Unlimited and the many flaws of ‘Crip Music’

A melody written using Figurenotes notation

This past week has been the Unlimited Festival within the Southbank Centre in London. The festival, which celebrates some of the most creative and visionary disabled artists in the world, began the occasion with the Unlimited Symposium; nicknamed We are Unlimited. The symposium gave the opportunity for many creative people, disabled people, and fans and allies of the arts to hear varying opinions in relation to disability art. They were discussing where it is, where it is going, what are the barriers that exist, and many more. I was not able to attend in person, but Drake Music did give me the opportunity to use their twitter page to respond to the live stream and give my instant thoughts and opinions.

Throughout the two day symposium, I was challenged quite drastically and profoundly. I was relieved to see Andrew Miller and Darren Henley openly admitting not enough has been done to help make the arts open to disabled artists — citing the alarmingly low 4% of RFO groups having disabled employees in them. But I did question the notion that things have ‘never been better for disabled people’ especially considering Britain’s current ability to kill disabled people en mass.

I was overjoyed to see Jess Thom (Touretteshero) present, that woman can do no wrong in my eyes. Her work is intriguing and open, and honestly shows life with a great vigour and humour; which many forget to think about when it comes to the disabled. I won’t go much further as it is likely to fill up my whole post, but I highly recommend everyone read this article she recently produced. You can also view this wonderful video she created giving an insight to some of her work.

There were other insightful figures who really challenged my own ides of what a ‘disabled art’ could be. The dancer Aby Watson highlighted the obsession with virtuosity within dancer rather poignantly. Dr Marene la Roux was probably my favourite speaker because every word spoke with an innate urgency and highlighted the simple fact — artists live in the world, for equality to be achieved in the art, we need to make sure the world itself is equal too.

Overall the event was amazingly optimistic, admittedly naive optimism does not change much, but in this world its nice to have the odd upbeat moment to carry us along for a while. For me it was a great chance to connect more to the ‘criparts’ in general as my life is pretty stuck within music. But this did highlight to me a major problem, music was extremely lacking in the discourse. Thanks to fantastic visionaries the crip-lit world is full of amazing figures like Kenny Fries, Petra Kuppers, Brian Teare, Jim Ferris, Raymond Luczak, and Jillian Weise; just to name a few. Disabled actors and dancers are becoming even more prevalent and finally beginning to get some recognition of their skill. However, what I may awkwardly dub ‘crip-music’ or ‘crip-tunes’ or ‘symphonic-crips’ do not really exist. When we compare the environment and challenges of crip-lit, disabled dancers, and disabled actors to that of disabled musicians and composers it may highlight why we are here.

In acting, as in literature, the basic problems of disability come down to the following:

  • Stereotypical depiction — be it personality traits (like depressed cripple) or narratives (disabled person who learns to overcome their ‘problem’)
  • Lack of engagement of disabled voices — be it actors portraying their own condition or writers and actors advising on what life is like being disabled
  • Lack of dramatic agency — disabled characters are only the main character in the majority of cases to serve as a life lesson to the audience. Or are a side character to educate the main protagonist

What crip-lit is able to do is not only have disabled writers highlighting their life honestly, but also gives their voice agency. A disabled writer does not need to always write about disability, but everything they write will have a ‘disabled voice’ to it. This is namely in the form of a unique personal insight which by its very nature of existence is counter to the ‘mainstream’. In the same way actors and dancers can follow the same, using their world view to educate but also to add a unique element to a character whose disability does not need to serve a narrative.

Music however does not exist in this same manner. Yes, opera has many issues to consider in its depiction of disability — however I would like to refer you to this magnificent blog. Due to the basic abstract nature of music, questions of narrative does not really exist; mostly because we can never be sure if music is a ‘language’. Admittedly this is a philosophical debate which still goes on and will never really be answered. However, this shows we do not know what on earth would ‘symphonic-crip’ be responding too?

The other question is: is ‘symphonic-crip’ an ideology? What I mean is, if we observe crip-lit, we can see it is disabled writers who depict their existence or their viewpoint. This means just being disabled is not enough, there is a literary identity of sorts. The identity, is definitively an ideological one, as there really could never be a crip-lit style, mostly because due to the nuances of each and every disability out there, the ‘style’ would invariably change we’d end up with a mountain of extra labels like autistic-lit, blind-lit, wheelchair using-lit, M.E.-lit and so on. This means we cannot really go through history and adopt disabled composers and musicians and call them ‘symphonic-crips’ — sadly we cannot steal away Beethoven to ourselves. One the flip-side, could we really say anyone alive is working in this manner?

This final question really is not going to be answered anytime soon, mostly because living disabled composers are rather disparate. All musical ideologies came into being through a community, this comes through either through mutual composers and musicians spurring each other on directly or a collection of composers almost forming a ‘creative cult’ in the vision of a particular composer. So the big problem disabled composers face is there is not a community yet. Thanks to organisations like Drake Music or Drake Music Scotland a community of musicians and composers is forming. The appearance of the ParaOrchestra, National Open Youth Orchestra, and BSO Resounds we could see a change begin to happen but this is still a slow progression indeed.

However, until we are in a position to discuss a great vision of ‘symphonic-crips’ I want to introduce people to some fantastic disabled composers. Follow the links and enjoy!

Described as a Composer of Life music. Conducts and Lectures sometimes. Up to shenanigans with @HEB_Ensemble and #ActuallyAutistic