GSIM Graduate Students in Music at CUNY Graduate Center 2014 conference on Music and Normativity

The GSIM conference on music and normativity is currently in progress in NYC, and you can live-stream the events here. Today’s events, beginning at 10:30AM EST, include a workshop on scoring disability narratives by musicologist Kendra Preston Leonard. View the GSIM web site for information about the workshop, conference presentations from yesterday, and presenters’ abstracts and bios

Music and Disability at the SDS (Society for Disability Studies)

We are pleased to announce that our panel entitled, “Music, Disability, and Freakery: Sustaining Able-bodiedness” was accepted for the upcoming Society for Disability Studies conference in Minneapolis (June 11-14, 2014). We hope to see some of you there!

“The Two-Headed Nightingale and the Marketing of Grotesque Respectability” (Dana Gorzelany-Mostak, Westminster Choir College of Rider University & Remi Chiu, Loyola University Maryland)

” ‘Asylums with Doors Open Wide’: Ian Curtis, “Atrocity Exhibition,” and the Myth of the Romantic Genius” (Mimi Haddon, McGill University)

” ‘I Feel Very Proud to be Hideous’: Bradford Cox and the Performance of Disability” (Jessica Holmes, McGill University)

” ‘All of us are Ahabs’: Jake Heggie’s Operatic Moby-Dick (Stephanie Jensen-Moulton, Brooklyn College, CUNY)

(Jessica Holmes, panel organizer/moderator)
Live music performance is a highly visual medium where extraordinary musical ability begets spectacle: the physicality of a virtuoso performer arguably plays as important a role in captivating an audience as the music itself. Visible disability only intensifies the spectacle inherent in music performance; a performer with culturally stigmatized bodily difference becomes even more the object of the gaze (Garland-Thomson; Howe; Straus). Likewise, fictional representations of disability in opera and on film tend to dramatize disability, strategically setting the disabled character apart by exaggerating bodily otherness with music figuring prominently in this characterization (Mitchell & Snyder; Leonard). Both in instances of disabled performance and fictional representations of disability, a version of disability identity is performed for and mediated by the onlooker, sustaining viewer normalcy and able-bodiedness.
This panel examines discrete episodes of musical “freakery” from the last two centuries, exploring how gender, race, and sexuality inform the cultural construction of the disabled freak and also highlighting the aural dimensions of this spectacle. Dana Gorzelany-Mostak and Remi Chiu analyze the musical exhibition of the conjoined twin singers Millie and Christine McCoy in relation to 19th-century conceptions of American personhood and racial identity. Mimi Haddon explores the impact early press reviews of Joy Division’s music had on the “enfreakment” of lead singer Ian Curtis, whose struggle with epilepsy and tragic suicide in 1980 have become so closely intertwined with discussions of the band’s oeuvre. Jessica Holmes considers the ways in which indie musician Bradford Cox flaunts his disabled body in an attempt to shock audiences, performing a transgressive reappropriation of “freakery” where sexual deviance is enmeshed with disability. Stephanie Jensen-Moulton examines how Jake Heggie’s idiosyncratic composition of Ahab in his operatic setting of Moby-Dick separates the man from his obsession, renegotiating operatic representations of madness.

Association of Adult Musicians with Hearing Loss (AAMHL)

Here are some upcoming events from the Association of Adult Musicians with Hearing Loss, including an April meet-up, a September concert, and three webinars with AudiologyOnline, which will address music listening with assistive hearing devices and technologies.

Guest Post by George McKay

George McKay, Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Salford, UK, since 2005, and found of the Communication, Cultural & Media (CCM) Research Centre at the University of Salford, is the author of a recent book on music and disability, Shakin’ All Over: Popular Music and Disability (University of Michigan Press, 2013). The following guest post by Professor McKay is a discussion of the themes and topics discussed in the book, which are relevant to studies of music and disability, especially those of popular music and culture. A press release for the book is attached to this guest post. For more information on McKay’s work and scholarship, please visit his web site.

Introduction: Cultural disability studies and the cripping and popping of theory

Well, my hands are shaky and my knees are weak / I can’t seem to stand on my own two feet / Who do you thank when you have such luck?—Elvis Presley, ‘All shook up’ (1956)

The out-of-controllability of the pop body has been a persistent feature since its early days.  From ‘All shook up’ in the United States and Johnny Kidd and the Pirates’ ‘Shaking all over’ (1960) in Britain, songs about uncontrollable neurological tremors, as physical symptoms conflating the ecstasy of sexual attraction and of dance, are heard from rock and roll on—and are themselves prefigured in the pleasure and fear of the transcendent body in the jazz and dance musics of the first half of the 20th century as well (Stras 2009). There are identifiable and powerful links between popular music and the damaged, imperfect, deviant, extraordinary body or voice, which can be, and surprisingly often is, a disabled body or voice; these links have been overlooked in much critical writing about popular music. Popular music has always been about corporeal transformation or excess and the display of those—there has always been ‘a whole lot of shaking going on’—and reading that shakiness in the context of the disabled body is the starting point for opening up fresh insights into both popular music studies and cultural disability studies.)

Chapter 1. ‘Crippled with nerves’: polio survivors in popular music

This first chapter is the most historically situated of the book, as well as in some ways the most medically restricted. But it is also intended as something of an overview, to give a sense of the scope of how disability figures in popular music and rock, and it opens some key areas and artists for further discussion later. It focuses largely on the rock and roll generation of polio survivors: children and young people from the late 1940s to the early 1950s who contracted poliomyelitis (‘infantile paralysis’) during summer epidemics in the last few years before reliable vaccinations were widely available (in the west). In using polio as the focusing device I am aware that I may seem to be privileging the medical condition and its consequent disabilities over the people, the artists concerned, and their cultural products. But I am interested in the historical specificity of the disease in the postwar west. The introduction of the vaccines that successfully eradicated polio within a few years made that generation dramatically the last (in the west), while the chronological coincidence of the rise of pop culture would lead in a decade or two to a remarkable generation of pop and rock musicians who had been shadowed by ‘the crippler’, as polio was known colloquially in the USA—Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Steve Harley, Donovan, and others. I discuss these, and go on to look at the work of Ian Dury (1942-2000), who was for some years the highest profile and most outspoken visibly physically disabled pop artist in Britain.

Chapter 2. Vox crippus: voicing the disabled body

There’s a lot more to singing than just opening your mouth. It’s a very physical act, and the power and control you need to hold a note, to protect your voice, to growl, to shout, even to sing very softly all depend on a finely balanced interplay between your vocal cords and the lungs, the diaphragm, and the muscles of the chest, abdomen, and back….—Teddy Pendergrass, Truly Blessed (1998, 232)

I know, the chapter title is Dog Latin. We’ll chase that tale later. In this chapter I explore ways in which the voice has sung the disabled body in pop and rock. Simon Frith has pointed out that ‘[s]ingers use non-verbal as well as verbal devices to make their points—emphases, sighs, hesitations, changes of tone; lyrics involve pleas, sneers and commands as well as statements and messages and stories…. It’s not just what they sing, but the way they sing it that determines what a singer means to us and how we are placed, as an audience, in relationship to them’ (1989, 90). It’s not just the relational meaning of singer and audience either, but also—particularly, one might argue, in the context of consumption of recorded rather than live performed music, when the voice is present and the body absent—a meaning of the body itself…. The body is integral even in the terminology of singing—we speak popularly of a ‘head voice’ or ‘chest voice’, for example. The sung voice presents in its pure and perfect—and, as we will see/hear, impure and imperfect—sonicity a corporeal identity and hermeneutic. A new theoretical idea is introduced—mal canto—to articulate the singing practices of the disabled. From falsetto to stutter, to lyrical and grammatical damage of song words, and other sonic vocal experiments …

Chapter 3. ‘Bodies!’ Performing disability in pop and rock

Melos: Greek for ‘limb’, hence ‘melody’.—Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines (1987, 228)

In this chapter we look at ways in which other pop and rock musicians have performed and articulated—or been defined by (not least by me)—their visible physical disabilities and symptoms. Unsurprisingly, in society more widely ‘quantitative studies support the theoretical and qualitative work that suggests that physical disability has a negative impact on body image’ (Taleporos and McCabe 2002, 974), but what are the implications of that for cultural workers in a creative industry in which body image is both a transactional and expressive category? Rosemary Garland Thomson explains the operation of the ocularcentric pleasure of the performed text:  ‘the visibly disabled performance artist generates the dynamic of staring, the arrested attentiveness that registers difference on the part of the viewer. In the social context of an ableist society, the disabled body summons the stare, and the stare mandates the story’ (Thomson 2000, 335). We will narrate and critically discuss some of these stories, and we will complicate others. There is particular reference to ways in which some successful musicians with a pop profile negotiated their public transformation, as a result of adventitious disability, to a stigmatised identity, an embracing of what Erving Goffman has termed ‘undesired differentness’ (quoted in Siebers 2008, 102)….  Here I discuss Curtis Mayfield and Teddy Pendergrass. We will also look at a key experience within the neurodiverse, across two generations of stars and musics, with particular reference to the neurocognitive medical state of epilepsy and the role of some of its more dramatic and frightening symptoms in the onstage performance of rock. These are Neil Young and Ian Curtis.

Chapter 4. Johnnie-Be-Deaf: one hearing-impaired star, and popular music as a disabling (deafening) culture

They come out to see what the freak is like.—Johnnie Ray, on his audiences, 1952 (quoted in Whitefield 1994, 133)

We turn now to look at the one key star of deaf pop, a singer, songwriter and pianist whose hearing impairment was visible, present and negotiated throughout his extraordinary career, in a ‘queercrip’-informed (McRuer 2006) analysis of the pre-rock and roll figure of Johnnie Ray. We then go on to explore the terribly ironic cripping capacity of pop and rock as a deafening mode through music-induced hearing loss, the other symptom of which is mature regret. Here a number of rock artists are discussed, in particular from later life, when the occupational hazards of a career in the reckless and excessive industry of loud music have presented as medical symptoms. We will also discuss the hearing loss of fans in relation to music technology (amplification, personal stereos).

Chapter 5. Crippin’ the light fandango: an industry that maddens and campaigns

Now put your hard-earned peanuts in my tin.—Ian Dury, ‘Spasticus Autisticus’ (1981)

Through this book we have uncovered and interrogated some capacities of both pop and rock to function as themselvesdisabling cultures, with the profoundly ironic place of loud rock and dance musics as contributors to musicians’ and fans’ hearing loss at the heart of the discussion…. Let us complicate things a little further. In this final chapter we look at two important extra-musical aspects of the subject, which may seem each in turn critical and praiseworthy. That is, together they offer the opportunity for a dialogic consideration of the positions of pop and rock regarding our question of disability. As suggested, they are focused less on the music, voices and bodies of the stars and fans than on the contributory role of the industry itself, and its relation with disability. As constituents of a cultural industry, pop and then rock music—and then, as it emerged, the music-media end of celebrity culture—have developed certain practices of behaviour and lifestyle, of business engagement and (let us be in no doubt that we are uncertain—a rhetoric of) social advocacy, for instance. These have become so embedded in the industry that they have become a behavioural expectation or norm. And these industry practices and pressures matter particularly when we introduce disability to the discussion, when we crip ‘em….  First, we will consider the relationship between the trope of rock madness—cognitive impairment—and the pressures and temptations of the industry as themselves disabling….  Second, we will look at the roles of disability advocacy and activism as cultural intervention within the realm of popular music. The argument in part is that disability campaigning in the mid-twentieth century set the template for much of the recent and current work around pop activism….

Shakin’ All Over press release December 2013

CFP: Pedagogical Alterity: Stories of Race, Gender, Disability, Sexuality

The journal Hybrid Pedagogy is looking for essays of 1000 to 2500 words on the topics of oppression and difference in a learning environment. Here is a brief excerpt from the call for participation:
This CFP intends to allow our readers and writers to narrate their experiences — not only of oppression, but of difference. The goal is to make space for a broader perspective, to bring otherwise marginalized voices (or bits of voices no matter how small) to the fore. We’re seeking reflections upon the lived (and often distinctly physical) experiences we have in classrooms and a consideration of how we build a pedagogy from those experiences.
Danielle Paradis writes in “The Pleasures, the Perils, and the Pursuit of Pedagogical Intimacy,” “Learning is uncomfortable, and the trouble with letting someone teach you is that it leaves a mark — an impression.” We are not looking for narratives that will warm our hearts, or paint a rainbow of attractive variation. These will be essays and articles that teach, preach, and edify, the stories that make academe color-rich and complicated.

If you have personal or pedagogical stories to share, please see the complete call for participation, and consider submitting an essay by January 31:

Kris Shaffer, Ph.D.
Instructor of Music Theory, CU–Boulder
Contributing Editor, Hybrid Pedagogy
twitter: @krisshaffer

Guest Post by Jeannette Di Bernardo Jones: “Encountering Deaf Spaces in Washington”

This is another installment of guest blog posts by scholars of music and disability studies. Jeannette Di Bernardo Jones is a graduate student and teaching assistant in musicology at Boston University, and is a contributor to the OUP Handbook on Music and Disability Studies (forthcoming 2014). Her master’s thesis, completed for degree requirements at Louisiana State University, is a study of The University of Pennsylvania MS. Codex 436.

“Mommy, guess what I want to do for my job?” “what?” “It starts with an M.” “music?” “yes, I want to do what that Deaf music guy does.”

My seven-year-old son and I were sitting in a cafe on a cold, rainy evening in February in Washington, D.C. having just come from the Kennedy Center. My son, Ellis, was beaming in the warm afterglow of seeing Signmark for the first time, the Deaf rapper from Finland. As a parent, I’ve taken my kids to concerts before, but this one was different. I was at the Signmark concert as a musicologist, taking notes for my own research, and I brought my son all the way from Boston to see this, because he’s Deaf, too.

In February 2013, Signmark performed at the Kennedy Center, representing Finland as one of the featured performers of the month-long Scandinavian festival at the Center, called “Nordic Cool.” Including Signmark in a cultural festival distances his work as a deaf artist from medical implications of deafness and shifts them more in a political and cultural light, which is consistent with Signmark’s artistic goals.

The audience rippled with the signing hands of Deaf and hearing people, communicating together, or simply waving their hands in applause. Signmark called from the stage, “Rhythm isn’t something we hear, but also see and feel,” as he encouraged the audience to move their hands and bodies along with the music.

Through the performance in a spoken language and a sign language, Signmark creates a musical experience that is accessible to both hearing and Deaf cultures. Signmark works closely with his partner, vocalist Brandon Bauer, who is Finnish-American and who performs the spoken translation of Signmark’s signed raps, to create a bilingual performance. Signmark states, “Through my music I want to break prejudice and fight for equality between cultures. I want to show to people that being different can be an asset. My message is that nothing is impossible for the deaf; we can do all the same things.”

I underestimated how much seeing Signmark would resonate with my seven-year-old. Ellis has a fair amount of auditory access through the use of a cochlear implant (CI), but he also signs. American Sign Language is his first language. During a bilingual concert, he could choose either modality listening with his CI or listening with his eyes. He chose the latter.

As the music started, Ellis took in the first few songs in his seat, but then as he latched on to Signmark’s performance, he became more engaged, waving his arms, and fist-pumping the air along with the music. The show is worked out between Deaf Signmark who signs and his colleague Brandon who speaks. They are well coordinated in the dialogue in-between songs, but sometimes there is some variance between how they are interacting with the audience. Ellis was completely tuned into Signmark. He responded to all the signing, and for the last song, when Signmark invited everyone to the front, Ellis ran up to the front to be closer, joining in, jumping up and down. When it was over, I said we could meet Signmark. My somewhat shy Ellis surprised me. He was frantic to meet him, running and pushing his way ahead to find Signmark. We were rewarded with this sweet picture.


At the age of seven, my son has not yet encountered the prejudice of the hearing world that deaf people can’t or don’t experience, enjoy, and perform music. After his encounter with Signmark, he will know that this is not the case, and he has taken to writing his own songs at home now.

But the Signmark concert was only a part of a journey I took with my Deaf son that weekend. My little Ellis became my Ellis Island, a portal to a world that I would’ve never known about if it weren’t for him, DEAF-WORLD, in ASL. And our trip to Washington, D.C., gave us a physical space for DEAF-WORLD. We stayed in the dorms at Gallaudet University, the only deaf liberal arts university in the world. To get to and from there, we took a special Gallaudet shuttle that runs from Union Station every half hour, which fascinated Ellis, “A Deaf bus!?” And he was eager to make small talk in ASL with every generous college student who made eye contact with him. Later, he remarked, “I think we should move to George Washington, D.C. Everyone is smart here; everyone is signing.”

The next day, I took him to see the monuments. Perhaps the most significant one for me to show him was the Lincoln Memorial. This memorial represents the struggle for minorities to gain equality and social justice in a majority world that would otherwise oppress them. We remember M. L. King, Jr. standing on the steps declaring his dream. But many don’t realize that King’s dream was echoed over twenty years later by the Deaf students in Washington, D.C., who borrowed banners from the civil rights movement to declare their own dream of having a Deaf president for the first time at Gallaudet University—which would symbolize the rejection of nearly two hundred years of paternalism perpetuated by hearing medical and educational professionals.

If you look closely at Abraham Lincoln’s hands, it is said that the sculptor, Daniel Chester French, who had a deaf son, formed the ASL letters “A” and “L” for “Abraham Lincoln.” Standing there with my deaf son, I felt proud that he could say to me just the night before, “I want to do what that Deaf music guy does.” To know that he stands on the shoulders of so many who have advocated for the rights of the deaf. And to know that as a musicologist, I have a role to play.

AL (did you know the statue was carved by a Deaf man?) #lincolnmemorial #washingtondc

Disability Studies for Musicians: An Introduction

Curious about Disability Studies, but unsure what it is? This is a short primer on the subfield, covering some basic principles of Disability Studies especially relevant for musicologists and music theorists. I delivered a shorter version of this talk at the meeting of the Music & Disability Study Group at AMS in Pittsburgh (2013). —Blake Howe


Disability as Culture

One of the central arguments of Disability Studies is that disability, in addition to any physical basis it may have, also operates culturally. We will relegate the study of biological impairment to the medical establishment, but the cultural study of disability is best undertaken by humanists—by literary theorists, historians, and, yes, musicians.

Music scholars have usually pursued this cultural study of disability from two perspectives. Some scholars adopt ethnographic or sociological methodologies, examining the ways in which musicians may have identified as disabled, how disability may have impacted the mechanics of their craft, and how disability may have influenced their reception. For example, Terry Rowden’s book The Songs of Blind Folk (2012) examines cultures of blindness among African-American musicians, while Jeannette Jones and Anabel Maler have recently undertaken studies of song signing, exploring the genre’s negotiation of Deaf identity through music performance. These and other studies seek to understand disability as an important component of identity, akin to gender, sexuality, or race.

Scholars have also considered musical representations of disability, by both disabled and nondisabled composers. Through harmonic imbalance, melodic disfluency, or formal deformations, musical texts may be said to embody various disabled states; indeed, as Joseph N. Straus has shown, many theoretical traditions (including embodiment, energetics, the Formenlehre) commonly apply metaphors of disability to describe musical dysfunction. Supplemental texts, such as song lyrics, opera librettos, and film images, can further specify the presence of a disability within a musical work. These representations of disability tend to follow familiar cultural scripts and archetypes—for instance, the associations between disfigurement and derangement (Rigoletto, Captain Ahab, Darth Vader), between stuttering and feeble-mindedness (Demo in Giasone, Vašek in The Bartered Bride), and between blindness and prophecy (Tiresias in Oedipus rex). Of course, there is no medical basis for these associations; they are entirely cultural.


Models of Disability

The word disability establishes a binary between what one can do (ability) and what one cannot do (dis-ability). Indeed, throughout history disability often emerges as an antithesis to some other desirable standard.

Before the nineteenth century, this standard was often imagined as an idealized body: the body of God, Adam before the Fall, the King, the cosmos, or some other perfection, from which all human bodies were poorly fractioned and morally compromised. This is the moral or religious model of disability, in which bodily differences are stigmatized as deviant from some elusive ideal. Notably, this ideal body has been frequently imagined as music, emblemized by Pythagorean ratios and consonant harmony. For example, in Abraham Cowley’s Davideis (1656), the human body is “all o’re Harmonie./Storehouse of all Proportions! single Quire!/Which first Gods Breath did tunefully inspire!” Through sympathetic vibration, David may restore Saul’s possessed body to this harmonious state: “Thus Davids Lyre did Sauls wild rage controul./And tun’d the harsh disorders of his Soul.”

Beginning in the nineteenth century, this “ideal body” was usurped by the “normal body.” Normalcy, a concept popularized by the rise of statistics, imagines human morphology on a bell curve: most people are of average height, while some are too tall, and others are too short. This is the medical model of disability, in which disabled people are cast as outliers, requiring either rehabilitation by medical science or elimination by eugenics. A potent operatic example of the power of normalcy may be found in the “mad scene” of Lucia di Lammermoor—there, a chorus of “normal” onlookers frames Lucia’s madness as deviant. (Rosemarie Garland-Thomson pathologizes such normal populations with a provocative term: the normate.)

More recently, the social model of disability, advocated by the Disability Rights Movement of the 1980s, has argued for the value of bodily difference. Under this model, disability is not a fixed, medical condition; rather, it emerges from a society that chooses to accommodate some bodies and exclude others. A wheelchair user is disabled by curbs, but not by sloped curbs. A Deaf person is disabled by oral language, but not by sign language. What is interesting (and, for many disability scholars, ethical) about this model is that it assigns stigma not to the imperfect person or to the abnormal person, but rather to the exclusionary societies that fail to accommodate bodily differences.

Although I have arranged the religious, medical, and social models of disability chronologically, I suspect they have always coexisted, each one emerging as dominant at different historical moments. What remains consistent is the binary structure through which disabilities received their definition: the ideal body vs. the imperfect body, the normal body vs. the abnormal body, and the accommodated body vs. the unaccommodated body. Of course, many scholars have recently sought to eradicate these binary distinctions, reconceiving bodily difference without hierarchy. For example, Jennifer Iverson has argued that Björk’s electronica envisions a posthuman fusion of the natural body with prosthetic technology—bypassing familiar hierarchies that prioritize the unassisted body.


Disability Narrative

Many narratives, requiring tension before release, requiring a problem before its resolution, appropriate disability as their obstacle of choice. David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder have termed this appropriation of disability narrative prosthesis. The narrative prosthesis (usually a disabled character within a story) has two main functions: it gives the story a problem to solve; and it defines by counterexample the desirability of the subsequent resolution. For example, Luke Skywalker’s body derives its naturalness in contradistinction to Darth Vader’s artificial body. In the end, the able-bodied hero triumphs.

Once the problem of disability has been introduced within a narrative, how does the story resolve? Disability scholars have identified some familiar scenarios:

  • The disability may be rehabilitated, or the disabled character may be expelled. This is what one disability scholar terms the “cure or kill” paradigm—both solutions eliminate disability from the story. We might think of the many mad characters in opera who regain their reason just before curtain call (Handel’s Orlando or Paisiello’s Nina). We might also think of the many mad characters who don’t last that long (Wozzeck or Peter Grimes). The mechanism of the “cure” need not be medical. For example, Stephanie Jensen-Moulton has identified a cure narrative in television series Glee: in one episode, a Deaf show choir is normalized (“cured” of their deafness) by the intrusion of singing voices.
  • Disabled characters may also “overcome” their disabilities—acquiring superpowers that render their disabilities moot. Performances by disabled musicians are frequently received in this way. In some of my own work, I have shown how reviewers of Paul Wittgenstein claimed that the pianist “redeemed his body” through performance.
  • More benignly, bodily impairments may also receive accommodation so that they no longer signify as disabilities. I’m speculating here, but perhaps this is what happens to the sleepwalking Amina: La sonnambula ends not when her condition is cured, not when her character is expelled, but rather when the reasons for her erratic behavior are discovered and recognized.

In all of these examples, disability presents a problem within a narrative, and the elimination, rehabilitation, or accommodation of that disability participates in the story’s resolution. Note that few of these stories are actually about disability—rather, disability has been frequently appropriated as a rhetorically powerful marker of difference, as a way to emblemize other forms of estrangement.

These basic principles are subject to much nuance and revision. Indeed, as much as Disability Studies can offer new insights about musical topics, music can also offer many new insights about disability. There is much exciting work in our subfield (on these and many other topics), and I encourage interested scholars to peruse our bibliography of recent publications for more information.