Conference Report: Music and Disability at the Society for American Music 2015

The next feature in our series of guest blog posts is by Michael Accinno, a doctoral candidate in musicology at the University of California at Davis. His previous studies include a bachelor’s degree in voice from Rice University, and a master’s in musicology from the University of Iowa. Accinno’s research focuses on music and politics, the reconstruction era, and disability studies, and has given papers on such topics at the Society for American Music, the CUNY Graduate Center Symposium on Music and Disability, and the UC Davis Interdisciplinary Graduate Student Symposium.

Is disability studies still an “emerging” area of research within musicology? At what point do we get to take the training wheels off and acknowledge that critical discussions of disability—like gender, sexuality, and race—are simply part of what we do as scholars? I often find myself renewing these questions whenever I attend academic conferences, and this month’s annual meeting of the Society for American Music (SAM) was no exception.

Encompassing the study of the music of the Americas, SAM has always included a dizzying array of places, styles, and peoples. Reflecting this eclecticism, papers at this year’s conference attended to disability in in varying guises, with stops along the way in film music (Neil Lerner’s discussion of “overcoming” in the 1945 film “Pride of the Marines”); jazz (Eduardo López-Dabdoub on the blind saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk and the performance of disability); musical theater; hip-hop (Elyse Marrero’s engaging presentation on ASL interpreters and Hip Hop); and New England psalmody (my own paper on music at the Perkins School for the Blind).

A special seminar on disability and musical theater opened the door to a rich new potential area for further research. Organized by James Leve (Northern Arizona University), the seminar format included several long-established scholars who—in an important step forward for our subfield—contributed position papers about disability for the first time. Paul Laird (University of Kansas) provided a compelling critique of Nessarose and Elphaba, the two disabled female characters in Stephen Schwartz’s musical Wicked; Raymond Knapp (UCLA) reflected on a symposium he organized on Deaf West [link: http://www.deafwest.org/%5D Theatre’s production of Big River; Lauren Acton (York University) discussed representations of mental illness at the 2014 Stratford Festival in Canada; Steve Swayne (Dartmouth) explored Lucy Barker’s poisoning in Sweeney Todd; Last but not least, James Leve discussed Charlie and Algernon, a 1970s-era musical in which the title character Charlie (a man with down syndrome) is juxtaposed troublingly with Algernon (a laboratory mouse).

In an extended conversation period that followed the papers, several discussants encouraged the presenters to consider critiques raised within disability studies: what role (or lack thereof) do disability activists and actors play in theatrical representations of disability? To what extent do musical theater narratives, like literary narratives, function as a form of prosthesis? Finally, how can scholars, activists, and audiences use musical theater to imagine an inclusive future with disabled people rather than an ableist future without them?

The conversation sparked by these questions is still “emerging” for music theater scholars (let’s not shed the label just yet!). Nevertheless, musicals—Broadway, fringe, regional, and otherwise—have the promise to enliven and inform critiques of staged representations of disability for years to come.

Advertisements