Extraordinary Measures: Disability in Music

By Johnson, Shersten | Notes, March 2012 | Go to article overview

Extraordinary Measures: Disability in Music


Johnson, Shersten, Notes


Extraordinary Measures: Disability in Music. By Joseph N. Straus. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. [x, 205 p. ISBN 9780199766451 (hardcover), $99; ISBN 9780199766468 (paperback), $24.95.] Glossary of musical terms, bibliography, index.

The conception of disability, while in flux over the past 300 years, has exerted a strong influence on both criticism and reception of composers and performers with disabilities and even works. In Extraordinary Measures: Disability in Music, Joseph Straus counterpoints the voices of composers, performers, critics, and theorists in a discussion that spotlights not only musicians with disabilities but also disability metaphors in music discourse. Acknowledging a debt to Garland-Thomson and other writers in the field of disability studies, this pioneering book is the first to lay the foundation for such a study in the field of music. What Straus modestly calls a "slender volume" authoritatively sets the stage for further thought, focusing on the core of the Western art music canon and the best of much-read critical literature with extensive quotes that allow the reader to hear from music experts in a substantive way. Roughly a third of the book is devoted to disabled musicians and critical reception. Another third of the book features narratives of disability as told through music. Although there are no printed musical score excerpts, the examples are common enough that readers would either know the pieces or have access to them. The remaining chapters engage music-theoretical traditions and theories of hearing.

Straus introduces his topic by making the distinction between disability as material reality and disability as historically contingent, socially and culturally constructed meaning. He defines disability as any "culturally stigmatized bodily difference" (p. 9) and includes within this definition any permanent or temporary physical or mental condition. By adopting this broad definition, he proposes that disability affects virtually every human being along with cultural products and points to the nature of disability that is "paradoxically ubiquitous and yet also perceived as strange and remarkable" (p. 11). Underlying the study is a single guiding purpose: to help us rethink defect as difference.

In discussing individual composers and performers, Straus observes that musicians with disabilities are linked by common critical responses that he groups into four categories. The first model, the pre- Enlightenment notion of disability as affliction-God's punishment, an outward mark of inner failing-contrasts with the second, the nineteenth-century view of disability as divine inspiration marking an individual as transcendent. Critics depend, for example, on both of these models when they hear Landini's music as divine compensation for the great misfortune of his blindness. The third model, widely held since the early 1800s, responds to disability as medical defect to be overcome or cured. This model accounts for much of the reception of Beethoven's middle-period music, for example, in which critics hear a narrative of overcoming deafness. The fourth model centers on the recently developed notion of disability as personal, cultural, and social identity deserving affirmation. Straus demonstrates ways of revising historic critiques along the axis of this new model: blindness, for example, can be conceived as a positive artistic resource allowing Landini to do more successfully the things that composers needed to do (hold vast amounts of music in memory and improvise).

Another theme emerges from these essays, that of disability overwhelming the critical view of compositions and performances. Straus observes that the narrative of Robert Schumann's madness engulfs critical reception of his late music. Similarly, the narrative of Evelyn Glennie's deafness at times engulfs critical responses to her performances. Many artists deflect discussion of their disabilities for just this reason, preferring to be known as artists rather than disabled artists, while other musicians have come to see their role in public life as that of an activist. …

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