A Sex Close to Noise0
An Essay about Transgender Women and Music
“Industrial music for industrial people” was the tagline which sold Throbbing Gristle’s first 7’’ single, written on its flyers in all-cap italics below an eldritch photo of a faceless, sex-ambiguous body washing its long hair alone in a shower. So first listeners in 1978 might uncomfortably reflect, as I still do, “What is an industrial person? Am I industrial?”
Upon listening to “Zyklon B Zombie” (and its A-side “United,” in which two lovers lose their independent sexed identities to one another’s passion) the answer was obvious: an industrial person is completely unintelligible. If listeners could divine its lyrics, apparently sung by a contralto swordswallowing an air horn, they would hear from “a little Jewish girl” being led to gas chambers, only to have the perspective switch to a waffen-SS soldier, as though victim and abuser were the same horror. An industrial person is subversive, but not always in a liberatory way: TG’s lyricist, already then naming h/erself Genesis P-Orridge (the idiosyncratic pronouns would come more than a decade later), has since been credited by bandmate Cosey Fanni Tutti with a history of both abusive and self-destructive behavior.1 “The P stands for Pervert,” Gen informed a radio host in 1984, “and Piercing.” Piercing: by 1984 Throbbing Gristle had broken up, and the new song “The Orchids” by Gen’s next project Psychic TV may well be the first (only?) positive pop tune about genital modification.
When dreams made real become less sweet
The orchid and the metal
My sex turns and claws rush to spill them
But in the morning, after the night
I fall in love with the light
“We used to be much more aggressive in the old days,” Gen recalled of Throbbing Gristle. “Now what we like to do [in Psychic TV] is be seductive but actually still have a distasteful side.”
By 1993, Gen’s transgender identity had become self-evident through The Pandrogyne Project, a kind of awkward body theater whereby h/er identity merged alongside h/er late spouse, dominatrix Lady Jaye. In some sense Gen’s gender project is, like noise music generally, articulating a propensity towards the inarticulable. Rather than building a unified musical work (or physical body), all h/er artistic life Genesis has cited influence from the “cut-up” technique of William Burroughs, both of them piecing together lyrical propaganda from girly mags, chick tracts, obits on serial killers, the toxic waste of a verbal city. “I was a homosexual,” Burroughs wrote in Queer, “…simpering female impersonators… could it be possible I was one of those subhuman things?”2
I am not a female impersonator, nor am I a subhuman thing, but I have come to believe those of us who are called these are, for better or worse, industrial people.3 Often, we make industrial music.
To cite ourselves as industrial people is not to repetitively cite industrial music as our starting point. To order ourselves in history, industrial fanzine Toxic Grafity (1980) dismisses, would not be industrial at all: “Now we live in a technological, silicon chip society, and yet electronic music still looks backwards to blues and boogie for its references, it reveres history like symphony orchestra revere Mozart.” This analogy obscures; electronic music reveres even Mozart just fine. When electronic music composer Wendy Carlos4 released Switched-On Bach in 1968, her career was made. The cover of a man in a powdered wig sitting before a Moog synth module is deplorable cyborg kitsch. It is the best-selling classical record of all time.
Wendy was incredulous at her debut success. She recalled in a 1999 retrospective, “It’s nice to have demonstrated – which was all it was – that the medium [of electronic music] is far more flexible and capable than one might be aware.” In her liner notes to its 1992 update, she called the work “infamous,” and later compared it to an actor being typecast. “I was certainly not about any revival of Bach.” Imagine having your entire artistic career defined by a proof-of-concept.
This astonishing professional success was a personal disaster. In multiple interviews, filmed and live, Wendy dragged to maintain her public persona as a man, with pasted-on sideburns and brow pencil filling her pores as five o’clock shadow. In this she broadly failed; there was gossip she was a woman pretending to be male to advance her career, which hit the nail on the head, if not in the precise manner such gossipers intended. In 1979 she announced herself as transsexual in an interview for Playboy.
“I’ve got to be careful not to attack my background as being wholly destructive,” she spoke, “[those years in the closet] might have encouraged my work – my escape into the world of thought and music and science and technology.” Those years were also, she labeled, Hell.
Hell is a persistent background of Wendy’s music. I mean this literally; her song “Clockwork Black” off of Tales of Heaven and Hell (1998) begins with a “Hell Chant”: “We are all in Hell; we are the dammed!” From the liner notes, “A trip through Hades will contain sadism and things that go bump in the night… This is music of a large, populous city.” Of course there is Heaven too; this is her precision, her logical clarity, her own humble attempts at sensemaking. But it was her unintended affinity for the scary, dark new age, the falling-apart of digital technology, which employed her nearer to industrial culture, scoring famous soundtracks for hacker flick Tron and hypersex dystopia A Clockwork Orange.
The synthesizer, especially circa 1968, is conceptually hellish. When we pick up a guitar, a piano, a drum kit, we have already begun music; each instrument has inherent form restricting content. Elimination silently precedes composition. Wendy’s Moog synthesizer had no sonic form; soundwaves are manufactured as if from nothing, and the field of the instrument is pure noise. She decides the timbre, picks the tone, designs the scale. To master sound design above instrumentation is, I believe, an invert’s choice.
This is my primary and substantial appreciation for Wendy Carlos. My mental picture of her is of a woman – a spinster, to use the mean word – in a quaint townhouse littered with hostile and unforgiving machines (and, her website tells me, three cats). Yet unlike established urban hoarders, the Collyer brothers, the Beale women, William Burroughs in a literary frame, Genesis P-Orridge in a musical one, for whom atrocious mess has an indefinite logic which belongs to them alone, Wendy rescues form from trash for the sake of giving it her audience. Studio recording becomes pointillism; “stream-of-consciousness” is a vanquished term in her art. Every soundform must be deliberately modeled, each overtone in a series determined and meticulously added in to a note by hand. What happens in Switched-On Bach is like an arrow of melody shot out of static. Its fundamental interest to me is the risk of catastrophic failure that demands, that all will collapse back into darkness, Hell, the beast, pure noise.5
The thrill of this digital risk is greatest in Beauty in the Beast, Wendy’s “most important album,” by which she means her deepest and most personal. This is her closest work to pure noise, because it is microtonal, yet it is noise tightly regulated by a series of specific microtonal tunings of her own invention, possible only on a digital synthesizer. “Everything about Beauty was too novel,” she wrote, “People are usually fearful of what is unfamiliar.”
This peculiarly modern anxiety between tradition and individual talent6 is just as demonstrable in classical music, if not moreso, as it is in any other genre. Classical composers were the first noise musicians – there was no other genre of composer to be. The theremin was invented by a Soviet music professor. The ondes martenot was developed by a French cellist. The earliest “noise-makers” (intonarumori) were made by the son of a church organist. Historians have analyzed all as predecessors to the synthesizer. These were sounds from alien cityscapes.
In 1913 the inventor of these noise-makers, Luigi Russolo, sent out his manifesto The Art of Noises, in which he announced a specifically modern conception of noise as music. “We are approaching noise-sound,” he wrote, “This revolution of music is paralleled by the increasing proliferation of machinery.” This was to be a “new futurist style, the orchestra of a great battle.” “In a few years, the engines of our industrial cities will be skillfully tuned so that every factory is turned into an intoxicating orchestra of noises.” Russolo’s most refined noise composition, Awakening of a City, sounds as the world to a rat nesting in a taxicab engine. Luigi was not a loveable character; his optimist philosophy of noise came alongside an embrace of the absolute worst aspects of the industrial city: apathy toward abuse, approval of warfare, and constant flirtation with fascism.7
Writing in 1939, Walter Benjamin was able to more critically discern these failures of urban living, and serve as a more moral prophet for the dangers of fascist politics. “Inhospitable, blind age of big-scale industrialism” to Walter was the primal site of modern trauma.8 He refers to the newspaper, so integral to the abstracted lyricism9 of Burroughs and Genesis, as evidence.
If it were the intention of the press to have the reader assimilate the information it supplies as part of their own experience, it would not achieve its purpose. But its intention is just the opposite, and it is achieved: to isolate what happens from the realm in which it could affect the experience of the reader.
The city experience is here an experience of shock, in which perpetual streams of sensation disorient its inhabitants until they can no longer register experience, and therefore cannot form memory. Walter does not mince words. This is “time in hell, the province of those who are not allowed to complete anything they have started.” In hell and the big-city, correspondences within and between things (like those of, say, sex, gender, and the body) break down entirely. In this view, the self-proclaimed perversions of Burroughs or Genesis look more like blithe submission to capitalism than its subversion; it is Wendy Carlos, able to cultivate meaning from noise, who has developed meaningful novelty. She does so through processing trauma, in the most literally instrumental sense.
Queers collect in Benjamin’s big-city. We are initially traumatized by alienation from regular family, which pressures us into continued abuse. Walter suggests by way of masculinist myth how city life might render our women alien: “Female satyrs and nymphs are no longer members of the family of man. Theirs is a world apart… When such eyes come alive, it is with the self-protective wariness of a wild animal hunting for prey. (Thus the eye of the prostitute scrutinizing the passers-by is at the same time on its guard against the police.)”
“The ‘realism’ of the prostitute,” as critic John Berger phrased it, came to replace the broken ideal of the female nude in urban life. Sex workers were “the quintessential woman of early avant-garde twentieth-century painting.” Walter refers to this supposed realism, the immediacy of a body undefined by its history, as “the disintegration of aura.” Goodbye feminine mystique!10 In his modern city bodies have no proper names.
This particular commentary on sex workers can be extended to trans women practically without qualification.11 Many of us sell sex.
Holly Woodlawn sold sex. She was transgender, she was real, she was called prostitute, and she became urban, fleeing an abusive family with a company of gay boys to live as a teenage dropout on the streets of New York. She met Candy Darling – who also sold sex, probably – in 1963, followed a few years later by Jackie Curtis, whose was raised by a mother and grandmother selling sex, probably. Lack of stable biographies replaced their lack of aura. All were transgender women in their particular way.12
This was Real New York, or billed as such, made from those after-dark hours, the kind of lowlife nocturnal femininity Burroughs and many other talented men made their names describing.13 In 1967, Jackie impressed herself upon the painter Andy Warhol on his way to a boutique designer clothing store, and the three girls began to ingratiate themselves in his infamous, exploitative, and literally industrial Art Factory.
The Factory was the studio where Andy made his slick, silk-screen, mechanically reproduced, outrageously expensive prints. It was also Andy’s loosely curated personal scene, a kind of uplifted seediness from which artists, almost always male artists, could pick off vibes and to a lesser extent be part of. Lou Reed was a classic case. In 1975, just a year before he went single and declared “no more faggot junkie trip,”14 Lou was queer-married to a trans woman, Rachel Humphreys. (He never had it in him to produce actual faggot energy, like with a man.) That year he released Metal Machine Music, a double album of guitar feedback, as an act of artistic self-destruction, a final send-off to his old art fag persona. This writer is of the rare opinion its noise is his best solo material, but his more popular tune “Coney Island Baby” ends with a dedication to Rachel, and his most famous song, “Walk on the Wild Side,” is a final judgment of his days spent with Factory dolls Holly, Candy, and Jackie.
Holly came from Miami, F.L.A.
Candy came from out on the Island
Jackie is just speeding away
She says, "Hey, babe,