Lisa Tolentino is a doctoral student pursuing a Media Arts and Sciences PhD through the School of Arts, Media and Engineering (AME) at Arizona State University. She works in the Embodied and Mediated Learning Group, working closely with high school special education teachers, designers, artists and researchers to develop digitally mediated environments to support social interaction, exploration, community and creativity in learning for students with autism.

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.

  1. Find an object in your kitchen that you have an affinity for.
  2. Discover three different ways of getting a different sound out of it. For example:
    • Strike the object with chopsticks, wire whisk, or other items.
    • Pour grains (e.g., salt, rice, lentils) onto it continuously.
    • Change its chemistry (e.g., break it into smaller pieces or heat it up).
    • Sing into it. Or add water and strike it.
    • Let it alone and listen to the environment around the object.
    • Repeat each sound and listen to what makes each sound different, similar, or beautiful.
  3. Focus on your object. What did you choose? What did you discover about it?
  4. Think about your process. How did you feel going performing this exercise? How did it affect you?
  5. Now put the object away. Leave it for a few minutes and look around the kitchen again. Has it changed how you think about other items in your kitchen?

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.
Tolentino, L. (2007). “Fields of Vision, Limits of the World: Contemplating new contexts in contemporary music.” Roots and Rhizomes Conference, University California, San Diego, La Jolla, CA.

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2 Responses to “Voices in Things: What Experimental Music Has to Teach Us About Performing with Labels by Lisa Tolentino”

  1. Cynthia on 5/29/12 4:59 PM US/Eastern

    Lisa, when I first read this blog it was so beyond the boundaries of the way I normally experience everyday sounds. I came back to your blog today to reread it. My daughter was eating an apple and she ran over to me and placed a slice of apple up to my ear and said, “Listen.” The apple was making a hissing noise. As she skipped away I thought of two things, 1) your blog and 2) the fact that my daughter often notices sounds that I don’t notice. When she put that apple slice up to my hear she wasn’t shocked, she was just wanting me to experience another sound that she found interesting and that she likely knew I wouldn’t experience on my own. I am left wondering about how we privilege some experiences over others. As a mother I suddenly want to make sure my daughter continues to hear apples hissing at her. I want her to continue experiencing the world in her way. Just wanted to share that moment with you, because your blog helped me pause and think about that moment.

  2. Lisa on 6/1/12 11:48 AM US/Eastern

    Taucia (c/o Cynthia), I really enjoyed reading your experience; thank you for sharing. I’ve found something similar with my younger sister and with kids I’ve worked with recently. They have this incredible, innate capacity to find wonderment and appreciate so many places and things that we filter out as we age. I, too, hope that your daughter continues to hear the world in her own way, and that she will continue to feel compelled and safe enough to share what she hears with all of us. I am so glad that you have been able to nurture her ears in that way. Her life will be that much richer for it!

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