The SMT Committee on Disability and Accessibility Session
The SMT Disability and Accessibility Committee aims to provide a space for advocacy, assess current society practices with regard to accessibilities, and to showcase society members whose work engages with those goals. In this session, we feature presentations that demonstrate these important aspects of our committee. Music and Disability studies continue to grow and in the first part of our session, we will highlight scholarship devoted to this field. In the second part of our session, the focus will turn towards increasing accessibility for students in the classroom as well as the practice room.
The session will feature a mix of standard talks, lightning talks, as well as breakout sessions, each of which will include ample time for questions and further discussion.
Name of sponsoring group
SMT Disability and Accessibility Committee
Presentations of the Symposium
Joni Mitchell and the Poetics of Human Imperfection
In this lightning talk, I argue that Joni Mitchell radicalizes embodied musical expression by uplifting the individualized and imperfect performing body. While writers have begun to explore the music of Joni Mitchell from perspectives of disability, infirmity, and recovery, more analytical work is needed to illuminate how her personalized approach to songwriting and performance leverages her particular muscular abilities, which were attenuated as a result of contracting polio as a child.
What has been described as Mitchell’s “crip virtuosity” in guitar playing leverages innovative guitar tunings in accommodating her muscular limitations. Mitchell has stated that she “had to simplify the shapes of the left hand,” as her left hand “is somewhat clumsy because of polio.” I argue that by extension, we can infer that in her piano technique as well, she may have sought to “simplify the shapes,” with right-hand chords sometimes shifting over a left-hand part grounded in a single hand position. In discussing her piano improvisation that would result in her most ambitious song with orchestra, “Paprika Plains,” Mitchell has described her creativity after a period of recovery from illness as that of an “idiot savant.” Self-identifying through her creativity and impairment, Mitchell challenges traditional notions of the idealized, able-bodied body. Immobility is also represented in the psychological state of song protagonists as they cope with social pressures and anxieties, providing a motivating tension that powers Mitchell’s narratives.
Mitchell’s artistic approach to layered musical textures may have first developed as a strategy of adaptation. I explore how layered textures and superimposed musical gestures in Mitchell’s music project a dynamic negotiation of mobility and immobility, creating a powerful expressive undercurrent that is evident whether she is playing piano, dulcimer, or guitar as she sings. I further explore how the social mediation of (dis)ability enlivens her collaborations with jazz musicians, her songs with orchestra, and her recent performances as a venerated musical elder.
Learning from misrepresentations of autism in music theory disability studies to improve scholarship and increase understanding of autism spectrum disorders
Autism, as a form of neurodivergence, affords novel ways of perceiving, experiencing, and understanding music. The potential for insights into music and music theory from the incorporation of autism and autistic perspectives comes with possible repercussions for the autistic population. There is the opportunity to increase awareness about autism and neurodiversity and to represent autistic people in positive ways, but there is also the danger of perpetuating myths and misrepresenting autism. In my talk, I will present examples of music theory scholarship from the past fifteen years that incorporate faulty depictions of autism. The most notable example is from Broken Beauty by Joseph Straus (2018). In this book, Straus describes an intriguing parallel between autism and modernist music, which is unfortunately undermined by a distorted and fundamentally inaccurate depiction of autism. Evidence is gathered from problematic diagnostic models and outdated historic uses of the word ‘autism,’ while modern sources from psychologists who work with autistic populations are overlooked, and despite substantial evidence that autism is biological and neurological in nature, Straus presents it as though it is neither, but rather as a purely cultural phenomenon. The scholarship loses touch with the realities of autism. The misrepresentation of autism music theory disability studies is highly problematic for both the autistic community and for the integrity of the field. I will bring an autistic perspective to this literature and discuss ways that these types of errors can be avoided or minimized in future scholarship.
Lost in Transcription? Captioning Issues for Music and Sound in Film and Television, A Presentation with Breakout Discussions
In October, 2012, Netflix entered into a landmark consent decree with the National Association of the Deaf that, by October, 2014, captions “will be available on 100% of [its] on-demand streaming content” (“Netflix Consent Decree” 2012). Hailed by access advocates, the practice enabled D/deaf and hard-of-hearing Americans to enjoy Netflix programming, which necessarily transcribes “all spoken dialogue” (Netflix 2014). For other soundtrack elements, however, the agreement only required captions to “contain descriptors, identifying important non-dialogue sounds” (Netflix 2014). This gave license to the company’s army of free-lance captioners to decide which sounds—including music—are “important” and how to describe them. Thus the sound effects and music cues in Netflix content are subject to the knowledge of uncredited gig-economy captioners, whose “descriptors” run the gamut of detail and accuracy, from paucity in their releases from the early 2000s to excess in recent series like Stranger Things (Salazar 2022). Other streamer are even more inconsistent in their practices, such as HBO for its latest hit series The Last of Us (Scalzi 2023).
This half-hour session involves a fifteen-minute presentation, ten-minute breakout discussion groups, and a five-minute sharing of results. It will focus on problems of and possible solutions to access to media soundtracks for members of the D/deaf and hard-of-hearing communities. The talk will investigate current closed-captioning practices at Netflix through excerpts from Archive 81 (missed cues and mistaken descriptions) and Stranger Things (excessive captioning). After I present the history of and latest Netflix guidelines for “timed text” (their designation for captions) and reflect on the effects of miscaptioning for the audience, the participants will break into smaller groups tasked with finding a captioning solution for music in an uncaptioned video segment. Questions to direct the group work include: How can we make these sounds tangible to a D/deaf and hard-of-hearing audience? Are there ways to facilitate the experience of the audio beyond the written word? How might we capture time-based features such as rhythm and speed through captioning? In the last five minutes the breakout groups would share their findings.