Tuesday 2 July 2024

GLOSS: autistic web design, part 1

I've been commissioned by the Percy Grainger Society to review their website named GLOSS (Grainger Library of Sampled Sound) and to suggest ways it could be expanded to make it suitable for use by neurodivergent people. Here is their press release. We established fairly early in the process that I would focus on autistic users, rather than the whole of neurodiversity, because that is the area of my best expertise and because we want the site to have a clear sense of purpose.

I have had a longstanding interest in Percy Grainger (1882-1961), who was an Australian composer and pianist who ended up living in the USA, specifically in White Plains, New York. He is best known for his folksong arrangements and "light" compositions such as Country Gardens, but there is a great deal more depth to his work than this would suggest. In particular, he was a great experimentalist, composing chance-based music decades before John Cage and devoting the later decades of his life to a completely unique form of electronic music that he called 'Free Music'. There's a good summary of his life and work on the Percy Grainger Society website.

I've often wondered why I am interested in Grainger. It's not as though I am a folksong enthusiast, an aficionado of light music, interested in military bands, or a massive fan of all things "Nordic" (which was his passion). What I have come to realise is that he was probably neurodivergent himself, as a read of his correspondence will confirm. I won't give him the label "autistic" (retrospective diagnosis is always risky) but it is pretty clear that his brain worked in a decidedly atypical way. He had several "special interests", some of which have been the subject of disapproval or even condemnation. I'm not going to express a view on that, but I would say that any autistic person would recognise the extreme focus and obsessive nature he exhibited. Most importantly, his dedication to pursuing an alternative view of music based on the sliding tones he saw in the shape of the landscape or the ripples in the water went well beyond the kind of dispassionate, quasi-scientific, enquiries of the people working in the electronic studios at Princeton, for example. 

I have completed my initial review of the GLOSS website and will be reporting to the Percy Grainger Society later this month. When that exercise is complete, I will publish the key findings here. The next step will be for me to create some original soundscapes using the materials on the site, which I will also share. The project is due to end in December, when I will publish a full academic article, but I will also discuss the main findings from a purely autistic perspective here. Watch this space!