Released on Oct. 28 in celebration of Disability Employment Awareness Month, Perspective is Molly Joyce’s second studio album and the newest entry in her growing collection of activist thinkpieces. Across 12 tracks, each focused on a core element of disability or societal perception of disability, Joyce weaves together her minimalist-esque music compositional styles with interview clips and statements from a tremendously wide range of people, from performing artists to academic activists. The spoken audio clips are engaging, personal and often emotional in nature due to the intimacy of disability conversations. Joyce pays specific attention to sharing diverse viewpoints within the disability community and features many POC and LGBTQ+ perspectives. Thus far, it has received fairly positive criticism, but her status as a marginalized composer has limited the exposure of her work. I’d like to tell you a bit more about her and the significance of this work both in terms of her activism and her trailblazing musical visions. In full transparency, I do not identify myself with the disabled community. With that in mind, I do not intend for this piece to speak to the disabled experience in any way; rather, I hope to shed light on the work that Joyce has done thus far, and hopefully convince you to experience her music.
Molly Joyce is a composer and performer. Much of her work is multimedia, making use of both audio and visual components. She is best known for playing her vintage 1960s Magnus toy organ, which she uses as an instrumental reflection of disability in her work; according to Joyce, the organ “allows (her) to engage and seek the creative potential of disability.” She is a graduate of Juilliard, the Royal Conservatory in The Hague and the Yale School of Music. She has won numerous awards, collaborated with many significant contemporary music artists and has written for various academic publications as well as given a TedX presentation about persisting in music after being impaired in an accident. Prior to Perspective, she released performances of her music on her 2017 EP Lean Back and Release and her 2020 debut album Breaking and Entering. She has also composed works for other performers and ensembles of various mediums.
I first learned about Joyce in a contemporary music course by Dr. Ryan Olivier that I took at Indiana University South Bend before I transferred to Michigan. I was really interested in minimalist music at the time, so her postminimalist compositional style intrigued me; I found her works evocative and direct in messaging, yet somewhat open to artistic interpretation. I had little exposure to contemporary women composers prior to the course, and had absolutely no reference for possible intersections between disability and music, so her work served as a genesis point for my exploration of the inherent ableism in the Western Art Music tradition. WAM tradition, but also the performing arts as a whole — being one of the most regressive holdovers of 19th- and 20th-century white, male, cisheterosexual cultural dominance — often actively resist intersectional and marginalized identities of composers and performers, especially if they center those identities in their music. In her article “Music as a Tool for Disability Activism,” York University Ph.D. student Diane Kolin states, “(V)enues, and the music industry more broadly, do not seem to carry out the efforts of making themselves more accessible, thus more diverse and inclusive. Disabled artists rarely appear in media, and they are hardly highlighted on social platforms.” This is not to say that various disabled artists have not found their own successes, but rather that the culture as a whole does not incentivize deviation from the perceived norm.
Joyce tends to structure her works with melodic and/or rhythmic ostinati supported by narration or some other vocal form of performance. In true minimalist fashion, the majority of her works lack a traditional chord progression or otherwise tonal gravity; instead, she relies on the cadence of her vocal content to differentiate greater sections within her works. To the uninitiated listener, this approach and sound are difficult to follow, but actually simplify the task of narration: Joyce is not beholden to a rhyme scheme, a verse-chorus format or any other structural barriers that would otherwise limit how she expresses her artistic ideas. A listen through her debut album Breaking and Entering demonstrates this process perfectly, as Joyce sings through most of the lyrics without discernible melody or metric stress. Musical development occurs through timbral (what sounds are being made, i.e. a piano versus an electronic synth playing) and dynamic (how loud or soft the music is) fluctuation, weaving in and out of tension often independently from the narrative. It goes without saying that this analysis will not apply to each of her songs, but rather lays the groundwork for understanding her compositional style.
Perspective takes this approach to the next level. Joyce begins each track by prompting various interviewees with a one-word theme (reflected in the title of each song), and then she layers the given responses over her traditional minimalist musical accompaniment. Rather than hide these diverse stories in the music (á la Steve Reich’s “Different Trains”), Joyce lets these statements speak for themselves clearly and without much editing. The goal is not to make music out of these interviews, but rather to make these interviews musical; her artistic vision seeks to engage in these difficult conversations through the music, not by the music. Many of the responses given to her prompts are not just explanations of disability – many offer critical thoughts regarding the connotations of these themes in service of dismantling them. For example, the track “Strength” features commentary on both literal understandings of the word and also societal valuation of physical strength as a desired or otherwise superior trait for humans to possess.
None of the works on Perspective have conclusive or resolved endings, much like how many of the discussions started in this album are far from decided. Further, these are not just faceless voices: Joyce credits every interviewee in the album notes and even cites some of their social media handles on her promotional Instagram post. With many of her collaborators being POC and LGBTQ+ people, as aforementioned, Joyce is careful not to erase the humanity and individuality of anyone involved with her work. Joyce masterfully navigates the intersectional spaces that disability discourse inhabits, while equally valuing the experiences of each person interviewed. She makes no attempt to summarize their interactions with disability, nor does she speak for them. In both the narrative and musical components of these tracks, Joyce is meditative and contemplative; the listener is allowed to be both an observer and an active participant in the process.
Joyce’s musical commentary is tremendously valuable and important in the current climate of growing awareness of disability activism and ableism in society by able-bodied persons. Many of our institutions (both in physical and cultural forms) have barely begun investigating their inherent complicity in (and often ignorance of) these hierarchies. But artists and activists such as Joyce provide both a voice and a platform for learning and engagement that is uniquely authentic. There is something to be learned (and unlearned) in each of her talks, articles, performances and now musical releases. I sincerely hope that Perspective will be remembered as one of the pivotal works in a new era of social consciousness of intersectional ableism as well as artistic activism.
MiC Columnist Cedric McCoy can be reached at email@example.com.