Redefining Musical Experience: The Work of Stefan Sunandan Honisch

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Canadian pianist, composer, and scholar Stefan Sunandan Honisch provides singular perspectives on the complexities and possibilities for disabled musicians today. Molly Joyce talks to him about his research into the legacy left by Helen Keller.

White man with glasses, beard and long brown hair, in his wheelchair in a park

Stefan Sunandan Honisch. Photo DOA 2019

“As a disabled performer, I refuse to separate my disability from who I am, and could be, as a musician. Yet, as a performer with a disability, I participate in a normalizing framework which treats my disability as separate from my musical identity.” — Honisch, S.S. (2018). “Music First or Disability First?” Public Disability History 3 (4).

“Positive identity construction, then, involves more than the simple erasure of the visible effects of physical impairment; it entails the constant negotiation between different conceptions of physical difference and demands a profound awareness of how these formulations intersect, elide, and indeed collide to shape our collective experiences, internal and external, of visible impairment.” — Honisch, S.S. (2009) “Re-narrating Disability’ through Musical Performance.” (Music Theory Online 15 (3)).

The insights above from Canadian pianist, composer, and scholar Stefan Sunandan Honisch provide singular perspectives on the complexities and possibilities for disabled musicians today, particularly within the classical music canon where centuries of traditions and instruments constructed for very specific bodies dominate the landscape. As a composer and performer active in such a field, interfacing with and learning from Honisch’s work has been incredibly liberating and motivating, shedding light onto possibilities of embracing disability through and with musicianship, in hopefully translating such to wider audiences.

Honisch is currently serving as a Banting Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Theatre and Film at University of British Columbia, with a PhD in Education from UBC and undergraduate and graduate studies in Piano Performance and Composition from the University of Victoria and the University of British Columbia. We first met through Alice Wong’s Disability Visibility Project Facebook group, connecting over shared interests in the creative potential of disability and within classical music. Ever since, my understanding of how disability and music intersect has been significantly advanced through engaging with his work, specifically on reimagining pianist virtuosity, as well as his research on Helen Keller’s musical life, and on the critical and popular reception of blind pianists in international music competitions.

Honisch’s own musical life began with studies in piano and composition, and he describes early experiences as feeling the need to “blend in” and bracket his disability as much as possible. As a pianist he would opt to have his wheelchair offstage and sit on the piano bench, trying to separate his disability from music-making as much as possible, which has since developed to performing at the piano in his wheelchair. Prior to becoming aware of disability studies during graduate school, Honisch thought of himself as a musician rather than a disabled musician, commenting in a recent Skype interview that it’s “hard to remember why those separations made so much sense at the time.” He emphasized that he regards his own identities of disabled musician, researcher, and educator as “organic, continually evolving, and inseparable from one another.”

One of the first essays I admired by Honisch was his 2018 piece for Public Disability History, ‘Music First or Disability First?’, where he addresses similar issues. In the piece, Honisch continues that such disagreement between music and disability requires us to ask ourselves, and each other: “what is the difference between being a disabled musician and an able musician who happens to be disabled?” He offers his own provisional response that “one need not be either a disabled musician or a musician who happens to be disabled”, and “can modulate from one to the other” in being “informed by the incongruities of lived experience.”

artwork

Martin Honisch (2015), “Canoe.” Oil on canvas. Available from: https://erikahonisch.wixsite.com/martin-honisch/new-series-2015
Used by permission of the artist

Honisch furthers this approach in theorizing “vulnerable virtuosity.” In our recent Skype interview, he elaborated how “vulnerability and disability are traditionally thought of as the opposites of virtuosity and ability” and observed that these “dualisms continue to hold so much sway.” He adds that the intersection of vulnerability and virtuosity in performance “can emerge in powerful ways”, and in the essay ‘Music First or Disability First?’ observes that “vulnerability and disability, like virtuosity, demand heightened forms of musical engagement, in which the aesthetic demands of music-first performance, and the political interventions of disability-first performance, are inseparable.”

For me, this is incredibly liberating, thought-provoking, and revolutionary. As a classically-trained musician with a similar trajectory to Honisch, in first viewing myself as a musician rather than a disabled musician, I always believed there must be another way than the time-honored, physical display of virtuosity. Growing up with and resisting specific instruments with assumed abilities of one’s body, it has been profoundly freeing to embrace as Honisch states, the “messy and productive ways” disability and virtuosity can intersect in live performance.

Honisch’s current research examines Helen Keller’s musical legacy as a Deafblind woman, considering her complex legacy and grappling with the relationship between her musical life and frequent exclusion of disabled people from music. This is the focus of Honisch’s postdoctoral research at the University of British Columbia, ultimately focusing on the aesthetics and politics of touch in musical experience. His initial foray into this topic is found in the essay “Deaf-Blindness and the Avid Musical Touch of Helen Keller”, in which he observes that “references to emotion and affect in music commonly require metaphors of touch. In relation to music’s expressive capacities, for example, feeling is understood to signify feeling emotion.”

In our interview, Honisch noted there is sometimes a “tendency to treat Keller’s music life as something of a curiosity or novelty, somehow removed from her other work.” He is therefore interested in “finding those unexamined points of connection of her private and public life” as her musical experiences are “inseparable from both touch as emotion and touch as sensation, while also creating an altogether different way of understanding music.”

He observes that in watching videos of Keller’s interactions with musicians and particularly singers, free of the contextual understanding that Keller is Deafblind, one might initially think they are “witnessing a voice masterclass, with Keller as the vocal coach…analyzing her performance through touch rather than listening, tuned to the vibrations of the singer’s vocal chords.” In his 2016 essay on Keller, Honisch suggests that “an avid musical touch requires us to discard the idea that one sense modality can substitute for another,” and asks “what might it mean to cultivate an avid touch in our own musical activities?” I believe that this approach can usher in a myriad of forms, senses, and more, and Honisch adds that “if subjective musical presence in the world is articulated in important ways by sound, and sight, then it is also important to acknowledge the unfamiliar role of touch in shaping other musical subjectivities.”

Thus as the classical music world seems to continually search for new ways to engage and interact with artists and audiences alike, one must ask if Honisch’s ideas around musical touch and more broadly around the intersection of music and disability can be incorporated. Certainly, classical music is stratified into various levels of participants ranging from solo to orchestral and opera, however, it is important to consider the nuanced methods and processes that disability offers, through Honisch’s research, through Keller’s experience, and through disability aesthetics. I look forward to seeing where Honisch goes next in his work, in ways that continually allow us to reconsider what we hear, what we see, what we believe, and what we feel from musical experience.