I believe the key to activating the lives of students with disabilities is not about changing who they are; rather, it is in changing how we listen to them. So let’s begin with a short listening exercise. If you are at our near a kitchen, perform the following steps before reading the blog. If not, feel free to skip ahead.
An Exercise in Listening: 5 steps in 15 minutes.
Five years ago, I finished my studies in experimental music performance at University of California, San Diego. I returned home to Bakersfield, CA, taking a year to help my family and apply for graduate school… but in secret, I was buying more time with my younger sister. She is the most empathetic, contemporary music-loving, and quintessential avant-garde person I know. Yet her numerous gifts remain unknown to the world; separate and immeasurable qualities that go uncounted in systems of democracy. In this country, she is forever impaired and dependent without a role that leads to the rich opportunities, outcomes, and choices that you and I have.
While in Bakersfield, a.k.a., the country music capital of California, I had to figure out what an avant-garde musician like me could do. So I dreamt up a concert that gives experimental music a civic-minded life. The proposed concert would give the greater public a sonic experience linked to encountering one’s own perceptions of music. Together, the concert pieces construct a sonic frame to help alter and transcend the social stigma of disability. Michael Pisaro’s work “ricefall” is a like-minded piece. “ricefall” was composed in response to one man’s experience of gradually becoming blind. As the man’s visual field diminished, he began to discover the acoustic colors of the environment as they come to life during the rain. The piece has a grid of sixteen players pour rice onto surfaces such as metal, stone, wood and leaves. Each grain hits each unique surface, and the materials resonate to create a textural palette that a listener feels without touching or seeing. The piece, like the others, opens up dialog into what it means to experience new beauty in the world as we encounter our limits.
In 2010, I joined the Equity Alliance at ASU to produce a film festival that questioned how we interpret difference and disability. The festival was supported by grants from the School of Theater and Film’s p.a.v.e. program and Mary Lou Fulton School of Education. We used a Twitter social media tool to unite movie-goers in an electronically persistent dialog that was projected in the theaters. The dialog was shared with leaders in human computer interaction in a position paper on social media and disability for ‘CHI 2010. And it continued through a disability awareness workshop at ASU’s Local-2-Global Teach-in event for social justice.
Each event was a call to recast what we call “disability” as something other than simply an impairment to be fixed; rather, it is an encounter with our own limits when we are faced to perform. Our struggle with disability connects us as it reveals what it means to be most notably and beautifully human. We struggle with limits every time we ask, or are asked, to move far beyond our comfort zone. However, what we do in these moments of seeming impossibility holds the potential to bring out the greatest creativity within us.
This past year, my non-profit arts collective urbanSTEW hosted a two-day festival birthed from this idea. The festival, PLAY!: A Festival of Technology and Art was “a treat for your inner child,” coalescing a collection of installation art pieces, digital music, dance, and percussion music to bridge the avant-garde with a new civic duty. The idea grew out of the academy, as a critical and phenomenological response to the stigma and pity around labels. The festival’s heart embraced the lived experiences of people on the fringe, as it spoke to the core craft of all experimental arts practice: the capacity to play.
To play is to activate one’s voice through some medium – be it sound or material. Alvin Lucier’s work, “I am sitting in a room,” does this by bringing out the voice of a room using a simple microphone and an audio speaker at the room’s center. As a recorded human voice gets played back and re-recorded in a loud feedback loop in the room, the voice fades in favor of room’s own resonance. After 45 minutes, we are left with the room’s voice, booming and shimmering in chord clusters that engulf the audience.
In “Living Room Music” by the late John Cage, wood tables, torn lampshades, glass bowls, magazines, and an amplified cactus are featured instruments in a mini imaginary landscape. This many of Cage’s works suggest a model for inclusion. Cage loved sounds just as they were; never needing them to be anything more. “I don’t want them to be psychological. I don’t want a sound to pretend that it’s a bucket, or that it’s president, or that it’s in love with another sound. I just want it to be a sound.”
Returning to this blog’s theme of listening to the voices in things, the core value of experimental arts practice is that it helps crack at our habits of mind. Surely, daily rituals help move us through life. However, our common routines can over-train us to limit our prospects to that and those with whom we are most comfortable. In my life, experimental music gives me both excuse and agency to explore the everyday voices of things and bodies we take for granted. I just practice “tuning in” to them.
In classical arts, so much time is devoted to learning how to play notes faster, better, with more accuracy. This obsession with athleticism, however, can lead us to miss an even more crucial aspect about performance: the ability to listen carefully and respond. Music is fundamentally about listening, experiencing and connecting with each other through an immaterial realm. Not about getting all the notes right.
Consider this metaphor for our special education system. What do we miss about our children when our programs are tailored to turn youth into better performers? What expressions of their individuality and personal creativity get filtered out because our systems of pedagogy, technology, and culture only focus on what they cannot do? What would happen if, instead, we strengthened the awareness of themselves, their relationships with the world and others, and let them lead in ways that enable them – but ultimately, us, to envision better outcomes for their lives?
Lin, Y., Tolentino, L., and Kelliher, A. (2010). “Tweeting Globally, Acting Locally: Booming and Sustaining Disability Awareness through Twitter,” ACM SIGCHI Conference, Atlanta, Georgia.