Autism and Emotion in Music
Throughout history, artists, composers, and musicians have been plagued by personal demons. As a society, we adore the works of Beethoven, perhaps due in part to the crippling emotional impact his deafness had on his music. We appreciate Schumann, though he went insane through the latter stages of syphilis. But is there a more modern way of appreciating “mental” composers?
While an illness such as depression can be crippling, it is generally seen as something that works in tandem with musical creativity. The artist suffering in his obsessive focus on his work is the setup of countless Romantic composer films. For Autistic composers, however—such as myself—it is a struggle to convince people that we belong in an expressive field like the arts.
One stereotype is that Autistic people cannot be emotive—a common view, propagated by well-meaning films such as “Rain Man.” We struggle to express ourselves, but make up for it by being mathematical geniuses. The book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is perhaps more accurate; I remember howling like a lunatic in places when I found myself coming to the same insane conclusions as the protagonist.
Another problem to reckon with is pity—often stemming from a certain condescension, misplaced compassion, and ignorance. This was particularly present for me during the 2012 Paralympics, when people expressed surprise that professional athletes were “quite good” at sports. The film “Me Before You” expresses tacit sympathy for the view that (in this case physically) disabled people might rather commit suicide than live “like that.” This outlook leaves no space for the disabled to strive for greater human expression such as that of music, especially if people cannot come to terms with the idea that we can just live our lives.
These ideas are a problem in society in general; they get even further tangled up when we look at the music of the 20th century. A common complaint is that contemporary music is emotionless. An Autistic composer is also assumed to write without emotion. But strangely, even these clichés—as ridiculous as they might be—don’t lead people to think that we might have an aptitude for composition, even if it is just “emotionless” modern music. In fact, they can offer a chance of understanding Autistic composers, but not in the way that you might think.
Autism Spectrum Disorder is defined as “a serious neurodevelopmental disorder that impairs a child’s ability to communicate and interact with others. It also includes restricted repetitive behaviors, interests and activities.” Like all conditions, there are multiple symptoms that go alongside this definition. The term Autistic Spectrum Disorder is used because the condition has such a large expanse and variation that it is as different from patient to patient as every person is different to everyone else.
The most obvious symptom is repetitive behavior. This comes in different forms: be it determining that a day is good because there were four red cars, or getting out of the exact same side of the bed at exactly 7:09 a.m. After years of “normalizing,” I wake up in the morning, brush my teeth with hot water (this is more so my shower is hotter quicker), shower, get dry, put on clothes, do my morning meditation while coffee brews, drink coffee, head out to wherever I need to be, or sit at home and get work done. This, I know, is not unusual. These habits are shared by most people, with the exception of the personal Buddhist practices. But to this day, anything that could disrupt the pattern—whether it be waking up late or the shower flooding my flat again—does knock the whole day out of balance.
Through meditation I am far more centered, so I do not descend into panic attacks like when I was younger, but I am still a tad on edge. Funnily enough, if you read “A Day in the Life of a Musician” by Erik Satie, you begin to notice some mildly Autistic habits:
Here is a time-table of my daily acts. I rise at 7.18; am inspired from 10.23 to 11.47. I lunch at 12.11 and leave the table at 12.14. A healthy ride on horse-back round my domain follows from 1.19 pm to 2.53 pm. Another bout of inspiration from 3.12 to 4.7 pm. From 5 to 6.47 pm various occupations (fencing, reflection, immobility, visits, contemplation, dexterity, natation, etc.)
Dinner is served at 7.16 and finished at 7.20 pm. From 8.9 to 9.59 pm symphonic readings (out loud). I go to bed regularly at 10.37 pm. Once a week (on Tuesdays) I awake with a start at 3.14 am.
If we look at this symptom and how it relates to my composing, it is actually quite beneficial, simply because I write every day, something very few composers can boast of. A bad day, however, does mean I am unable to really work; this is rarely due to a “creative block,” but rather because my ritual was skewed.
Another obvious symptom, if you ever have the pleasure of talking to a fellow Autistic person, is the personal obsession. This could be literally anything—when I was young, it was dinosaurs for a very significant amount of time; then I discovered that if I wanted to be a paleontologist, I had to study geography for my G.C.S.Es and A Levels; and I did not like the teacher, so that dream came to an instant stop. The obsession of the Autistic person often turns into a lifelong love of a particular subject or item which, in the right environment, can allow that person to become a leading figure in a field. I have been very lucky that most people like music, so obsessing about it makes me more normal and gives me a way to start conversations.
My knowledge of music is intense. Without being egotistical, while I was completing my Bachelor’s at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, I quickly gained a reputation for my encyclopedic knowledge of composers and their works. This “gift” has turned me into quite a harsh and picky critic of living composers; it also makes composing an odd burden, as I know almost everything that came before me. I know that what I write rarely adds anything new to history, except that it is another piece in the ether.
The symptom of a disadvantaged or weakened ability to communicate is perhaps the most curious one. In general, for people with Autism, this could be as extreme as not responding to their own name, talking in the third person, not looking at people they are communicating with, or not being able to contribute to a conversation constructively, choosing either not to participate or to disrupt out of frustration. I still have to focus on maintaining eye contact—particularly when talking to someone I am not familiar with—and I often need to remind myself that people may not necessarily want to talk about what I want to; though this only happens during heated discussions or when I get particularly enthusiastic about something.
Given that music aims to be a communicative art form, what is the relationship between composition and these symptoms? It’s a difficult question—far more gifted philosophers have tried to tackle it without coming to a solid conclusion. If music is a language, it could be said, at least abstractly, that Autistic people would struggle to communicate in it. (In reality, speech and language therapists help many Autistic people, myself included, learn vital social skills.) But then early modernists aimed to move away from the emotional qualities of the Romantic composers, looking for a music that exists purely in and of itself.
Anton von Webern’s approach to serialism allowed him to write music that was as tightly controlled as it was potently expressive. Though he does not show the “emotional” qualities of Mahler and Strauss, that doesn’t mean he wanted his music to be without effect—he was simply an immaculate perfectionist. Unfortunately, his opponents wanted to give the impression that there was nothing more to his compositions than the math. Set theory analysis, which reduces a work such as the Concerto Op. 24 to (0, 1,4,) or <101100>, doesn’t help either.
(If, for a moment, we assume that serialist music has no emotion, surely this could be an avenue for an Autistic composer. But this line of thought segregates composers and contemporary music, implying that non-emotive music is a lesser art for the mentally weak and disabled. Still, if the stereotypes had any clout, this would be a foot in the door for the budding disabled composer: a music that could be produced through the math we Autistic are so “gifted” at.)
In his work with the I Ching, John Cage tried to attain a Zen-like connection to the process of composition by removing the self as much as possible. These chance compositions are truly remarkable. They also should show, like Webern, that one can compose without thinking like a traditionally “emotive” composer. My own dabbling and fascination with Buddhist spiritualism has engendered a deep love of Cage’s I Ching-inspired works, and their attempt to address ideas like “emptiness” through composition.
Within my own compositions, I have tried to create works that exist purely because of the concepts inspiring them. For example, my piece from 2014, “The Horror and Ecstasy of Life,” for piano duo, simply has a positive and negative force acting in tandem. The emotional impact is left to the listener.
And this is perhaps the key to the question of whether Autistic composers belong in expressive fields like music. Emotional impact on the listener does not follow simply and inexorably from a straightforward emoting on the part of the composer. It is a complex interaction between composers’ emotions, the way they structure their works and bring them to fruition; the performer’s realization; and the process of perception for the listener. True communication goes both ways.
A sincere understanding of Autism will allow a larger public to see that there is practically nothing we cannot do. According to the UK Office of National Statistics, 19 percent of the British population has a mental or physical disability; yet if the equal opportunity data in “Sound and Music” is correct, extrapolated onto the general population the figure would only come out to 4.66 percent. This means there is a disconnect between the music world and reality. Due to stigma, discrimination, and a concentration of power, disabled people are not considered equal in the arts.
How can we create a world that is more accepting of “mental” composers? I don’t want to argue for sympathy—which is dangerously close to pity—or a kind of tokenism. Rather, we need to ensure that composers who are disabled (as well as female, or from ethnic minorities) are as visible in the arts as they are in society as a whole, where there is also great room for improvement. This will take profound vigilance.
It will also take a willingness from “mental” composers to be unapologetically mental—to howl like lunatics, to be visible where we often are invisible, to cause a fucking ruckus. To take the piss out of our condition—to show, in our behavior and in our music, that we are far removed from having no emotions; and prove that we are not defined by it.
I also have a lingering sensation that once “mental” composers are understood in the right context, there will be a readiness to avoid wrongly stereotyping composers like Webern or Cage as unemotional. Instead, they will be seen as simply having tried to speak freely—to communicate—as they saw fit. ¶