Reviews of Neil Lerner and Joseph Straus Eds., Sounding Off: Theorizing Disability in Music

By Quaglia, Bruce | Music Theory Online, June 2007 | Go to article overview

Reviews of Neil Lerner and Joseph Straus Eds., Sounding Off: Theorizing Disability in Music


Quaglia, Bruce, Music Theory Online


Introduction: Cultural Disability Studies and Music

[1] In their introduction to the recently published collection of essays entitled Sounding Off: Theorizing Disability in Music, editors Joseph Straus and Neil Lerner optimistically conclude: "This collection of essays, together with Straus (2006), represents the first published efforts to theorize disability in relationship to music and, and vice versa. We may have come late to the conversation, but it is our hope that the energy, range and intellectual vigor of these essays will help create a new dialogue between disability studies and musical scholarship, to the great benefit of both."(1) In reviewing this collection of essays and Joseph Straus' recent JAMS article, it will therefore be necessary to attempt to place this new musicological sub-discipline within the evolving continuum of disability studies (DS) and to consider what music scholarship may have to offer DS in return.

[2] In her own 1997 book Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson remarks: "in a sense, this book is a manifesto that places disability studies within a humanities context. Although disability studies has developed as a subfield of scholarly inquiry in the academic fields of sociology, medical anthropology, special education, and rehabilitative medicine, almost no studies in the humanities explicitly situate disability within a politicized, social constructionist perspective."(2) Nearly a decade later, in the forward to Sounding Off, Garland-Thomson reveals that she has "always secretly doubted that disability could be represented in musical form" but then goes on to state that the essays of Sounding Off have convinced her that indeed "disability is everywhere," including music.(3)

[3] In addition to Garland-Thomas' forward, Sounding Off contains sixteen essays and an introductory chapter by the editors. The authors are primarily music theorists or musicologists at various stages of their careers and their chapters cover an astonishingly large variety of repertoire and critical concerns. Some chapters appear to have been adapted from recent dissertations or other projects. Still other chapters may have followed from, or perhaps even responded to, papers given at the 2004 joint AMS/SMT meeting in Seattle where a special session on disability and music could be understood to have inaugurated the current project. Since that meeting, and the publication of the materials that I will review here, a joint SMT special interest group and AMS study group has been formed and additional paper sessions are planned for future national meetings.(4) Clearly disability studies have entered the scholarly musical discourse and may soon begin to occupy a central position in its discussions alongside other cultural identity studies such as those of gender, race and sexuality.

[4] While most of the essays included in Sounding Off are relatively brief and confined to interrogation of specific aspects of a topic, be it in a film, a piece, a performer or of a practice, Joseph Straus' 2006 article "Normalizing the Abnormal: Disability in Music and Music Theory," which appeared in the Journal of the American Musicological Society 59(1), can be read as a detailed and comprehensive introduction to the project of disability studies in music. In "Normalizing the Abnormal" Straus considers the wide variety of means through which normalcy/abnormality and physical embodiment are built into the language and conceptual framework of music theory. He examines Formenlehre tradition (focusing on its most recent descendants) as well as Schenker's, Riemann's and Schoenberg's theories of tonal music and finds embedded within each of these the metaphor of the disabled body. Straus' article, along with some of the other essays in Sounding Off, are amongst those in which something strikingly new is emerging in music scholarship: the self-examination from within a highly-specialized and technical discipline of its own language and constructs through the lens of disability. …

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