Monday 1 February 2021

The 'Neurotribes' conference, Sound Festival Scotland.

Yesterday I attended the 'Neurotribes' conference that was part of the Sound Festival in Scotland. It was really great to see an event like this and it was a pretty interesting and eventful day. Full credit to Ben Lunn, Drake Music Scotland and the Sound Festival for staging such an inclusive conference (complete with BSL and live captions). Great efforts were made to enable people to take part and to consider every viewpoint. The day included a concert of music by the neurodivergent composers Joe Stollery, Ben Teague, Rylan Gleave, Ben Lunn, Siobhan Dyson and Jason Hodgson, as well as spoken presentations by each of them. There was a special tribute to the late Lucy Hale in the form of a performance of her piece ‘Snap and Sustain’.

It struck me that this was the first time since my diagnosis three years ago that I have identified as autistic in such a public setting. Consequently, once I started to speak in the final discussion I became surprisingly nervous. There was that familiar “imposter syndrome” feeling that most late-diagnosed autistic people know. Also, I had some things to say that were rooted in personal experience, which always makes me nervous. I’m more used to speaking in academic conferences where nobody is much interested in personal statements.

The day began with a performance, or more accurately a screening, of Siobhan Dyson’s audiovisual piece ‘Listen Carefully’. The great value of this work was its instructive effects for non-autistic, or neurotypical, people. It emerged in the discussion afterwards that they had been strongly affected by this powerful depiction of the way the world is experienced by autistic people. The National Autistic Society and others have tried over the years to convey this in short films or animations, but apparently not with the same force that was achieved by Siobhan Dyson.

It also emerged that several of the autistic people had found the piece overwhelming, as indeed did I. Trigger warnings had been issued, but I foolishly ignored them and tuned in, thinking: it can’t be all that bad. It turned out that such strong depictions of my lived experience are intolerable for me! I lasted under a minute before I was obliged to bail out, on the edge of a shutdown and with my hearing disturbed in the kind of way that normally only happens when I visit the audiologist. I played chess for a while to restore my equilibrium, but the effects lasted all day to some extent. Some friends were concerned about me, which was very considerate of them, and Siobhan herself was clearly very worried that she had upset other autistic people. However, I would argue that it was much more important that the piece was heard by those who needed to hear it. My takeaway lesson is: heed trigger warnings!

The concert contained some very enjoyable and well written music. Because of my hearing, I cannot listen to music for very long, so I recorded the whole thing and listened to it in batches afterwards. One comment I would make to the organisers: it might have been a good idea to adapt to the online medium a bit more and edit each piece separately to make it available online for asynchronous listening. The format of a ‘concert’ didn’t work so well over the web. But the performances were clearly excellent.

The stated objective of the conference was to “bring together promoters, ensembles and composers on the autism spectrum” in order to “discuss the challenges facing composers on the spectrum and explore how to enable greater inclusion and facilitate effective and supportive working relationships”. This really came to the fore during the final discussion, when representatives from several music organisations, performance groups and publishers met with the autistic participants. 

My (quite challenging) contribution was to ask why it is that such organisations always seem to position themselves as the arbiters of what is worthy by having a competitive selection process judged by a panel whenever they call for new works? Could there not be a randomised selection process rather than this constant 'panning for gold' (as my friend Ashok Mistry calls it)? Can we not trust audiences and participants to judge what is good or valuable?

This caused a lot of discussion. If I understood the comments correctly, the neurodivergent people mostly agreed with what I said and felt it resonated strongly. The representatives of the organisations, possibly feeling attacked (which was not my intention) kicked back somewhat, explaining that they are always trying to be inclusive, but that they feel they must support certain individuals or groups, because they have a duty to the artists and have to meet certain requirements. But they also admitted the discussion made them feel uncomfortable. As someone remarked: “unsuccessful applicants may wonder what they have done wrong”. 

Speaking from personal experience: that is exactly the problem. I recently wrote a blog post about “getting it wrong” which argued that we often judge ourselves by neurotypical criteria, leading to a diminished sense of self-worth. For an autistic person, who has spent a lifetime trying to understand unwritten rules in an effort to fit into a society which makes no sense, it can be devastating, even traumatising, to be rejected in a way that seems to involve a set of unwritten rules. 

Of course, neurotypical people also feel fear of failure, despondency at rejection, and so on. But this commonality should not lead to the classic “we are all a little bit autistic” argument. The autistic experience is completely different and may range from a hyposensitivity in which a rejection is greeted with complete indifference, to hypersensitivity in which it is traumatising. Either way, it chimes with a lifetime of trying to fit into a world which is incomprehensible. 

Sometimes, success can be worse than failure, because it is achieved at the expense of others. Autistic people, contrary to received wisdom, are often hyper-empathetic. We think (care) more about the people who were not selected than about our own success. When you get a commission, everybody starts telling you you are marvellous, but all you can think is: why? And once the project is over, everybody stops telling you that, and your response is also: why? In other words, the selection process operates in exactly the same way as day-to-day society. Autistics are constantly trying to operate in a world which is apparently configured to make us fail, and in which any success arises from arbitrary social conventions. Music commissioning mimics that system with its Darwinian selection processes. 

If a random selection process would be too radical, then perhaps a process which is not based on perceived quality, but rather on some kind of clear mechanism, might work. Good and transparent feedback is essential, but is so often lacking. I take the optimistic view that all composers create work that has something good and interesting about it. But, we wouldn’t know that unless we get to hear it! If we assume that there is always insufficient time and resources to hear everything, then some kind of equitable system is the most desirable compromise.

So, all in all, this was a successful, stimulating, and sometimes challenging conference which left me with plenty to think about. Despite my nerves and the occasional difficult moments, I’m glad I went and it was very nice to feel that I am still part of the contemporary music scene to some extent. It would be good to see similar events organised elsewhere. There is a lot of interest in engaging with neurodivergent people at the moment, which is terrific, but the process is in its infancy and there is much more to learn about how this might best be done.