Transpose at the Barbican – we chat with CN Lester.

image credit AbsolutQueer

Late last year, singer-songwriter and activist CN Lester brought the latest incarnation of their well established event Transpose back to Barbican in London. An evening of spoken word and music in a wrapper of warmth and humor that brings trans and non-binary voices together to share their stories. In December 2017 it’s at the Barbican for the second time, and we are there to see it.

A barbican is a fortified gateway. It seem apt. Trans identities are receiving a lot of attention right now, and, inevitably, a lot of that attention is negative. Whether it be the pearl-clutching histrionics of the Daily Mail, the faux religiosity of Christian Voice or the anti-science whataboutery of so-called ‘radical’ feminists, to be trans is to be subject to an onslaught. To wall in would be deemed reasonable. But a fortification is also a frontier.

Transpose has changed a lot over the years. It’s always honoured trans and non-binary voices, but from the homey, DIY affairs of the early 2010s (with outsider art and homemade cake the order of the day) it has matured into an altogether different proposition. Now in the second year at the Barbican, Transpose is polished and professional but still fresh and engaging. The desire to innovate is apparent; Lester brims with ambition and tells Biscuit they don’t want to make the same show twice.

But what is now happening in a utilitarian chic studio adorned with a single disco ball, is a far from the event’s modest beginnings.

“I’ve received so much help and support from other trans creatives”, curator CN Lester says when we chat over email. “I’m trying to pay it back and forwards. Now that I have a bigger platform than I used to, that means making sure that I’m sharing it.

“Working with larger venues that have better resources and better access means that I can work towards a more ambitious end result”.

The event is indeed ambitious. Blending music from Lester, soprano Alexandra Bork and pianist Nicholas Bonadies with spoken work from poets Jamie Hale and Barbican Artist in Residence Travis Alabanza, the show explores narratives of self-acceptance that are at once shared and disparate: dignity in the face of disenfranchisement; notions of self-hood and growth; sexuality; and the body as a vessel.

Introducing the event, Lester sits at the piano and plays as they tell their story of self-realisation, punctuated with a lush mezzo-soprano and putting forward the themes of the evening.

Jamie Hale. photo credit AbsolutQueer

Each of the performers adds their unique perspective. With Hale’s spoken word comes a forthright but measured passion that picks up the threads of bodily autonomy, acceptance and sexuality; soprano Alexander Bork brings entrancing vulnerability and Alabanza closes the show with a frenzied, electronically enhanced word performance that captures a clip of internal monologue. It is unapologetic, unbarred and arresting.

From the sublime and affirming to almost ribald, are forced into a change of perspective and it is to this the name Transpose refers.

“It was the terrible intersection of two puns”, says Lester.”’Trans’, obviously, but also the art of transposing in music – to put something in a different key.That’s what happens when you ask social media to help you name something”.

The affinity with puns is a common characteristic to trans and bi communities. We groan at the stereotypicality of it all, but we’re hopelessly drawn to the doubling. Likewise common is the appetite as a community to question the nature of gender and duality.

”I think both of those aspects of myself have encouraged me to think harder and better about gender,” says Lester. “To challenge my own assumptions about other people, and to find joy in ways that aren’t always (or often) societally acceptable”.

Alexandra Bork, photo credit AbsolutQueer

Challenging assumptions through art is not a new weapon in the arsenal of movements such as ours, but here it is wielded with a deeply personal touch that elevates it above its peers. Alongside director Kate O’Donnell, Lester delivers a celebration of trans and queer identities that well deserves its increasingly lofty reputation.

With an abundant go-getting streak clearly evident we have to ask, what’s next for Lester?

“I’ll be talking about [Lester’s 2017 book) Trans Like Me at the Sydney Opera House in March, recording the audio version, welcoming the American edition in June, making some weird and (hopefully wonderful) new opera, and finishing the year with another Transpose at the Barbican. This is also my year to get serious about levelling up as an alternative musician – and finding the time for all the consulting, teaching and writing that tends to fill up the gaps in my diary.

“There is absolutely a five year plan, and it’s pretty ambitious – but I’m trying to learn to find moments of stillness and peace as well”.

Transpose will return to the Barbican in 2018.

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Libby Baxter-Williams

Libby is a 30-something Londoner, who spends more time reading picture books than is seemly. She became a bi activist entirely by accident, but now she can't imagine living any other way. In the event of an emergency, she'll have a large gin and tonic, thanks.
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