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Music enabled by Disability

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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Joseph N. Straus, City University of New York
Guest Contributor

This entry is part of a collaborative series on disabilities between the Federation’s Equity Issues Portfolio and the Canadian Disability Studies Association/ Association Canadienne des Études sur l’Incapacité.

People usually think about music and disability in medical terms.  Music therapists, as healthcare professionals, use music as a palliative against various forms of illness and disability.  Medical doctors, increasingly aware that musical performance can be a dangerous business, particularly as a cause of stress injuries, have begun to attend to the disabilities particular to musicians.  And psychologists and neurologists often study the musical abilities and behavior of people with cognitive, intellectual, or sensory impairments.

In contrast to these medicalized approaches, the new interdisciplinary field of Disability Studies imagines disability not as a medical pathology requiring study and cure, but as a social and cultural practice inviting acceptance, accommodation, and appreciation.  Within this new social and cultural model, disability is understood as an aspect of the diversity of human morphology, capability, and behavior: a difference, not a deficit.  Moving away from medicine’s long-standing paradigm of deficit and repair, a new generation of disability activists has begun to claim disability as a positive political and cultural identity, rejecting regimes of normalization.

In that spirit, I want to talk briefly about three sorts of disability-related ways of making music: autistic music-making, deaf music-making, and mobility-inflected music making. The goal will not be the cure, remediation, or study of medical pathologies, but rather the appreciation the sorts of musical activities that disability enables. (I am not suggesting that all people who are autistic, deaf, or mobility impaired make music in the ways I describe and I am not suggesting that to make music in these ways one needs to be autistic, deaf, or mobility impaired. The disability-inflected music-making I describe here is a matter of elective affinity, not essential identity.)

Most discussions of autism take place within a medical model that defines it as a pathology, involving impairments in social interaction and communication together with abnormally restricted or repetitive behaviors.  Recently, a nonmedical counternarrative, emerging under the banner of “neurodiversity,” has begun to describe autism as a cognitive and behavioral difference, not an illness.

People with autism are often richly attentive to minute details, with an unusual and distinctive ability to attend to details that are not subsumed into a larger totality. They use non-relational strategies for making sense of music, with individual tones and other musical elements appreciated in their isolated specificity.  The resulting coherence is local rather than global.   People with autism often communicate via networks of private, idiosyncratic associations, with as much pleasure associated with the sounds of the words as with their meaning.  Fixity of focus, another common aspect of autistic cognition, enables the prodigious rote memories of many autistic musicians.  We might thus imagine an autistic musician as someone with a preference for repetition and with the cognitive capacity for recalling extended musical passages in full detail.

All of these aspects of autistic musicianship are evident in the music-making of the great Canadian pianist, Glenn Gould (1932 – 1982).  As a pianist, Gould is best known for the astonishing clarity of his playing – each line and each note sharply etched – and for the shocking originality of his musical interpretations. As a performer, he is at least equally well known for his many eccentricities: he sat very low at the piano, and accompanied his playing with constant singing and humming, as well as unusual hand gestures; he was a germ-phobic hypochondriac, who always wore an overcoat, even in the summer; his personal grooming was below normal standards. He disliked the give and take, the socially interactive nature, of live performance and, at a relatively early stage in his career, he permanently left the concert hall for the privacy and seclusion of the recording studio.

Along with many Gould scholars, I believe that Gould belongs on the autism spectrum, and that his autism provides a common source both for his personal eccentricities and his distinctive musical interpretations.  One of the distinctive features of Gould’s playing is separation and detachment: he separates the lines within a polyphonic texture and within each line he separates the notes from each other.  The detachment of lines from other lines, and notes from other notes is a striking musical affirmation of an autistic preference for local coherence.  In this sense, Gould’s autism provides a way of understanding his life and his art in an integrated way. Instead of seeing his famous “eccentricities” as distracting, inessential personal mannerisms, we can see them as part of an autistic worldview.

The most common narrative frame for disability involves overcoming.  Through heroic personal effort, often depicted as the triumph of the human spirit over adversity, the disability is transcended.  Such a response seems inappropriate for Gould and other autistic music-makers.  Instead of focusing on what they do in spite of their disability, we should shift our attention to what they do through, with, and because of their disability.  Similarly, it is important to resist the therapeutic impulse.  Instead of fantasizing about normalization or cure, let us accept that autism and the sorts of music-making it enables are desirable and enriching aspects of naturally occurring human diversity.

At first blush, deaf people might be thought to have no music at all – the prevalent view of deafness is that it involves an absolute inability to hear, a life of total silence. But this is mostly false. The large majority of people classified as deaf, and most people who identify themselves as Deaf, have some degree of hearing.  (Following increasingly standard usage, I use lower-case d (deaf) to refer to a condition of sensory impairment and upper case D (Deaf) to refer to a linguistic and cultural minority group.) What is most distinctive about Deaf musicianship, however, is the extent to which Deaf people use senses other than the auditory to make sense of what they hear: they see and feel music.

Although the common understanding of music is that it is something taken in exclusively through the ear, in fact music can also be seen and felt. When sighted people go to a concert or play music themselves, they see music being made or see themselves making music.  They see the choreography of musical performance, the bodily gestures involved, and can thus see musical relationships.  A visual listener will be attuned to musical features that might otherwise be ignored by nonvisual listeners: a seeing listener – and Deaf people are primarily seeing listeners – will hear and make sense of music differently.  Deaf hearing involves the tactile as well as the visual.  Within the Deaf cultural world, music is often performed so as to maximize its felt vibrations (audio speakers placed face down on the ground, so that vibrations can be felt by dancing feet, or balloons held in hands to enhance sonic vibration).

These visual and tactile aspects of Deaf music-making are apparent in the artistry of the widely acclaimed Scottish percussionist, Evelyn Glennie.  Glennie’s deafness has shaped the way she makes sense of music and produces music, causing her to see and feel music.  In Glennie’s words,

“Hearing is basically a specialized form of touch. Sound is simply vibrating air, which the ear picks up and converts to electrical signals, which are then interpreted by the brain. The sense of hearing is not the only sense that can do this, touch can do this too. With very low frequency vibration the ear starts becoming inefficient and the rest of the body's sense of touch starts to take over. For some reason we tend to make a distinction between hearing a sound and feeling a vibration, in reality they are the same thing…. There is one other element to the equation, sight. We can also see items move and vibrate. If I see a drum head or cymbal vibrate or even see the leaves of a tree moving in the wind then subconsciously my brain creates a corresponding sound.”

Glennie’s deafness is integral to the way she understands and makes music, and not as a barrier or deficiency to be overcome, but an enabling difference: “I never hoped that they would discover some miraculous cure for my hearing….It didn’t disappoint me to learn that no surgery or hearing aid currently available was going to restore me to good hearing. I had learnt to cope with my silent world, and felt that my own ways of listening to music gave me a sensitivity that I far preferred to the “normal” way of hearing that I had experienced as a tiny child. Because I had to concentrate with every fiber of my body and brain, I experienced music with a profundity that I felt was God-given and precious. I didn’t want to lose that special gift.”  For Glennie, then, deafness is not a pathological deficit but an enabling difference.

How might a nonnormative way of moving through the world, either with a halting gait or with a wheelchair, affect the way people compose, perform, or listen to music?  The brilliant young Canadian pianist, Stefan Honisch, suggests a number of ways in which his wheelchair use, coming after years of increasing difficulty walking, has shaped his musical perceptions and his musical performance.   As a wheelchair user, he observes, “I now experience musical time as much smoother, much less laborious, characterized by a hitherto unfamiliar kind of momentum. I find that the sensation of “rolling” along the ground on wheels shapes the circular motions which my hands describe at the keyboard in the search for a legato sound.”

For Honisch, as for Glennie and Gould, the familiar medicalized language of deficit and repair or pathology and cure seems utterly inappropriate.  They are not sick and they are not suffering.  Their bodies are not deficient or defective, just different from the norm.  Rather than concerning ourselves with normalization and cure, we will find it more productive to attend to the distinctive artistic vantage point conferred by disability.

Joseph N. Straus is Distinguished Professor, Graduate Center, City University of New York, and author of Extraordinary Measures: Disability in Music (Oxford University Press, 2011)

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Equity Matters

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Ableism and disability