Molly Joyce on the influence of disability studies on her music-making


Composer and performer Molly Joyce’s music is primarily concerned with disability as a creative source. Her works have been commissioned and performed by ensembles including the New World, New York Youth, Pittsburgh, and Milwaukee Symphony Orchestras, and the New Juilliard, Decoda, and Contemporaneous ensembles. She talks to DAO about barriers and her aim to redefine the boundaries of contemporary classical music.

Black and white photo of a woman playing a keyboard

Molly Joyce plays the MJ organ

Disability informs my practice in that it compels me to produce work only a disabled body can produce; work that can’t be compared to standard notions of ability but can rather be without juxtaposition.

As a composer and performer largely working in the classical music tradition, which involves instruments that have been around for centuries for very specific bodies of specific abilities, disability from a social model perspective frees me from conforming to such instruments and tradition. It allows me to consider the lived experience first and foremost and then find the resulting musical material.

My journey began during graduate school, where I undertook independent study focusing on disability and the arts. This was the first time I read disability studies scholarship and considered disability as an identity, minority, and one of vast possibilities.

Thus ever since scholars and activists have influenced my work, including figures such as Judith Heumann, Stefan Honisch, Joseph Straus, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, and Alice Wong. They provide context and cultural grounding for not only the social model of disability and disability studies, but disability’s potential and role in the arts, as a cultural field and for an individual artists’ practice. Specifically with musicologist Stefan Honisch, I admire his writing on vulnerability as the new virtuosity. A concept I seek to illuminate by engaging my weaker left hand in live musical performance, where often the most impressive statements are ones of virtuosity, and thus how to counter this ideal with notions of vulnerability.

Furthermore, within my practice I am often inspired and motivated by artists in collegial fields, such as dance, poetry, and visual art, and often through collaborative endeavors. This largely began with graduate studies, interfacing with schools of art and drama, and learning about how they consider social contexts and precedents, thus influencing my own approaches and process within an artistic practice.

Therefore I am continually seeking effective methods for presenting work inspired by disability. I have found it helpful to describe the work’s impetus either before or after presenting it, or also leave such aesthetic up to interpretation. I also try to consistently develop such approaches, and intergral to that is interviewing collegial artists in their strategies and experiences, to be explored in a forthcoming article for DAO.

Form and Deform is a work for vintage toy organ and pre-recorded electronics and represents a continuation in the composing and performing on my favorite instrument, the Magnus electric toy organ. Bought on eBay five years ago, this instrument has a unique sound and tuning. It physically fits my body as a performer. The setup of the toy organ of chord buttons on the left and the keyboard portion of the instrument on the right feels very comfortable to perform on specifically with my weaker left hand.

With this work I wanted to challenge the limits and interaction between my different hands to see what happens when the two supplant one another’s roles, thus forming and deforming over the course of the piece.

Left and Right was created in collaboration with Olga Stucker as part of Zürich Academy of the Arts’s 2018 Research Academy. Aimed to explore the intersection of lyrical language, physical performance and video documentation for embodying physical immovability, specifically of that pertaining to my left hand.

My work is often received favorably within the disability arts community, as an attempt to engage with disability creatively and musically. With the wider arts community, the reception is equally complementary but with little or no feedback. The potential positive reaction could also be a reluctance to address what the work is focusing in on and what some wish to not discuss, of disability’s relevance and potential for us all.

Upcoming gigs

31 May 2019: solo voice, vintage toy organ, and electronics set ‘Breaking and Entering’ at Albany Symphony’s American Music Festival. The set focuses on seeking the creative potential of physical loss and absence, with sound design by Michael Hammond.

19 June 2019: premiere of On and Off for two pianists and chamber ensemble by Ju-Ping Song, Kathleen Supové, and NakedEye Ensemble in Lancaster, PA.

1 November 2019: premiere of solo electric guitar work by Jiji, 92nd Street Y, New York, NY.

12, 15-16 November, 2019 – debut of new collaborative work with disabled multidisciplinary artist Jerron Herman – Danspace Project, New York, NY. (More info TBA)

Molly Joyce recently completed a new video with artist Maya Smira, which is focused on the end of physicality between two hands: