Book Review: Music, Disability and Society (Alex Lubet)

Reviewed by Michael Northen

The first writers to venture into a new field are essentially pioneers, carving out a territory that is still shapeless. In the case of Disability Studies, this includes the work of figures like Lennard Davis, Nancy Mairs and Susan Wendell, writers whose work, while often invoked, remains idiosyncratic and not infrequently criticized by the later orthodox views for which they paved the way. The first literatures of these new fields – those that actually claim that there is such a field and that there are works representing it tend to be anthologies in which the authors have sought out and cobbled together representative writing that establishes the field as valid. For Disability Studies, two of these pivotal anthologies are Davis' The Disability Studies Reader and Kenny Fries' Staring Back, both published in 1997. Anthologies like Fries' and Davis' set out some of the areas of writing/study that fell under the purview of Disabilities Studies and named some of the key players, an act which lent validity to the subsequent works of these writers. As a result, Disability Studies, while continuing to develop, has established itself as a legitimate field to the point where it can now be claimed as an academic major in colleges and universities. Books like Tobin Siebers ' Disability Theory (2008) have emerged to tackle the theoretical, philosophical and pragmatic aspects of the field and merge them into a coherent theory while books written from a disabilities perspective are now available in sociology, drama, history, art, poetry, medical ethics and many more areas. Though hardly on Barnes and Nobles' best sellers list, these are available through presses like the University of Michigan and Temple University for the interested reader. One area in which there was until recently a huge vacuum was the area of disabilities music.

Alex Lubet's Music, Disability and Society (Temple University Press, 2011) is a pioneering effort. While not all pioneering endeavors are laudable (it's tough today to find much to praise about Pizarro), the fact remains that simply by charting new territory, their work has made its mark. Temple University Press has a history of being willing to take chances on writers with disabilities and while many of those chances end up on the back shelves of second hand book stores – does anyone really remember Robert Williams' In a Struggling Voice? – they have also sometimes hit a bulls-eye as they did with Irving Zola's Missing Pieces. Lubet's book has the potential to end up in the latter category.

Structurally, Music, Disability and Society is an introduction with five independent, though loosely related, essays. Lubet states in his introduction, "To the best of my ability I have kept it [the book] jargon free eschewing idiosyncratic the idiosyncratic language of music theory and leaving out such examples of musical notation," and he generally succeeds in doing this. This makes the book useful both to non-musicians already interested in Disability Studies and those already in the music field who never thought about the implications of disability for their profession.

In the first chapter Lubet discussion centers on pianists who are effectively disabled. He is not talking about pianists like Itzhak Perlman who, though he comes to the stage on crutches, is unaffected in the part of his body need to perform, nor is he talking about the rare amputee, like Paul Wittgenstein, whose disability is visible to all. His focus is on three musician who play concert piano with orchestras but have acquired focal dystonia in the right hand as a result of their work. Lubet's example are Greg Graffman, Leon Fleisher and, with some qualification, Robert Schumann. Though these musicians were not impaired in daily activities and, thus, would not qualify as disabled under the ADA, they are or were de facto disabled with respect to their chosen profession.

Lubet contends that it is the nature of orchestras in the Western world and of the universities that train students for them that renders them discriminatory. Centered as they are on a Western canon of music, one of whose main characteristics is virtuosity, they have no place for a pianist or any other orchestra member whose manual dexterity is in any way limited. Musicians like Graffman and Fleisher who can no longer perform at optimum level but who can not qualify for Workers Compensation, are effectively looking for a new job.

One of the obviously useful results that can be drawn from Lubet's discussion is the way the field of music illustrates the distinction between impairment and disability. A physical impairment need not (as in Perlman's case) always be a disability. A disability, on the other hand, is a social construction around impairment, a point that the plights of Graffman, Fleisher, and, indeed, Lubet himself, illustrate. Even more interesting to the non-musician, though, are the information and the opportunities the chapter provides. Illustrative of new information is the introduction of Graffman and Fleisher, whose existence most casual listeners are probably unaware of. Opportunities to fill in gaps present themselves in two ways. One, of course, is the challenge to composers and to musicians with disabilities themselves to write orchestra music that provides opportunities for these musicians to perform at their highest level. As Lubet points out, though, this is not a solution that is likely to solve many problems both due to the varied nature of pieces within an individual concert and to the conservative nature of the repertoire, drawing as it does from the past. He concludes, "Providing a comparatively miniscule repertoire for those pianists whose impairments prohibit playing anything else is the best a cultural system can do when it is so rooted in a fixed canonic text regarded as virtually unamendable in performance." This is the second door or opportunity.

Lubet himself provides the example of Brahms' arrangement of J. S. Bach's Chaconne in D Minor for Violin. Given the a mount of research that the author obviously put into this book it is unfortunate and a bit surprising that – though he does cite Henry Kingsbury's bibbliography of the repetoire Wittengenstein commisioned for left hand alone – he did not provide an appendix listing other similar works or adaptations of works that could be included in such a repertoire As it is, the author leaves the door open, perhaps even offers a challenge, for others to take the baton here and run with it. Surely such a list would be useful both to musicians with disabilities and to those who wanted to provide venues for those musicians.

Section two of the book takes jazz and physical disability as its topic and, in some ways, provides the most i nteresting and informative reading in the book. This section introduces the reader to three jazz musicians: a guitarist, Django Reinhart; a pianist, Horace Parlan; and a singer Jimmy Scott. If the Western classical canon often seems exclusive – something semi-celestial and, therefore, drifting down on us lesser mortal, jazz (together with blues) grows from the ground up and by its nature is more accommodating to those who do not always fit in to main stream society. As a result, it is no surprise, that jazz provides a more likely place for musicians with disabilities to find success.

Django Reinhart is legendary within jazz, and this is a point that must be born in mind in any discussion of him. Due to a fire when he was eighteen years old, he basically lost the use of the third and fourth fingers on his left hand. As with the pianists in chapter one, this would not have qualified him for ADA, but such an injury has a significant impact on a musician's playing. Yet Reinhart flourished. Lubet rightly takes to task biographers who point out that, if one listens closely to Reinhart's music, it is clear that he is unable to play some of the chords that a reasonable accomplished able-bodied guitar player can use. From an artistic perspective, this totally misses the point. One of the drums that Disabilities Studies incessantly beats is how myopic society itself is in insisting that what a person with a disability should shoot for is some mythic version of normal. What is wonderful about Reinhart is that he created a style that other guitarists strive to imitate. Not disabled artists but artists in general. Lubet cites his influence on Les Paul, B. B. King, Jerry Garcia and Carlos Santana, among others. In other words, Reinhart has made a real contribution to music and it is a contribution he likely would never have made had he been able-bodied. It merely bears witness to what DS advocates have been saying all along –artists (poets, musicians, graphic artists) have a real and unique contribution to make to culture.

It is perhaps worth noting here that Lubet goes out of his way to point out that he is not using Reinhart as an example of a super crip. Disability studies, rightly, opposes the proposition that if a person with a disability works hard enough – they too, can become a success. Such a position puts the onus on the individual with the disability, making it a personal matter, and absolve society from having to do anything to change. But Lubet needn't worry about this. If the average child works hard enough, then they, too can become Beethoven, right? No. It isn't going to happen. And just working hard is not going to turn an average child with a disability into Django Reinhart. None of this however, should dissuade anyone from perusing an interest in a musical instrument or from listening to Beethoven or Reinhart.

Horace Parlan, the second musician discussed in chapter two, was a piano sideman and polio survivor who had actually begun playing as a physical therapy. He is limited to the use of just two fingers on his right hand. Parlan, whose impairment critics note is obvious to anyone familiar with piano playing, has been able to develop his own unique technique in which the left hand expands its function and Parlan's fingers on his right hand are used more like xylophone mallets controlled through the movement of his arm.

Though this sort of idiosyncratic style could never make it in classical piano, Lubet notes:

In contrast, the foundation of jazz performance practice is its emphasis on highly original interpretation, largely through improvisation but also through composition, arrangement, and lavishly imaginative phrasing.

As a result, Parlan could draw on other work that he could adapt to his own style of playing. In this regard, it is interesting to note that Parlan could have made use of Paul Wittgenstein's left handed piano compositions and transcriptions, demonstrating again the importance and usefulness of such transcriptions and original compositions and their potential for being added to repertoires of other musicians.

With Lubet's final example is this second section of the book, Jimmy Scott, the author extends his discussion of music and disability to include vocal music. Like Reinhart, Scott's accomplishments in music are generally acknowledged. Scott had Kallman's syndrome, a condition that, among other things, affected his sexual development. Analogous to the loss of finger flexibility in guitar and piano, the effect of this disability on Scott's voice also forced him into a non-traditional approach to music. Lubet explores how this plays out in the field of popular music where the perception of disability swings from the community of music professionals to the audience.

As Lubet promised in his introduction, the essays in Music, Disability and Society become increasingly theoretical as the book progresses. He has, with one important exception, made a strategic decision not to include musicians with ADA qualifying disabilities. The thesis that he is building towards is one in which one can be considered disabled without having an impairment. While for the man on the street, Lubet appears to be inching towards a situation where a naked emperor can claim he is wearing clothes, he is actually beginning to employ the language and resources of Disability Studies – if only to disagree with them. With the third chapter, then, Lubet leaves individual musicians.

Chapter 3, subtitled " Music and Blind Culture" introduces the reader to Al-Nour wal Amal, an orchestra of vision-impaired Egyptian women, also known as "The Blind Orchestra" – the exception mentioned above. As in the previous chapter, Lubet provides the double service of acquainting readers with musicians they may not have previously known and showing how musicians with disabilities can make a contribution to music generally. While there is nothing inherently disabling about blindness for musicians as musicians, for an orchestra working within the context of classical music, as the Al-Nour wal Amal Orchestra does, it can become so. It is in this chapter that Lubet pivots. In his view, the bigger disability for these orchestra members is not their vision impairment but that they are women musicians in a Muslim country.

This move allows Lubet in the fourth chapter to discuss women with no impairment other than two X chromosomes to qualify as disabled under certain socially constructed circumstances. His two illustrative situations are music in Afghanistan under the Taliban and music under Kol isha, a restriction in Orthodox Judaism that prohibits men from hearing women singing. This chapter is the longest in the book and, if it seems disproportionately so, the reader will not be surprised at the end of the chapter when the author notes that it is "at the intersection of three topics that concern me most – music, disability, and Jewish life."

It is with chapter 5 that Lubet takes the final step in divorcing disability from impairment. Using his experiences as a professor in the music department at the University of Minnesota as a basis, the author argues, that Asian students for whom English is a second language comprise a disabled class. Needless to say, such a position is going to elicit objections from Disabilities Studies scholars, a group whose umbrella-like inclusion is so large that even seemingly innocuous statements are matters of contention. While a review of this brevity this not the place for analyzing the arguments pro and con Lubet's thesis, one point does seem important to mention. On several occasions, Lubet invokes the work of Douglas Baynton, an early voice in Disability Studies whose work deserves more recognition. Baynton, along with Paul Longmore, has observed that the language used in discriminatory practices against immigrants, African Americans, women and others was often couched in terms of disability and that, in fact, even these groups rejected the language, not wanting to be identified as disabled. Baynton is not saying he believes these groups to be disabled. Quite the contrary. His point is that even these groups that had the rhetoric of disability language applied to them rejected being categorized as such. Lubet's asserts that, in some cases, due to the socially constructed nature of disability, the categorization of some of these groups as disabled is appropriate.

As mentioned at the beginning of this review, Music, Disability and Society is a pioneering effort. One need not agree with Lubet's theories to appreciate his contribution. What Lubet has done is cordoned off a certain territory for exploration and tried to make sense of it, and what he has accomplished is significant. He has pointed out individuals or groups like Graffmann, Reinhart and the Al-Nour wal Amal Orchestra whose work deserves further attention both from listener and researcher. He has indicated areas where musicians with disabilities have made contributions to the field of music and he has pointed out gaps that need to be filled in composition and performance both by musicians with disabilities and able-bodied musicians. He has complied a useful bibliography that has the double benefit of recognizing precursors to his work and providing fodder for future researchers. Finally, with the wide variety of topics that he has explored, he has opened territory for fresh research.

When Jefferson sent out Lewis and Clark, he was not expecting them to establish cities. He wanted them to survey, map and report back what they saw. That's what Lubet has done here. If his theoretical constructions turn out not to stand the test of time, the ground work that he has laid down should keep those interested in this important aspect of disability studies, not to mention musicians with disabilities themselves, busy for a long time.