Introducing Gaelynn Lea

Fellow disability studies-and-music community, meet Gaelynn Lea.* She is a freelance musician, songwriter, and violin teacher who hails from Duluth, MN. She’s recently gained notoriety as the winner of NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest, a contest for “intimate video performances recorded at the desk of All Things Considered’s Bob Boilen.” Gaelynn’s submission won out of over 6,000 entries, and has been called “arresting” and “profoundly moving.” Gaelynn’s Tiny Desk concert puts her among the ranks of musicians such as Wilco, Natalie Merchant, Graham Nash, and Ben Folds! Watch here:

As it happens, Gaelynn has brittle bone disease. Because her body is small, she bows her violin like a cello. She uses a loop pedal to multiply her instrumental melodies, creating a rich textural fabric that undulates beneath her ethereal mezzo-soprano. As she explains, a live loop pedal is an ever-precarious choice: “Every time you start song, you could potentially screw the whole thing up.” Gaelynn seemingly had good access to music in public school; after aceing a music listening test in fifth grade, she began playing the violin with an orchestra teacher devoted to making adaptive accommodations. Gaelynn took a serious interest in Irish fiddle tunes in high school, and hasn’t stopped playing since. Now she’s a free-lance music teacher and performer.

In an NPR interview, worth a listen for her biographical and artistic reflections, Gaelynn speaks about the relationship between her disability and her music. Her submission video begins with herself out of the frame, a conscious artistic choice, as Gaelynn explains: “I didn’t necessarily want my disability to be the very first impression people had. It’s not because I’m ashamed of it in any way, but I really wanted my music to be judged.” We hear you, Gaelynn.

*Thanks to David Bashwiner (University of New Mexico) for drawing my attention to Gaelynn’s work.

 

DISMUS at SMT St. Louis

The DISMUS interest group will meet on Saturday Noon – 2 p.m. at the Society for Music Theory 2015 annual meeting in St. Louis. In the first hour, we will have our business meeting, including briefings on current projects and time to develop new collaborations and proposals. In the second hour, we will discuss Chapter 2 “Dismodernism Reconsidered” from Lennard Davis‘s The End of Normal.

End of NormalWe issue an open call for respondents, who will prepare a 5-minute response that engages Davis’s dismodernism essay from their own individual perspective. Come one, come all! We invite you to volunteer to give a short response, or simply to read this provocative essay and contribute to the discussion on Saturday October 31. Register your participation or direct questions to Jennifer Iverson (jennifer-iverson -at- uiowa.edu) and Bruce Quaglia (bruce.quaglia -at- gmail.com).

The Americans with Disabilities Act Turns 25

We have recently passed the 25th anniversary of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which mandated inclusive environments. News coverage abounded, including this PBS NewsHour video: 25 years on, celebrating ADA’s advances while facing stubborn barriers. This audience will be particularly interested in the profile of cyborg drummer Jason Barnes that begins at about 3:00 into the video.

President Obama gathered stakeholders for a celebratory speech in the East Room of the White House. The New York Times hosted a round-table discussion via short essays by prominent activists and scholars. Though commentators heap praise on the rise of the disability rights movement, all are quick to point out that there is still much progress to be gained. Among them, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson writes, “We must now work together to make disability inclusion seen as a resource gain, not a resource drain.”

What do you think? How did you celebrate the 25th birthday of the ADA? Has the ADA made the world a substantially better place? What is the most crucial dimension for progress right now?

Video from Recasting Music: Body, Mind, Ability

Our special session at AMS/SMT Milwaukee 2014 included six short papers, three respondents, and lots of engaging conversation. Video of the introduction and first three talks is posted below, though due to a technical glitch, we unfortunately didn’t capture video for the rest of the session. Text versions of the later papers are linked where available.

Introduction (Jennifer Iverson)

Joseph N. Straus, “Hearing Voices”  


Stephanie Jensen-Moulton, “American Opera and Disability: The Case of Moby-Dick

Tobin Siebers, respondent. Discussion.


Performance (8:45–9:30)
Michael Bakan, “From Pathology to Neurodiversity: Music, Autism, and Ethnography”
Blake Howe“Enforcing and Recasting Disability through Music”
Andrew Dell’Antonio and Elizabeth Grace, respondents.


Vocality (9:30–10:30)
Jennifer Iverson“The Disabled Body in Babbitt’s Philomel and Wishart’s Red Bird
Jessica Holmes, “Sensing and Expressing Voice in Christine Sun Kim’s Face Opera II
Tobin Siebers, Andrew Dell’Antonio, and Elizabeth Grace, respondents. Discussion

DISMUS Business and Recasting Music: Body, Mind, Ability

The business meeting/happy hour is in the Monarch Lounge from 5-6 p.m. Saturday Nov. 8. An agenda is available here: DISMUS 2014 meeting agenda. Then join us for a special session with six short papers, three respondents, and lots of engaging conversation. Saturday Nov. 8, 8-10:30 p.m., H: Juneau

Representation (8:00–8:45)
Joseph N. Straus, “Hearing Voices”
Stephanie Jensen-Moulton, “American Opera and Disability: The Case of Moby-Dick
Tobin Siebers, respondent. Discussion.


Performance (8:45–9:30)
Michael Bakan, “From Pathology to Neurodiversity: Music, Autism, and Ethnography”
Blake Howe“Enforcing and Recasting Disability through Music”
Andrew Dell’Antonio and Elizabeth Grace, respondents.


Vocality (9:30–10:30)
Jennifer Iverson“The Disabled Body in Babbitt’s Philomel and Wishart’s Red Bird
Jessica Holmes, “Sensing and Expressing Voice in Christine Sun Kim’s Face Opera II
Tobin Siebers, Andrew Dell’Antonio, and Elizabeth Grace, respondents. Discussion

Guest Post by Jennifer Iverson: Intersections of Disability Studies, Neurodiversity, and Neuroscience

For many of you who have been acquainted with Disability Studies for some time,  it is not a revelation to view people who test “on the spectrum” (that is, on the autism spectrum) as talented, smart, exceptional individuals. I was delighted to read this article recently, “The Boy Whose Brain Could Unlock Autism,” by Maia Szalavitz in the web publication Medium. The article describes the research of neuroscientist Henry Markram, who now leads the EU’s Human Brain Project. Markram and his research team induced autism in rats’ brains, and studied how the synapses and cells responded to excitation. His team found that brain cells in autistic-type brains were hyperactive and much more connected than in neuro-typical brains. This research shows that autistic people are extremely smart; in fact, they learn much faster and have many more associations because of their hyper-wired brains. Of course, this can also result in sensory overstimulation and fear responses. Markram terms this the “Intense World Syndrome“.

Markram hypothesizes that what fundamentally characterizes autism is an excess of great synaptic activity, not a lack of social processing networks. Note the fundamental shift here from lack to excess–an important change in attitude that has been well understood in disability studies and neurodiversity communities for some time. I’m thrilled to see neuroscience researchers adopting the perspective of ability rather than the perspective of disability. I think this also demonstrates the way in which our humanities scholarship and personal/professional advocacy has important ramifications, sometimes specific, sometimes diffuse. Would Markram have been able to study and conceptualize autism from the perspectives of hyper-ability and excess, had the path not been slowly but surely cleared by cultural warriors who have been advocating for access, inclusion, and neurodiversity in their own communities?

If this topic is right up your alley, be sure to catch Michael Bakan‘s position paper at AMS/SMT, Saturday November 8, 8-11 p.m. Bakan (Florida State University) shares his work on an ethnographic project involving adult musicians who are on the spectrum. He’ll be joined by respondents Andrew Dell’Antonio (University of Texas at Austin) and Elizabeth J. Grace (National Louis University), who are working on similar research involving autism and music-making.