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Molly Joyce Centers the Voices of the Disability Community on “Perspective”

On her second album, Perspective — released October 28 on New Amsterdam Records — Molly Joyce takes a proactive step in improving discussions surrounding disability. She thoughtfully structures fragments from recorded interviews with 47 disabled people and underscores them with vintage toy organ, vocals, and electronically processed sounds.

Upon first listening, I wasn’t sure if I would even classify Perspective as an album in a traditional sense. It seemed to stand alone as a collection of interview segments with little need for music. However, being familiar with her earlier work, it appears that Joyce is using this ongoing project as a purposeful next step in her visionary efforts to enact real change for disabled individuals. As a composer and performer, Joyce draws inspiration and purpose from her own disability, which was caused by a car crash during her childhood. Her personal journey with ability and identity inspired her first album, Breaking and Entering (2020); in Perspective, we see her prioritizing the voices of others, assigning her own feelings to the role of moderator.

Each of the 12 tracks starts with Joyce asking the interviewees what terms like access, care, and strength mean to them. Simultaneously, the musical tracks create an emotional underpinning that relates Joyce’s own feelings to those of the speakers.

Molly Joyce--Photo by Shervin Lainez

Molly Joyce–Photo by Shervin Lainez

The prompts are ordered from more pragmatic to more abstract. Leading the album are “Access” and “Care,” words that are ever present for people with physical and intellectual impairments. The sequence of clips shows that although these two words are used often, applying them generically often downplays the unique needs of those who have a disability. Joyce parallels this discord by using stacked tone clusters in “Access.” Her use of layered vocals in “Care” also supports this view; the short motifs bear similarities, but their individual contours remain distinct.

“Control” was the most unsettling track for me. It could easily pass for rave music with its relentless percussive beats and shroud of grainy electronics. The music complements the frustration rooted in the concept of control, something that many of the interviewees don’t have or often feel they can’t have.

The pairing of “Weakness” and “Strength” shows Joyce’s penchant for exploring the nuance of binaries. In these tracks she subverts traditional views of weakness and strength by presenting weakness as a unifying element of human experience and strength as a divisive standardization of individual behavior. In “Weakness,” the music supports the interviewees’ observations with gentle organ drones and searching vocal lines. As a musical foil, “Strength” is underscored by tight, pulsating vocal clusters that add discomfort.

“Cure” is the conceptual crux of the album. For many, the connotation of the word ‘cure’ is unarguably positive. Here, Joyce challenges that conception, revealing its moralistic and possibly ableist implications. One interviewee explains how the pursuit of cures can also weaken and erase identity, and how fulfillment in life does not necessarily depend on able-bodied status. Others doubt the attainability of a cure and even question its desirability. Ultimately, Joyce succeeds on two rhetorical fronts: first, by showing how common perceptions of ‘cure’ are mythologized; and second, by revealing that the mythology often speaks over the voices of disabled people. Playing on the ambiguity of major and minor tonalities, the score complements these sentiments.

The following tracks continue challenging the listener’s value associations with concepts like interdependence, assumption, and resilience. We hear about interdependence being an equalizer, with people of all levels of ableness relying on each other for survival. Each track places the major/minor duality in different contexts, but the fundamental conflict remains the same.

Molly Joyce – Photo by Shervin Lainez

Molly Joyce — Photo by Shervin Lainez

The album ends with a radical reconceptualization of darkness. The interview clips progress toward a thought-provoking statement: “Acceptance of the fact that fires do fade — darkness, and even feeling that darkness inside of you… is part of the calming, and part of the rebirth.” Coupled with a harmonically stable score, “Darkness” becomes a place of respite instead of one of fearfulness. Here Joyce opts for a poetic ending, portraying darkness as the beginning of understanding, not the loss of it.

From a creative perspective, collaborative projects can pose the challenge of reconciling the voices of others with the artist’s own intentions; often, the result is either overly determined or disappointingly milquetoast. But by including real conversations, Joyce deftly strikes at the root cause of stigma surrounding disability — a lack of listening and understanding — and honors the diversity of experiences found in the lives of disabled individuals.

 

I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, and is made possible thanks to generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF.

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