Conference Agenda

The Online Program of events for the 2023 AMS & SMT Joint Annual Meeting appears below. This program is subject to change. The final program will be published in early November.

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Session Overview
Music and Disability
Thursday, 09/Nov/2023:
4:00pm - 5:30pm

Session Chair: Tekla Babyak, Disabled Independent Scholar
Location: Silver

Session Topics:

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Representations of Stuttering in Popular Song from 1965 to Present and the Rhythmic Implications

Kristi Hardman

University of North Carolina at Charlotte

Stuttering, defined as a communication disorder in which the flow of speech is disrupted by repetitions, prolongations, or abnormal stoppages of sounds, occurs in roughly 1% of the world’s population. The musical representation of stuttering has attracted some critical attention, including Goldmark (2006) who argues that Tin Pan Alley composers employed stuttering for comic effect to show the troubles of a young man trying to woo a potential mate. In recent popular music, we find a surprising number of stuttering songs that have not been discussed in the literature. This paper explores the representations and narratives of stuttering in popular songs since 1965 and rhythmic implications of the vocal stuttering. Some songs to be discussed include Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet,” Kendrick Lamar’s “DNA,” and The Knack’s “My Sharona.”

In today’s popular culture, stuttering is not typically represented as a disability, but rather the non-permanent result of a personality characteristic, falling into one of the following five representation categories: humor, nervousness/weakness, unheroic behavior, inebriation, and frustration/anger. These stuttering songs also feature instances of the three narratives of disability from Straus (2011, 2018): overcoming, quest, and chaos/acceptance. But as this paper shows, there is a propensity toward the chaos/acceptance narrative in the lyrics of recent popular songs. In these songs, a singer rarely attempts to overcome their stutter, but rather accepts it as part of their personal identity. Although the singer accepts their stutter, the instrumental accompaniment pushes the need for a cure, forcing the singer to comply with the straightforward rhythms of the instrumental musicians. The stutter must be cured rhythmically lest it could cause the groove of the song to fall apart completely.

Understanding through Unintelligibility: A Close Reading of Neil Young’s Voice in Trans (1982)

Gerardo Lopez

The Ohio State University

Despite initial lackluster reception, met with “indifference and mild derision” in late 1982 (Plasketes, 2009), Neil Young’s Trans has since gained interest and acclaim (Milano, 2022; Stein, 2014). Much of the focus has been on recontextualizing the album’s most definitive and divisive feature: the use of the vocoder and the subsequent degradation of vocal intelligibility. To this, Young states, “Trans is about communication, about not getting through…You can’t understand the words on Trans and I can’t understand my son’s words” (Plasketes, 2023). This quotation from Young illustrates two things. First, it reveals the deeply personal motivations behind the creation of Trans, as a way of opening up about his experiences with trying to communicate with his son Ben, who is non-verbal as a result of cerebral palsy. Secondly, it further reveals that Young was thinking of intelligibility as a narrative device, something that could be manipulated in order to signify. This paper argues that Young used the vocoder to manipulate vocal intelligibility, exploiting the technology's affective potentials by both playing into and subverting the trope of the emotionless robotic voice.

Intelligibility within this paper is defined as “the extent to which the speaker’s or singer’s message can be understood by the listener” (Fine and Ginsborg, 2014). There has been empirical work attempting to qualify attributes of intelligibility in vocal music, such as diction and the presence of diphthongs vs. monophthongs (Fine and Ginsborg, 2014; Johnson, Huron, and Collister, 2014). Empirical work has also demonstrated how different levels of intelligibility can function as signifiers of genre (Condit-Schultz and Huron, 2015). However, aside from a few discussions of intelligibility in medieval motets (Zayaruznaya, 2017) and 17th century villancicos (Egan, 2018), there has been little theorizing of intelligibility as operating within a narrative space. Because of the vocoder’s distortions, isolating vocal tracks from the rest of texture is nearly impossible, even with the assistance of current source separation algorithms that are commercially available. In light of this, this paper enlists the aid of qualitative assessments of lyric intelligibility as a way to supplement my own narrative analysis.

Movement as Music in Signed Song: Analyzing Rosa Lee Timm’s “River Song”

Anabel Maler

University of British Columbia

Sign language music (music created primarily in a visual-kinesthetic modality) challenges existing methodologies for analyzing aurally-perceived music. The existence of music that does not involve sound prompts us to consider how musical parameters such as vocal quality, melody, and rhythm can emerge in a visual-kinesthetic musical medium. This paper examines these parameters through a detailed analysis of the original piece “River Song” by Rosa Lee Timm.

“River Song” tells the story of a day on a river. The song can be divided into three verses, with an introduction, outro, and refrain. In my analysis, I focus on how Timm makes use of vocal techniques, melody, and rhythm to distinguish between the song’s two main characters, a large boat and a small boat, and to create a musical transformation from a negative state into a positive one. These musical parameters emerge through Timm’s signing: specifically, her use of facial expressions, mouth morphemes and body positioning creates a sense of voice, her dynamic motion through the signing space creates melody, and her use of movement types creates rhythm and meter.

In this talk, I make use of music analysis and ethnographic interviews with Timm to reveal the meaning of a purely signed piece of music. I argue that Timm makes use of several musical techniques in “River Song” to create a transformation from a negative state to a positive one of happiness and calm. This musical meaning emerges in a purely visual medium, revealing how musical parameters exhibit resilience across modalities.

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