Autistic Musicking

June 23, 2015

Musicologist Andrew Dell’Antonio and disability & education scholar Elizabeth J. “Ibby” Grace (who is one of my fellow editors at Autonomous Press) are collaborating on a project (will it be a paper? a monograph? a book? an action movie?) about autism and musicking, and I’m one of the autistic people they interviewed as part of their research.

And what is musicking? According to the information Andrew and Ibby sent me in preparation for the interview, musicking is a term coined by a musicologist named Christopher Small, and discussed in Small’s book Musicking: The Meaning of Performance and Listening (1998). Musicking is music as a verb: to music. To music, as I understand it, is to participate in music in any way: you’re musicking when you play music, sing it or sing along with it, compose it, dance to it, share it, help to make it happen, create art inspired or informed by it, allow it to inform the way you move or interact or live… if it’s a way of engaging with music, it’s musicking.

Below is the stuff I said about Autistic musicking during the interview. The interview took the form of an extended Facebook chat session, which included a lot of rapid-fire chatter and questions and joking around and personal interjections like “Hey, me too!” or “Good question!” from all of us. I’ve edited all that stuff out, though I’ve left in a few of the questions that Andrew and Ibby asked me (because some of my answers make more sense if you know what questions I’m responding to).

I’m looking forward to seeing Andrew and Ibby’s work-in-progress as it progresses further. They presented some initial bits and pieces at the 2015 Society for Disability Studies conference, including some quotes from the interview below. 

Q: What makes sound more or less pleasurable for you?

Sounds are more pleasurable for me if they’re in harmony with everything else that’s going on, or if I’m in a position to work in harmony with the sound. So the sudden sound of someone using a power tool is never pleasurable, because it rips into the flow of whatever’s already going on. But good music, even if it’s as loud as a power tool or starts as suddenly, can be pleasurable because I can incorporate it into the groove of what I’m doing and how I’m moving.

My sensory channels aren’t separate, it’s all part of one complex multifaceted experience, so the soundtrack has to work in harmony with everything else.

Q: Can you say more about the “complex multifaceted experience”? Does it involve synesthesia?

Yes, it’s all about synesthesia. Because I haven’t experienced anyone else’s sensory and cognitive processing, I can’t clearly separate what aspects of my experience constitute synesthesia, and what aspects are a result of my particular cognitive processing of my sensory experience.

A further challenge in talking about it is that music affects me emotionally, but about half of the emotions I experience are Autistic emotions for which there are no words in neurotypical languages. And it’s also hard to draw a clear boundary between “inspired and emotionally stirred by the music” and “sound/concept/emotion synesthesia.”

I find that terms like “sound/color synesthesia” don’t really do justice to the complexity of my experience. I have “everything/everything else synesthesia.” Just one big gestalt experience.

Q: So acknowledging the inadequacy of neurotypical language to describe Autistic multisensory experience, from your perspective, is it even useful to separate “musicking” as a distinct mode of engagement from the global Autistic experiential gestalt?

Yes, I think it’s still useful to think of musicking as a distinct realm of activity. One just needs to remember that the boundaries that separate realms of activity and experience (or areas of academic study) are fluid and permeable.

The boundary between “musicking” as a description of a specific field of activity, and “musicking” as a metaphor for other activities, is particularly soft and permeable.

Am I musicking if I write a story? One can say that composing a story is like composing a piece of music, and that’s a metaphor. But what if listening to music is an important part of my creative process as a writer? What if, when I write a story, I’m often thinking about its soundtrack? What if I drop little song references into my stories to try to put the music into the reader’s head as well?

At what point does writing become musicking actually as well as metaphorically? Fuzzy boundaries.

All of the above is part of my personal experience of writing stories, by the way – not hypothetical. I love story, and music tends to convey story to me.

Songs and song lyrics play an important role in my cognitive experience. They’re a rich source of cognitive/social scripts. I want to clarify that, because in the context of autism the term “social scripts” is often used to mean “rote learning of social protocols for the purpose of passing for neurotypical” – and that’s absolutely not what I’m talking about.

What I mean by cognitive/social scripts is that I don’t think in words in the sense of having an “internal monologue” the way many people seem to – but I can think in songs. So when I have an intuition or pick up on a “vibe,” and my unconscious mind needs to communicate something about it to my conscious mind, it often happens in the form of a song popping into my head.

Here’s an example of how it works for me: when I was getting my degree in Counseling Psychotherapy, the degree program included a year of clinical practicum that involved counseling clients in a counseling center. Songs would pop into my head when working with clients, and the songs were hints about the client – things I was picking up about them unconsciously.

My favorite one was when I met a client for the very first time – literally the first time I laid eyes on her – and the song “Sing” by the Dresden Dolls popped into my head, loud and clear. It’s a song about reclaiming one’s voice, about overcoming the fear of speaking/singing out. And it turned out that that was exactly the issue that the client needed to work on.

Q: Do you think there can be a culturally Autistic (or more broadly neurodivergent) approach/approaches to musicking?

I think there are potentially as many distinctively neurodivergent approaches to musicking as there are neurodivergent individuals. Even just focusing on Autistic individuals, the range of experiences and potential approaches is so vast.

So I don’t think there will ever be one particular Autistic cultural approach or style, when it comes to musicking. Just look at the many Autistic people already making music, or the historical figures in music who were probably Autistic. Look at how different their various styles and approaches are/were.

I think the key element in any Autistic cultural approach to musicking would simply have to be the embracing of variety. An Autistic culture of musicking would embrace the variety of ways of musicking, and also the variety of experiences and responses to music.

One reason I was drawn to particular genres of music as a teen and young adult – hard rock, metal, punk, ska – is that the subcultures built around these genres are accepting of certain types of embodied participation in musicking.

More simply put: kids at a metal concert physically rock like they’re Autistic. They’re even referred to as “headbangers.” I was drawn to subcultures in which it was socially acceptable for me to move to music the way I naturally move to music.

Now, Glenn Gould and Thelonius Monk could be openly Autistic in the way they moved when playing the piano onstage. But you’re not allowed to move to the music like Glenn Gould when you’re in the audience at a Bach recital.

So an Autistic culture of musicking wouldn’t be about a particular genre, but it would include acceptance (and celebration) of stimming by audience members. At a metal show, if the audience is stimming, that’s like applause – it’s a sign to the band that they’ve hit a good groove. In an Autistic culture of music, this would be the case in every musical genre.





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