Tuesday 26 October 2021

Some more thoughts about music

Last year I wrote a post about music in which I described how my listening has been affected by my autism. I recently composed a new set of seven pieces in response to a commission from the BBC, called 'Spectrum Sounds'. These were my first compositions about my autism, rather than just a product of it. Now that the pieces have been broadcast on Radio 3 and published on the BBCR&D's innovative 'Audio Orchestrator' platform, I have had an opportunity to reflect on what I have learned as an autistic composer. There are three main takeaways: the persistence of synaesthesia; the differences between collaborating with autistic musicians and non-autistic musicians; and a question: who is this music for?

Before discussing these, I should note that the "spectrum" in the title is the colour spectrum rather than the autistic spectrum, although there are obvious echoes of the latter. The pieces were also very much about my hearing loss (thanks to Ménière's), but I will not focus on that aspect in this blog post. However, it is worth noting that each piece is only a few minutes long because I find it difficult to listen for longer than that. Each piece is associated with a colour from the spectrum and features a different musician.

The persistence of synaesthesia

During the composition of the yellow piece, I had a sudden moment of memory that I had done this before. I went rummaging in a cupboard and found an old score that I had written in my teens, entitled 'A World in Yellow'. This was for the unlikely combination of four harmoniums and voice, which more or less guaranteed it would never be performed. When I looked at the score, I found my head flooded with yellow once again, just as vividly as it must have done all those decades ago.

This showed me an interesting facet of synaesthesia (which is a confusion of the senses): its persistence. In my case, certain associations between certain colours and certain sounds formed in my youth and have never left me. An open E string on the violin is strongly red, for example, and a high F sharp on a trumpet is blue. As you can tell, I did try to grapple with this during my formative years, but eventually gave up trying because it was so unscientific, arbitrary and apparently pointless to do so. 

I'm not the only composer to have been synaesthetic. Amy Beach, Alexander Scriabin, and Olivier Messiaen are all famous examples and there have been many more. Those people were often quite systematic about their synaesthesia, whereas mine has always been a bit rough and ready by comparison. But it is no less intense for that. It also affects taste and smell to some extent. I can remember avoiding the Bakerloo line when I lived in London because the brown colour on the tube map gave me sensation that combined with the smell of bakelite (the word was obviously the source of this association) and a disgusting taste that made the whole idea of stepping on to that line revolting. Now, I could have overcome this if I really wanted to, but it was easier just to avoid the whole thing.

During my musical career, I have listened past the synaesthesia in a similar way, trying to ignore the colour sensations I was getting when listening. It has been refreshing to revisit this aspect of myself and give it renewed consideration. 

Autistic vs. non-autistic musicians

All six of the musicians I worked with were wonderful (the green piece was played by myself - green has always been my favourite colour). On a musical level, they were equally rewarding to work with. Three are autistic, and two have severe to profound hearing loss, while one is not autistic and has "normal" hearing. Some musicians needed a musical score to play, while at the other extreme one did not read music at all and worked from written verbal instructions. In some cases there was more of a compositional aspect to the collaboration than others, for example, two of the musicians worked on producing their own sounds in response to my instructions, which I then reworked to make the finished piece.

The things I noticed about the autistic musicians as opposed to the neurotypical musicians were the very rapid understanding and the mostly non-verbal nature of the communication. We would talk very little, and yet these musicians would quickly produce something that matched my intentions. I find this fascinating and observe that it mirrors my experience of everyday interactions. In general, I seem to get an instant communication with other autistic people, whereas with neurotypicals it can be difficult, even impossible, to achieve a rapport.

I was in a meeting recently during which the mother of a non-verbal autistic son told me that my brain works exactly the same as his. This confirmed something I have long suspected, that the autistic "wiring" exists independently of standard communication methods and carries a deep level of mutual understanding.

Who is this music for?

This is a hardy perennial question for composers, and can lead to some creatively inhibiting internal arguments if you dwell on it too much. But in this case, it really did get me thinking. Several years ago, I submitted some of my compositions that dealt with my hearing issues to a journal which publishes artworks as well as academic papers. They rejected it, and in explaining the reasons the editor wrote to me as follows:

>>I would suggest to look at [the reviewers'] opinions not as resulting from some form of deficit but from a genuine position where they couldn’t see or hear what you are seeing or hearing - what’s clear to you isn’t translating well enough, and this is where some of the necessary work of articulation might lie.<<

This really sums up the problem. If you write for and about yourself, there is of course no guarantee that people will understand what emerges. I assign each piece a colour of the spectrum, but of course the vast majority of listeners will not experience those colours, and even those who are synaesthetes will not necessarily have the same associations as me. 

This is really the autistic condition. We are permanently in the situation of seeing or hearing things which others do not, and finding it challenging to communicate those perceptions. Furthermore, this cuts both ways: the rest of the world does not communicate itself well to us either! This editor made the rather ableist assertion that the problem lies with me. I can resist that as much as I like, but when it comes to writing music which I hope others will enjoy, then it remains a problem. The 'Spectrum Sounds' pieces are as authentically me as it is possible to get, something that is not true of all my compositions. As such, the pieces still stand and I hope will find an audience anyway.