learning to exist with alienation. Trans femme artists “design permutations, built out of the contradiction: sounds to move you, sounds to alienate you, sounds to be with you in your alienation, sounds which loan you recognition and recognition’s power.”6

This line of thinking is not without its caveats: the linkage between one’s proximity to social disposability and one’s creative cultural production should be conditional rather than essential. Mobilizing experiences of trauma within an artistic practice risks limiting artistic production—in this case the soundscapes of trans femme sonic artists—to something that only possesses meaning in relation to trauma.

Still—there’s something about trans femmes’ perpetual presence at the threshold of social disposability that makes the boundary between sound and noise especially potent. As one of drum & bass’s leading innovators, Jordana LeSesne wrote in 2021 that her music and her trauma are completely intertwined. In a devastating column in The Brooklyn Rail, LeSesne details her reality as a Black trans woman in drum & bass, stating, “Music itself turned from being a refuge from trauma to being the source of it.”7

LeSesne recounts a litany of harrowing events: She was brutalized in a hate crime after a concert near her hometown (the perpetrator has still not been brought to justice). Her studio equipment was pawned by a “fan/stalker” when she fled to the UK after the assault. She was coerced by her label into publishing her music under a deadname. In 2011, LeSesne discovered that Lorin Ashton (Bassnectar) had stolen a significant portion of her track “5 A.M. Rinse” for his single “Here We Go” (click the links to compare the two tracks). “So while I was living in poverty in 2010,” writes LeSesne, “he was making money off of my work and in subsequent years of me trying to contact him about it only responded when an attorney got involved in 2014. As of today [2021], I still have not been properly compensated for what he did.” LeSesne was also deported from the UK, returning to the US to try and make it as a drum & bass artist.8

LeSesne’s most recent project, Resistencia E.P., is a testament to the fact that she is “still fighting erasure.” Regarding the third track on the EP, “Rainbows Not Enough (It All Goes Dark),” she writes: “I wrote it in deep depression after I learned Bassnectar had stole a large part of my song ‘5 A.M. Rinse’ for his song ‘Here We Go’ hence the lyric “Because of you, this world’s gone dark.”9 It’s a horrifying barrage of stress and violence that LeSesne has been made to bear, and her piece in the Brooklyn Rail stresses that despite her wins—which include being named one of Mixmag’s “20 Women Who Shaped the History of Dance Music,” and scoring the documentary Free CeCe!, produced by Laverne Cox and Jacqueline Gares—she still struggles to make ends meet, find support, and continue to make music. It makes one wonder how or even if a music scene full of so much injustice could be transformed. What would justice mean within a sonic terrain that is simultaneously commercial, cultural, and material?

III. “Isn’t there a way for people to awaken their senses, to transcend their humdrum lives, without rupturing their eardrums, scorching their retinas and turning their vocal chords into vestigial organs?”10

In an admittedly dated workbook on vicarious traumatization, there is a list of recommended techniques to help survivors living with PTSD to self-sooth and tolerate distress. The techniques include taking a long shower and rocking oneself gently, but my eyes were drawn to the one associated with sound: “Listen to your favorite music and play it over and over again.” I remember feeling surprised, wondering when I last listened to my “favorite” music and how it made me feel.

Was I taken aback because I couldn’t immediately come up with a “favorite” song that would carry me back to a desired feeling? Maybe I was surprised because I couldn’t even recall this desired feeling, as though I’d been existing at a distance from my own emotions, dissociating somewhere between the input and the output of my own senses. Does that ever happen to you, reader? Do you sometimes forget to sense how you are feeling? Maybe even now, reading this?

If noise and trauma have something in common, it’s likely that—to paraphrase sound art scholar Salomé Voegelin—they both “ingest” us: both noise and trauma work on our entire body.11 To approach the prevalence of noise among trans femme artists and musicians is to sketch multiple contours of living as trans, as femme, and as artists in a world shaped by white supremacist, capitalist, and patriarchal systems of subjugation.

This is where noise could provide a template, especially if we understand it according to the information theory model—as an interruption within a process. If feeling is itself a process of regulation, noise occasions an interruption in that process of regulation. That’s what the “favorite music” exercise aims to address; it helps to re-regulate your body and emotions. What happens, then, for those of us who must live in or live with various states of dys-regulation or dissociation? Where dissociation is one of many negative affects that enable us to live within a hostile, phobic environment? Perhaps this is why some trans writers prefer the sonic term “dissonance” to the medicalized term “dysphoria,” taking the idea of a disharmony or harshness between sounds to express the disconnect between embodiment and public perception.12

Trans femme noise then might offer us a provisional theory of noise, where the dysphoric or the dissociative constitutes its own kind of noise.13 This noise interrupts and compartmentalizes mundane and spectacular reminders that for some of us, our capacity to feel is not valued or cared for in everyday life. Whether in the noisified pop of SOPHIE or the ethereal, otherworldly architectures of noise and pulse in Him Hun’s mixes, noise lends its listeners the potential for feeling—being with and in feeling—and not feeling solely one thing. For those of who have no choice but to navigate a social order that also renders us into noise itself, noise offers not so much a way out of that order but an abstraction, a place to be and feel with our whole body, if only for the duration of the track, the set, the sample, or our favorite songs.


Karen Durbin, “Female Impersonators: The Great Escape,” Village Voice, February 24, 1975.


David Novak, “Noise,” in Keywords in Sound, ed. Novak and Matt Sakakeeny (Duke University Press, 2015), 133. On the cultural construction of noise in the US context, see Ronald Radano, Lying Up a Nation: Race and Black Music (University of Chicago Press, 2003), 93; Jon Cruz, Culture on the Margins: The Black Spiritual and the Rise of American Cultural Interpretation (Princeton University Press, 1999); and Tricia Rose, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (Wesleyan University Press, 1994). Countering the view of noise as disorderly to civic formation, social theorists have attributed noise positively to the subaltern, the minoritarian, and the masses, with noise standing in as a “prophetic” form of difference, and often as a metaphor for some sort of harmonic totality. See Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music, trans. by Brian Massumi (1985; University of Minnesota Press, 2009).


Novak, “Noise,” 128.


Durbin, “Female Impersonators.”


Critical to the concept of feminization is that it is in “intimate relation to the category of woman but is not reducible in its effects to people assigned female,” as Emma Heaney writes. Heaney describes the historical process of feminization as encompassing a range of institutional discriminations, including those that early women’s suffrage sought to overcome, such as “rights to freedom of dress, ownership of property and wages, child custody, and the vote.” Heaney continues: “This modern gender reshuffling provided women with escape from the material bases of feminization, just as the emergence of the homosexual threatened men with a distinctively male feminization.” The New Woman: Literary Modernism, Queer Theory, and Transfeminine Allegory (Northwestern University Press), 49–50. Earlier inquiries can also be found in Vivian Namaste, Invisible Lives: The Erasure of Transsexual and Transgendered People (University of Chicago Press, 2000), 29.


Leah Tigers, “A Sex Close to Noise: An Essay about Transgender Women and Music,” .


Jordana LeSesne, “Let Us Live,” The Brooklyn Rail, May 2021 .


LeSesne, “Let Us Live.”


See Jordana LeSesne’s Bandcamp page .


Robert Vare, “Discophobia,” New York Times, July 10, 1979.


Salomé Voegelin, Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art (Bloomsbury, 2010), 48.


Julia Serano, Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and Scapegoating of Femininity (Seal Press, 2007), 85.


I am indebted to Anson Koch-Rein’s research on dysphoria, as it is used and contested by transsexual people to describe the dissonances between their own sense of gender and their experiences of perceived-gender enforcement. Rather than a medical or psychological concept, Koch-Rein offers a reading of dysphoria as a form of knowledge that names the specific “position of a gender not being universally considered valid.” “Mirrors, Monsters, Metaphors: Transgender Rhetorics and Dysphoric Knowledge,” (PhD diss. Emory University, 2014), 19.

Music, Gender
Queer Art & Theory, Transgender
Return to Issue #132

Eva Pensis is a multidisciplinary artist-scholar whose work explores the contours and legacies of trans femme life within popular culture, nightlife economies, and entertainment/music industries. Her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The SAGE Encyclopedia of Trans Studies, and Journal of Popular Music Studies.


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