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Between Worlds: On Being Non Binary in the Music World

Writing by Ellie Lamb

I’ve struggled with labels for at least as long as I’ve understood what a label is. My relationship with them is complex—I think many people share that experience. Sometimes, they can provide the power to understand and communicate important information about ourselves and the worlds we move through. Other times, they can feel restrictive, claustrophobic, placing limitations on how we experience ourselves and others. We apply labels to everything: fundamental elements of our very selves, the art we engage with, the relationships we have…it’s a way we categorise and make sense of things. But so often, our human brains work on a binary basis, such that putting a label on something tends, by default, to apply a second invisible one—if something is one thing, it is therefore not another. If someone is a man, they are therefore by definition not a woman. If someone plays “jazz” music, they cannot also play “classical” music. These are among the confusing labels I have been bouncing between for my entire life, and this year, I had the fortune to be able to embark on a journey to begin to unpack them.

Back in March 2021 I was awarded the role of Take Note leader by the Melbourne International Jazz Festival. The aim of the Take Note program is to help address the underrepresentation of female and gender diverse artists in the Melbourne jazz scene. The role entails presenting workshops in high schools throughout Victoria (COVID restrictions permitting), receiving professional development support, and the commissioning of a new work to be composed and debuted at the festival. This provided a unique opportunity to develop my artistic voice, and to have a powerful platform to share it with others. As a queer and nonbinary musician with diverse musical tastes and influences, I leapt at the opportunity to write an extended work exploring these themes of identities that fall between the cracks of gender and genre, and thus, Between Worlds was born.

Between Worlds is a suite comprised of 6 pieces, all of which explore different elements of my journey towards coming out as nonbinary, and simultaneously, trying to understand how and where I fit in within the contemporary improvised music scene. When I began writing it, I didn’t know exactly what story I was telling, or how it would unfold. Rebecca Sugar—the creator of the Cartoon Network show Steven Universe—talks in an interview about creating art with the intention of figuring things out, rather than from a place of already knowing the answers, and this idea has always resonated with me. So, I just wrote, and what I learned was that if you let your ideas flow out unchallenged by underlying ideas of what you are or are not supposed to be making, what you end up with is your own authentic voice on the page. When you tell stories from that place of honesty, the process is more fulfilling and more likely to connect with an audience. The work has elements of jazz, absolutely, and a large amount of improvisation, but it also draws on elements of folk, pop, post-rock, and even video game music, all of which I am inspired by when it comes to composing.

Between Worlds tells the story of coming to understand what it means to be nonbinary, to exist somewhere in the expanse of gender, and how moments of dysphoria and anxiety throughout my life start to make sense in hindsight with this deeper understanding of who I am. It reflects on a lifetime of uncertainty and projects into a future life of affirmation and euphoria. Growing up, I didn’t have stories such as these to help make sense of my own, so I think it’s an important story to tell, especially in the context of a music scene in which there are currently very few people with queer and trans experiences to share. For much of my career I was seen as a “female jazz musician,” but I never felt comfortable with those categorisations. Through and alongside the process of writing this work, I have been able to more correctly identify myself as a nonbinary contemporary musician, and by reframing myself I have been able to share myself more openly and, I believe, make better art.

Labels incorrectly applied create tension; conversely, rejecting them, breaking them down, and/or finding the right ones can make things click into place. They are most useful to us when we see them as tools that we can use in our ongoing quest to make sense of the world, and least useful when we use them to build walls around ourselves. I look forward to sharing Between Worlds with an audience at this years’ MIJF, and to ongoing exploration of these themes and ideas.

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