Just before Covid-19 I was working on an audio tour in collaboration with Acorn Massive, an audio ensemble for people with learning difficulties based at Acorn Farm. Our collaboration has been supported by Heart of Glass and Kris Gjerstad.
The tour will eventually be presented as a an on-site interactive sound piece capturing life on the farm. The piece will incorporate spoken word, quirky vocal samples, field recordings and lively musical jams.
Unfortunately our plans have been delayed due to Covid-19. Nevertheless we are currently working with a graphic designer to produce an online version – which will be premiered later in the year!
In the meantime, here are a few of our experimental sound jams:
Working with Acorn Massive has been a very enjoyable experience, and has certainly made me think about the relationships we have with each other and our interconnections with nature.
Back in 2015 Drake Music launched their DM Lab project in Manchester. The aim was to nuture a community of hackers/makers/coders interested in developing new musical instruments, ideas and technology to remove barriers experienced by disabled musicians.
As a sound artist, I was intrigued by the proposition of meeting like-minded people, so I went along to the first few sessions at Madlab and enjoyed meeting the group. The sessions continued on a monthly basis, and over time we all got to know each other a bit better.
Two years later, DM scored some funding to develop the project further. They launched a commission opportunity, dubbed the DM Lab North West Challenge, designed to stimulate further cross-pollination of disabled musicians and the hacking/making community.
4 commissions of £700 were up for grabs. These would be awarded to 4 new teams to create a new accessible instruments or tech. Each team had to be made up of at least one disabled musician and one hacker/coder/maker. The teams were tasked with coming up with an idea, and then a proposal to submit to the team at Drake Music. 4 winning teams would be commissioned.
Following on from conversations I’d had in the group DM Lab sessions, a team grew around me (Lewis Sykes – technologist/musician, Mike Cook – electronics expert, James Medd – musician/educator and technical coordinator at Eagle Labs and Craig Howlett – sound engineer) and the idea for the Nashesizer emerged.
For a while I had been frustrated by the digital audio workstations I had been using due to their inaccessibility. I have cerebral palsy, and this means fiddly mouse movements, swipes, taps and other commons gestural control actions can be a barrier for me.
For normal computer use, I use a trackball instead of a mouse and was hoping that for the DM Lab Challenge we could develop a MIDI controller/ DAW interface that may, for example, feature a trackball, as well as other more accessible controllers, so I can move freely, and quickly around the screen. No one wants their creativity hampered by clunky equipment.
This marked the beginning of a fascinating journey for myself and the team. In the first instance, we put the proposal into Drake Music and won one of the 4 commissions of £700. The only catch was we only had 4 weeks to make it!
An early version of the Nashesizer was showcased at a public launch for the DM Lab Challenge at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation.
The response we got at this event was fantastic. We garnered a number of questions from audience members that gave us pause for thought, and helped us to understand the potential the Nashesizer might have for other producers with similar barriers. Not long after this, I put an application in to Sound and Music, and successfully scored a further £5k to develop our idea.
Prior to my involvement in the Nashesizer project, I had favoured Studio One as a DAW, but for a while I’d been wanting to explore Ableton Live, and so it is primarily Ableton that the Nashesizer has been designed to interface with.
Our first proof of concept, therefore, featured a joystick that could be moved to select tracks in Ableton and move around the screen easily. There is also a rotary encoder (chunky dial) that can be used, for example, to increase/decrease volume, pan left to right and increase/decrease signals to sends when using effects such as reverb.
Both these ‘knobs’ have been designed using the 3D printers that were kindly made available to us by the DM Lab group’s current home Eagle Labs, Salford.
Eagle Labs have been an important part of this story. They are an organisation, sponsored by Barclays Bank, with a commitment to ‘fostering innovation and facilitating inclusive, shared growth for all across our communities’.
James Medd, who is on the Nashesizer team, runs the community space at Eagle Labs used by DM Lab, and has been a very positive influence on the project so far.
In addition to the joystick and rotary, we are also aiming to give the Nashesizer some form of gestural controller i.e. a sensor that would respond to hovering hand gestures, rather than touch. We have also talked about a touch screen, although this would have to be large to work for me.
The grant from Sound and Music has allowed us to purchase much needed materials to test, and the process is very much one of trial and error. Each iteration will take time for me to experiment with and report back on.
At the start of this year’s UK Disability History Month, Ispoke to writer, actor and funny guy Laurence Clark about his latest show Independence, disability rights and ‘speaking proper’.
Laurence came up with the title Independence back in January, although it bore no relation to the UK’s EU referendum result, little did he know just how topical it would be by now. His show is less about Brexit, and more about the true meaning of ‘independence’ for disabled people.
From idiosyncratic needs assessments to the funny side of other people assisting you with personal care; “Life sometimes throws up the unexpected when you depend on someone else to fasten your jeans for you”- his show challenges notions of independence in a sharp witted, good-natured manner. And after my grueling assessment for Personal Independence Payment, this is one hot topic that certainly appeals to me.
Journey to comedy
From an early age Laurence wanted to pursue a career in drama and comedy, but was warned by the careers advisor at his school that he would never get any work. So at University he opted to study Computing (BSc) and Molecular Biology (Ph.D) — subjects he may have excelled at, but didn’t hold his passion.
Like a lot of disabled students, his success was very much dependent on the help of a variety of disability related allowances — including Independent Living Fund and Disability Living Allowance.
Laurence feels that the abolition of these funds will be absolutely disastrous for future disabled students.
Whilst at University Laurence became involved in an exciting new disability based arts and academic scene in Liverpool, run for and by disabled activists.
His Ph.D may not have covered these interests, but it did enable him to carry on living independently in an adapted University flat. Ultimately these additional ‘interests’ led to the launch of his impressive comedy career. Now spanning 16 years, the career has included 8 critically-acclaimed solo shows at the Edinburgh Fringe.
For Laurence, anecdotal humour is where the best material comes from; otherwise, he says, “you are just someone telling jokes”. His comedy is about his experiences, and that happens to include being disabled. “It would be hard and disingenuous to do a show and ignore that, after all nobody tells Graham Norton to stop telling jokes about being gay”.
He considers that his most controversial show was ‘Spastic fantastic’. The premise for this show was about reclaiming the word spastic — which involved a speech impaired boy band singing a ‘name that tune’ game show with the audience.
“I got a lot of disabled people come up to me after a show saying that they came prepared to hate it’ Laurence recalls, “which I never understood. If you are going to be offended why bother giving it the time of day? But people said it was not what they expected, and I really liked that.”
And his most enjoyable show was ‘Moments of Instant Regrets’, which focused on Laurence’s misdemeanors. He wanted the audience to laugh at some of the bad things he has done, often unwittingly. “I don’t think it worked as well for a mainstream audience” he states, “it’s hard to get them to laugh at a disabled person, which is what I was trying to do.”
Laurence feels having speech impairment disables and limits him the most, and it’s an impairment that always seems to get forgotten about. He explains “There is always a big debate about whether to subtitle me or not. Part of me thinks why should it be a big debate? It’s not like people can’t understand what I am saying.”
At his Special School it was really unusual for someone with a speech impairment to get a named role in the yearly school play, Laurence recalls. So when his friend with a speech impairment got a part in the play, Laurence was jubilant. However that jubilance soon wore off when he read the script and discovered his friend’s part was a character that had his tongue cut out!
Laurence said that he usually got minor roles, but did some directing, that was their solution. This is probably more impressive than my childhood amateur dramatics; I was once ‘a doorbell’.
“People are not used to hearing people with cerebral palsy and sometimes panic when they hear voices they are not used to. It’s similar to when people hear a strong accent — they panic and switch off.” notes Laurence.
I would agree with Laurence, speech as a bodily activity has been subject to the enforcing of normalcy throughout history, and this intriguing subject is the focus for my latest sound investigation — Beyond Vocal Norms.
Currently Laurence is working on a pilot comedy project, a TV sitcom co-written and directed by Matt Holt. The premise for the sitcom was an equality awareness course for particularly unaware employees. Funny, irreverent and sharp, the pilot aims to make equality politics, and its academic theories and concepts, more accessible to mainstream audiences.
“I think there is a certain type of person that gets a lot out of equality training, but they tend to be quite open minded to start with, and probably aren’t the worst offenders…. if you can get people to laugh with you, that is far more powerful than any training.”
You can read more about Laurence’s work at www.laurenceclark.co.ukand catch Independence on Fri 25 — Sat 26 Nov at the Unity Theatre, Liverpool (as part of DaDaFest 2016).
“If you can get people to laugh with you, that is far more powerful than any training.”
“I think there is a certain type of person that gets a lot out of equality training, but they tend to be quite open minded to start with”
After singing pop songs Amy Coombe’s interactive ‘Google classroom’ session at this year’s Music Learning Revolution conference, Shawn Mendes’ ‘Treat You Better’ has been on loop in my head. However ‘Treat you Better’ was certainly not the only memorable aspect of this years MLR.
Meet, make music and network …
MLR is a conference for anybody working in music education, and prides itself on being somewhat of an Unconference, providing a creative setting for practitioners to meet, make music and network.
From a keynote speech by Radio 1 DJ Hew Stephens to a flamboyant fast paced ‘Gareth Malone’ style ensemble by pianist Adam Saunders, inclusion was a common theme throughout the conference. However I’m not sure the needs of disabled children were always considered when presenters talked about ‘inclusion’ – which is ironic given that inclusion is a term championed by disability rights advocates.
Very few of the workshops I attended made reference to the needs of disabled children – for example, Adam Saunders’ ‘On Cue’ ensemble. This 7-step approach to learning musical content utilises body percussion, vocalising, singing and playing by ear. And whilst this session certainly addressed some inclusion problems, as it didn’t require either note reading abilities or instrumental skills, it involved robust physical and mental abilities. In it’s current format, this would present disabling barriers for many of the children Drake Music work with.
So, it was good to see Drake Music’s Open Space Session – Imagination and Rigour – which was about overcoming disabling barriers within music education. Led by Jocelyn Watkins and Jonathon Westrup, this session focused on how to assess and accredit music in Special Schools. Jocelyn and Jonathan spoke about the Compose and Perform music qualification developed by Drake Music.
Compose, perform and include …
An Open College Network qualification, Compose and Perform has three levels. The highest level, level two is equivalent to GCSE grade A-C. Students complete four units: Music Skills for performance; Creating Soundtracks for Films; Writing Music Down and Composing Music using Chance Methods.
The qualification is very much part of the Think2020 initiative which aims to increase musical opportunities for disabled children and young people through strategic and sustainable partnership work in the music education sector.
For me, the Drake Music Open Space Session almost felt like a bit of a fringe event, unintentionally isolated from the other sessions. This was a shame because the participants obviously enjoyed the session, and there were people there who hadn’t necessarily been to a Drake Music workshop before.
I wonder if maybe a way to attract a bigger audience to this session, would be for Drake Music to run a workshop in collaboration with another organisation with a more mainstream appeal?
Choose ‘the arts’ or ‘the sciences’ …
One of the presentations I found really interesting was David M Howar’s talk on music, creativity and engineering. Howard spoke about how children often have to choose between arts or science based subjects at A-level. He believes that this ‘choice’ exacerbates our dwindling number of engineers. He also spoke about the lack of female engineers, and how mixing up subjects like Music and Engineering, make Engineering more appealing to a wider number if students
The false dichotomy of choosing between ‘the arts’ or ‘the sciences’ is in many ways nonsensical, when in Howard’s own words ‘creativity underpins ingenuity which sparks invention…’
Although the talk wasn’t specifically referring to disability, I could relate to the limitations of having to choose between perceivably different subjects because of my physical impairment. When talking to other disabled artists, this is quite a common problem across a range of abilities, and continues to be the case.
Which is why initiatives like Drake Music’s ‘Compose and perform’ qualification are so important for achieving real inclusivity and ‘doing better’.
Blog commissioned by Drake Music, October 2016
Cause I know I can treat you better than he can And any girl like you deserves a gentleman Tell me why are we wasting time On all your wasted crying When you should be with me instead I know I can treat you better Better than he can Better than he can Better than he can
Recently I’ve attended two MMU led events that I found particularly interesting, both of which broadly examined ‘human’ ways of being, notions of creativity and human flourishing. In connection with the first of these events – Theorising Normalcy And The Mundane– I have been working with the fantastic Drake Music Innovation Lab North on my Beyond Vocal Norms sound investigation and research project. I’ll be blogging about Normalcy and Beyond Vocal Norms later this month … so watch this space.
Extending the concepts of creativity and value…
In the meantime I will focus on the second event – VCHF (Value, Creativity and Human Flourishing) – and its relevance on music making for people with significant learning disabilities. VCHF brought together artists, academics and activists to re-examine and extend the concepts of creativity and value within different arts practices. The two day symposium had a particular emphasis on what these concepts mean for people with learning disabilities, dementia and mental health problems. Concepts around creativity are of particular interest to Drake Music’s research into bespoke instruments, and how these developments invariably challenge perceptions of what musical expression is and how music is made.
The symposium featured nine internationally acclaimed speakers, and I will reflect on two sessions that were of particular relevance to many philosophical discussions we have at Drake Music. Drake Music has a core belief that everyone can fulfil their creative and musical potential if given the right opportunities.
One of the aims of the Drake Music Think2020 Education project is to explore more meaningful and inclusive frameworks for measuring musical development for those with profound and multiple learning difficulties. This can be difficult as mainstream definitions of creativity often excludes people with learning disabilities, dementia and mental health problems. Currently Drake Music Associates try to overcome this difficulty by using both the Sound of Intent framework and the Youth Music Quality framework, both of which work beyond the limitations of the ‘P-Scales’ for music education.
Co-production and human flourishing …
One of the speakers, Julian West, discussed these concepts, amongst others, in relation to music making with people living with dementia. West is a Creative Music Leader, Oboist and Consultant, and has spent 14 years working on music projects with older people. He is currently working with Spitalfields Music on an innovative project called LivingArts. LivingArts explores and celebrates the creativity of residents at a care home in East London. West and a small team of artists and musicians visit the care home each week enabling residents to express themselves through music, movement and visual arts. Manchester Camerata have been running a similar project at an early dementia centre, with huge success.
The overall aim of LivingArt was to challenge public perceptions and improve wellbeing for people living with dementia, through the creative arts. In order to meet this aim, West describes the importance of working beyond conventional ways to measure outputs, and making musical expression and co-production a core value.
The LivingArts group were invited to bring various objects to make sounds with – a particularly successful object was an old typewriter that a participant found engaging as he used to work in an office. They also had a dancer who integrated walking frames, and other disability related equipment during her session there. This all happened with the participants taking a leading role in the creative process with no pressure of defined outputs, therefore providing value for all taking part. West describes how this project also helped the artists to re-examine their own perceptions of creativity and co-production.
Like West and the LivingArts team, Drake Music associate musicians continue to re-evaluate their notions of creativity, and creative potential within the field of music production. This can be particularly challenging in a culture dominated by the language of the ‘medical model’ and ableist notions of who is ‘allowed’ to be creative, and for whom.
Who is ‘allowed’ to be creative? …
Conference organiser, and speaker Dr Lucy Burke, discussed these notions in her talk – Human Trouble and the Cognitive Difference. Dr Burke is Principle lecturer in English at the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at MMU. Prompted by Oliver Sacks essay The Autistic Artist, her session explored the ethical and ideological implications of particular concepts of creativity, personhood and the human.
In the Autistic Artist, Sacks examines a 21 year old called Jose who can allegedly only copy draw and deemed to be ‘retarded’. Sacks recognises that Jose’s artwork demonstrates the powers of imagination and expression, and describes his work as both verisimilitude, animated and richly expressive. It could be said that Sacks is being quite progressive by inferring that Jose’s ability is more than that of the stereotypical ‘idiot savant’. However, he also describes Jose’s work as child-art and primitive, whilst paradoxically deliberating whether Jose could gain a meaningful life through being employed to draw. Burke argues that Jose’s work is put under the kind of scrutiny rarely experienced by neurotypical artists. Jose’s art is ‘not allowed’ to be understood outside of the lens of diagnosis, or beyond the belief that personhood is fundamentally interconnected with work and labour.
Music therapy or music education? …
The Autistic Artist case study reminded me of the way musicians with learning disabilities and/or autism still experience harsher artistic scrutiny and barriers to creative expression. The authenticity of their musical abilities are either considered a symptom of impairment and therefore disbelieved, or used to somehow validate their initiation into the work-based notion of personhood. And whilst this validation can be empowering, the superhuman or curative disability narrative often accompanies it. Music therapy, for example, is often based around the notion that people are broken and need fixing. On the other hand music education is becoming less about the actual learning experience and more about the potential monetisation it can offer.
How do we measure music potential and value against mainstream definitions of creativity ? Leave a comment with examples of your own experiences of good or bad practice. Also If you’re interested in these kinds of philosophical discussions visit www.valueandcreativity.wordpress.com.
Blog commissioned by Drake Music.
How do we measure outcomes against normative values about what creativity actually means?
Art is ‘not allowed’ to be understood outside of the lens of diagnosis.
The design of toilets have been based on a historical model of the ‘ideal’ (hu)man, and continues to ignore the diversity of their users.
Travelling Toilet Tales …
You may have recently read about Italian creator, Maurizio Cattelan’s 18-carat solid gold toilet installation at the Guggenheim Museum, but he’s not the only artist using a toilet as an inspiration for their art. I have been commissioned to make a soundscape about toilets and utopias, which I have recently finished working on.
Constructed from a collection of toilet themed audio stories, anecdotes and interviews from the Around the Toilet project – this slightly potty sound collage is currently being animated by graphic artist Sarah Smizz.
Sure, toilets don’t usually spring to mind when talking about utopias or sound-art, but the landscape of public toilets is far from ideal for many people. Using sound and animation, Travelling Toilet Tales illustrates how the design of toilets have been based on a historical model of the ‘ideal’ (hu)man, and continues to ignore the diversity of their users.
My personal interest in toilets came from the complexities of accessing toilets as a parent with a physical impairment. Part M of the building regulations advocate that accessible toilets should not have a baby change table. This is primarily because the baby change table can impede access for wheelchair users if it is put in the wrong place, or left down. But like everything in life ‘one size doesn’t fit all’ and when my child was young I found the best ‘fit’ for me was accessible, private toilets with baby changing facilities – where I could take care of my child and also go to the toilet myself.
Interestingly, two of the storytellers spoke about difficulties they had accessing toilets with young children, commenting on the need for both an adult toilet and baby change unit in the same space. One storyteller described the joy of finding a baby change toilet that had a dropdown table, free baby wipes and a seat for breastfeeding.
“It really made me feel accepted whereas in other spaces you just think I’m not meant to be here.”
For her, coming across a baby change table felt like finding gold dust. And the idea of a suitable toilet being like ‘gold dust’ was common theme throughout the piece. We all have our U-toilet-opias.
Storytellers described the indignity of being forced to lie on the dirty toilet floor due to a lack of adult changing facilities, restricting what they eat and drink and being harassed for using the wrong toilet. Organisations like Action for Trans Health and Changing Places are campaigning about these issues. But for many accessing the toilet is such a tricky and unsafe endeavour they are essentially barred from public spaces. There is, in its most literal sense ‘no place’ for them to go, making greater toilet access high on the utopian agenda.
While the storytellers came from very diverse backgrounds, many stories overlapped with common considerations of embodiment flowing throughout the piece. It’s interesting that widespread publicity around the “bathroom bills” in the USA focused on conflicts between religious freedom and equal rights for the trans community. Yet, Travelling Toilet Tales shows how gender-neutral toilets are not just a political issue for the trans community. They also benefit parents, particularly fathers, or disabled people who may have personal assistants of a different gender. A person with a learning difficulty, for example, talked about being told off for using the wrong toilet because he was struggling to read the signs on the toilet door.
“Society hasn’t grown up that much.”
Toilets, and toilet design are issues that impact upon us all. Pensioners describe feeling isolated and staying at home because they fear being “caught short”, whilst lorry drivers restrict what they drink during their working day. One of the most interesting narratives I edited was from a female truck driver, who regularly has to urinate between the load and the unit of her lorry because of public toilet closures. An issue I’d not really considered. Gillian Kemp, who runs Trucker’s Toilets UK and Public Toilets UK, explained that providing public toilets is not a statutory requirement. As a consequence, many local authorities often close public toilets when faced with budget cuts.
Making a bigger splash…
Toilets have traditionally been considered to be an abject ‘bog standard’ space, or a taboo topic – but this piece radically redefines the issue and blends the everyday with the fantastical. From the imaginary toilet of a child to the inventive use of wet tissues instead of a lota, Travelling Toilet Tales takes the audience on an interweaving journey embracing disability, age, faith, gender, class and labour.
Travelling Toilet Tales will be premiered at the Utopia Fair between 24 – 26 June. Somerset House, London – a partnership with the AHRC and the Connected Communities Programme
Thanks to the Around the Toilet team, with special thanks to the Principal Investigator, Dr Jenny Slater.
Images by Sarah Smizz
For many, accessing the toilet is such a tricky and unsafe endeavour they are essentially barred from public spaces.
Nobody thinks of toilets when they talk about utopias and yet the landscape of public toilets is far from ideal for many people.
The Around the Toilet project has recently been awarded two funding grants by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). This will allow us to continue the work we started in 2015, carry out new research over the next four months, and participate in the 2016 Connected Communities Research Festival Utopia Fair in London in June, where the outputs of our research will be exhibited.
Our first project, ‘Travelling Toilet Tales’ (led by Jenny Slater) will be an exploration into the ways in which everyday journeys are planned around the un/availability of a suitable toilet. We will be making an animated film based upon people’s experiences of these ‘toilet journeys’: journeys that can’t be taken due to a lack of a suitable toilet, journeys that are re-planned due to a lack of a toilet, imagined journeys based on an ideal world with the best possible toilets… or something else entirely!
This project is a collaboration with Gemma Nash from Drake Music, an organisation working in music, disability and technology, and Sarah Smizz, the graphic artist who drew the stories told in the Around the Toilet workshops we facilitated last year. Our collaborators will transform the toilet tales provided by our storytellers into a soundscape overlaid with animation. This will be presented as a film exploring toilets, place and utopian imaginings to be shown at events and exhibitions, and available online. Details about where you can view the film will be announced in the forthcoming months.
We are also very pleased to be working with Morag Rose of the Loiterers’ Resistance Movement, who will be facilitating a city walk in Manchester around the theme of public toilets and urban space.
Our second project, running in parallel with the first, is ‘Servicing Utopia’ (led by Lisa Procter). Working alongside MA Architect students, Niki Sole and Suki Sehmbi, we will be facilitating workshops which ask attendees to engage with and construct a digital ‘Toilet Toolkit’ (the main project output). The digital/visual toolkit will be aimed at architects to promote the accessible design of toilet spaces.
We will also be making an animated film over the course of the project, documenting insights from the project workshops with architects to illustrate key themes relating to toilet and accessibility.
The films, toilet toolkit and other outputs from both projects will be previewed on 24th-26th June at the Utopia Fair, Somerset House, London, a public event showcasing a range of academic and artistic projects that engage with the subject of ‘utopia’. This year’s theme takes inspiration from the 500th anniversary of the publication in 1516 in Latin of Thomas More’sUtopia. From March to June 2016 the Festival is supporting activities across the UK bringing together researchers and communities to creatively explore diverse perspectives on community futures and what ‘utopia’ means for communities in the 21st Century.
We’re very excited to get started — please keep an eye on our progress by checking the blog and twitter, as usual!
Over the past few months I been a member of the design team for Box Society – a Full Circle Arts and Playfuel collaborative street game project. Playfuel aim to “bring together theatre performance and urban geography”, and together we have been making a light hearted but thought provoking game which addresses disabling barriers and #everydayableism.
The ‘play test’ for Box Society took place in March 2016 with Proud and Loud theatre group, and the public game will be premiered in Manchester City Centre this summer.
Watch this space for further information about this fantastic new street game!
To read more about the background to this project please see Jade Coles blog post here.