the boy blowing bubbles in the moon

When I was away for my recent conference, there were two things that I read while traveling: Rob Wegman’s recent essay “Blowing Bubbles in the Postmodern Era”and the memoir, The Boy in the Moon: A Father’s Journey to Understand his Extraordinary Son by Ian Brown.*

The first is a meta-musicological meditation on the work of the historian and the inherent constraints we face as individuals in a place and time trying to understand another place and time.

So it is as if we are inhabiting a little bubble: a bubble that’s floating in nothingness, a sealed and self-contained conceptual world called the twenty-first-century West. Trapped within that bubble, we are trying to imagine the one thing we cannot possibly know: what it is like to live in another bubble. (217)

Historians work to collect, sort, interpret the bits of history, placing them in their contexts, constructing identities and nations. Historians look at the cultures from the everyday morsels of life to the ruptures that change those routines. Historians sit at their computer screens in the twenty-first-century writing arguments and citing evidence for historical hunches. (Historical truth is so nineteenth-century.) Historians spend their whole life trying know the unknowable.

It was interesting to me that I was reading this article as I was finishing up The Boy in the Moon, a book by the father of a son who was born with a genetic condition that leaves him so severely disabled physically and intellectually that all the means the father has previously used to get to know another human being are now moot. His son is non-verbal and does not have enough motor control to sign, neither are they sure if he can intellectually ascribe meaning to signs. He can’t express desires. He does laugh and can appear to be either content or discontent. And he can walk.

Not only is Brown trying to understand who his son is, he is also trying to understand what meaning his son’s existence has in present society. If our society values the mind, productivity, economic production, then the boy has no place in that society.

Brown quotes a conversation with a wise geneticist:

The state of non-verbal rapture you describe in your son — who is to say that that is inferior? Who is to say that? We’re arrogant enough to believe that sentience is all that counts. It’s not all that counts. A sequoia is not a sentient being. But they count. There is nothing more magnificent. It doesn’t require me to think about it to be in awe of it…[The difficulty of raising a handicapped child] says something about the place we have reached as a society that doing so creates a serious handicap in these contexts. But it’s just a mistake to think of them as lesser than. There’s no lesser than. There’s just different from. It isn’t just great minds that matter. It’s great spirits, too.

It was a genetic aberration that produced the child and science that keeps him alive. If evolution brings us children like him, then our societies need to evolve with them. An underlying question of the book is, what does disability bring humanity?

Both Wegman and Brown are trying to know an unknowable. Faced with the insurmountable constraints of time-travel and massive genetic overhaul, their tasks leave them with the opportunity to reflect back to themselves. Brown says, “I keep speaking [to him]. Of course it’s not Walker alone who needs to keep hearing me talk; it’s me who needs to keep talking to Walker. I’m afraid of what will happen if I stop.” When faced with the chasms of history, Wegman says, “With great pleasure, I will go on research trips to find watermarks…I will be happy…[and] write about these things in a way that interested readers will find entertaining and enlightening.” In each case, the authors are speaking to their own experience as individuals in the process.

Both authors find the experience of probing the unknowable an occasion to reflect on their own humanity with respect to their tasks. And it is their personhood that gives meaning to otherwise stymieing feats.

The work of history is profound. Raising a severely disabled child is also profound, but in a very different way. I hope I don’t minimize their unique realities by juxtaposing them here. I’m merely reflecting on what was, for me, a fortuitous collision of ideas that seemed to relate on a deeper, human level.

* Ian Brown was interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air shortly after the book came out.

another step on the reentry path

In my last post I talked about that peculiar process of reentering the professional life of academia from the life of stay-at-home-mom (and how brain-jolting it is). I have made significant progress this year to that end. This last weekend I made it through another milestone of that process: the first conference presentation. And not just any conference, a national conference. It was a seminar session, so our papers were pre-circulated and the session time at the conference was mainly for discussing. This format went pretty well. I got some great feedback at the session, and the general buzz about the paper, I’m told, was positive. But more importantly, I made some personal connections with people that I really needed to talk to.

This is the paper that made me feel so vulnerable. I had a personal connection to it that I haven’t had with previous work. It was also a little nerve-wracking to send a paper out there for anybody registered for the conference to read. Okay, I’ll admit. I’ve kind of been a stressed-out bundle of nerves for two months, and I think a large part of that is part of the reentry process. I think it’ll be okay now. Why? Because I’ve personally connected with some people. And I think what makes what I do as a scholar meaningful is the fact that it’s connected to me as a person. When I share that with another person, and I see my work as a conversation in a community, then it’s not sending work out there into that good night, but it is sitting down and talking. I think that great web of culture actually connects people and not this sort of disembodied idea of “culture.”  If I feel like I can add another thread to the web, then I’ve done something meaningful.

first encounters with queerings

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Suzanne Cusick’s essay, “On a Lesbian Relationship with Music: A Serious Effort not to Think Straight,” was first published in the 1994 volume Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology, a ground-breaking book in queer theory in musicological circles. I first encountered Cusick’s essay last semester in a proseminar (a one-semester introduction to the development of the fields musicology and ethnomusicology). This essay was lumped into Gender day. I read it at 2 am, while trying to cram in all the readings for the next day’s seminar. I couldn’t sleep afterwards. It floored me. How is it that, nearly 20 years after it was first published, I am only now finding this? I recently reread it a few times to try to unpack its impact.

I think it affected me so much partly because, for the first time, I read something that really explored the connection between the person and the scholar, in a deeply profound way. She offers the possibility early on: “I needed to understand what relationship, if any, I could suppose to exist between my being a lesbian and my being a musician, a musicologist (69).” Perhaps her statement causes us to take a step back. Before considering the co-existing identities of lesbian and musicologist, we can possibly acknowledge that other aspects to our personhood matter to our musicological identities–that the private and professional can mingle, that we are somehow physically present with the music.

I have read a lot of personal reflections. And I have read a lot of postmodern criticism. I have even read combinations. But I have never read anything quite like this essay.

The content itself is very fascinating. Cusick defines what she means by “sexuality,” that “it is a way of expressing and/or enacting relationships of intimacy through physical pleasure shared, accepted, or given (70).” How this definition intersects with “lesbian” and “musicality” has to do with what Cusick calls “the enacted structure of the power/pleasure/intimacy triad and the gender of the beloved (71).” In other words, when we think about ways we enjoy music, we pause to consider, in that moment, who has the power: who is the lover and who is the beloved? Is the music, the lover, and the listener the beloved, in the weaker position? When we are performing music, do we become the lovers? In this expanded view of sex (something other than reproductive act), the notion of music as lover, or beloved, challenges us to consider what music is, how we listen to music, and what kind of place it has in our lives.

But I think it is something beyond content that I am so fascinated with. It’s how the personal is situated in all the intersections of lesbian, musicologist, criticism, music. I’ve always been interested in these kinds of intersections–though the details are different for me: woman, mother, Christian, musicologist, emerging critic(?). So how is it that I only just now encounter queer theory? a nearly twenty year musicological void in my life? And as I explore more about how the body is expressed critically in scholarship with my work in disability studies, I think I will find these new friends very helpful.

je pleure

Over the past couple of days, I’ve been working on an abstract for a conference. It’s supposed to be about technology, music cognition, and society. So I decided that now was the time to explore the puzzle piece of the cochlear implant in the story of the deaf musical experience.

I have written so many drafts of this abstract, each trying to get at the cognitive and cultural nuances of the experience. I met with a professor this afternoon to help me talk through it, and before i knew it, i was sitting there sobbing in his office talking about how I took Ellis to his first concert last Friday night, and how he hated it. (Nevermind the practical considerations: it was after 8pm; he’s 6.5 yo; and it was a recital for violin, soprano, and piano.) Part of me felt crushed, that I wasn’t going to be able to share music with him–that the CI wasn’t going to mediate that experience for him. It wasn’t the right music to listen with the balloon we brought.

This professor is very good at asking questions that break down personal barriers that I confront in the deaf music project. I cry. He offers me a napkin and some dried fruit. Then I get back to work, learning how to negotiate the personal and the researcher.

Feeling Beethoven

In Susan McClary’s controversial book, Feminine Endings (1991), she semiotically inscribes sex onto musical events. When I read the bit about the violence a certain Beethoven recapitulation wrought on the virtuous ears of his listeners, I snorted. No, Susan. You may have got Madonna right, but not Beethoven. When I got to a certain “violent” part, I heard a deaf man pounding the floor for our attention. I know the gesture. I have done it a hundred times on a hundred floors, to see my little boy’s eyes turn to meet mine.

I have to be careful with the terra sancta of Beethoven. I haven’t delved yet into the literature on Beethoven’s deafness, of which, I’m told, there is quite a lot. I’m almost afraid to. Will they get it right? Will they understand that hearing loss in general is so much more complex than one man’s hearing loss?

I haven’t overcome my reluctance yet, because right now I’m enjoying my private exploration. One thing I’ve been working on is describing a deaf experience of music. There’s a physiological aspect and a cognitive aspect. The former is a bit easier to describe–it’s a matter of noting that as sound waves hit our ear drums, sound waves hit our bodies, and a deaf person is so much more tuned in to that experience without the distraction of auditory hearing. A deaf experience of music is fundamentally embodied hearing. But what is the next step, the cognitive aspect, where our brains make sense of musical sound? That is harder.

I recently taught Beethoven in the music history survey that I’m teaching. I indulged a little and talked about deafness. Since I’ve been concentrating on deafness and music recently for a conference paper, it seemed a pity not to use some of that work in the classroom. I had the students place their hands on their desks, palms open facing down on the desk. I played the opening exposition of Beethoven’s Fifth, loudly. I hadn’t planned on this exercise, it kind of came to me in the moment, and I went with it. So I did the same thing, not knowing what really would happen. The sensation I was left with was the short-short-short-long motive. You know, the germinal motive that ties the whole symphony together? It was always placed in a position of maximum vibration. When I tuned into the vibrations, albeit, in a rudimentary manner, what I felt was short-short-short-long. I don’t want to make critical mistakes of semiotically inscribing deafness into Beethoven’s music, but I did find the experience curious and a little thought-provoking. At some point, I will have to come to terms with the scholarship on Beethoven’s deafness, but for now, I will just feel Beethoven.