Molly Joyce

Beyond Ability: Reimagining Normative Bodies in Music

When I was seven years old, my family was involved in a traumatic car accident. Trying to avoid an obstacle in the road on a small bridge, my mother lost control of our car, which then flipped on its side. I suddenly found myself holding onto the headrest behind me with just my right hand, trying to pull my left hand out of the rubble. When I did, I found it hanging on by a piece of skin. 

In that moment I could only think of the small things that would be absent in the forthcoming years of childhood: swinging on the monkey bars, riding my bike, playing the violin. What I could not know was how the bridge that took my hand would instead leave me with something else – the possibility that one can imagine a life not within ability, but beyond it.

Following the accident, I underwent a series of surgeries – skin, nerve and muscle grafts – and physical therapy. The doctors were able to salvage some mobility in my left hand, and when I returned to school, my mother insisted that I continue playing music in order to prepare for my college résumé. (She didn’t want me to actually go into music – that clearly backfired.) With the school’s music instructor and my physical therapist, we concocted a splint for my left hand that allowed me to play the cello backwards, so that I bowed with my left hand and fingered with my right. Later on, I started playing trumpet, another instrument that could partially accommodate my physical impairment. Nevertheless, I always felt aware of my physical limitation on most instruments, in what felt like an attempt to conform to a body that was not my own.

Looking back, I think the disconnect with my own body is why I gravitated toward composing. In that space, I could create music without the constant reminder of what my hand could or could not do. I could let my musical imagination run free. I didn’t have to start with my physical ability and work backwards from there; instead, I could begin with possibility and move forward.

When I was 19 and my music expanded to include electronics, I learned to incorporate my questions about physical limitations into my work – and my musical life became richer for it. Now I could explore the possibilities of creating music independent of physical limitations, and question whether or not a human body was even necessary to produce music. If not, then how capable, really, was a so-called “able” body? Why should we consider it the ideal human form?

Eventually, I felt I had developed a relationship to music that transcended physical limitations. I had also mostly given up on the idea of ever being a performer: Once I pursued composition seriously, I thought the performance side of my musical life was not to be explored, let alone embraced. 

Molly Joyce

That is, until the introduction of my Magnus electric toy organ. This was an impulse buy, something I initially viewed as, well, a toy. Freshly purchased off eBay and wheeled into my tiny college dorm room, I regarded it as a necessary decoration for my future Brooklyn apartment, something I could use to occasionally play out-of-tune drone chords at future parties. 

But gradually I realized that the instrument was almost made for my body, for my form and for my deform. With the chord buttons on the left-hand side and the keyboard portion on the right-hand side, it catered to my physically different hands, challenging me to interact and engage with my body on its own level.

For most of my life since the accident, my left hand had felt like something attached to me rather than a part of me, a burden rather than a benefit.

Until then, it had never occurred to me to explore the physical silence that lay within me. For most of my life since the accident, my left hand had felt like something attached to me rather than a part of me, a burden rather than a benefit. I never understood the disjuncture between mind and body, when my mind asked for movement and my body responded in silence. And until then, I hadn’t understood the potential within that physical silence: how I might uncover its abnormalities, complexities and imaginaries.

I started performing anywhere and everywhere with the organ, ranging from freight elevators in New York to nightclubs in Miami. Initially, I chose to compose music that was intentionally very comfortable for my body, allowing my left hand to hold chords or play one bass note at a time while my right hand tackled the more technical material. However, as I developed as a performer and grew more comfortable with the instrument, I became interested in challenging my body and, specifically, the interaction between my hands. This is an interaction that plays with the expectation of my left hand to perform, or not, while allowing those performances to take on a strong visual element.

Questioning how my body performs has also led me to address my body’s physical silence in a vocal manner. One of my mentors, Carla Canales, often tells me to use my voice “both literally and figuratively” in engaging with this physical silence, writing lyrics that are a giant love letter to myself on body acceptance – helping me to realize that where the silence begins, the real, tangible sound emerges. Or, where the authentic material takes form, along the lines of philosopher John Dewey, an individual lens becomes a potentially greater truth.

As a composer/performer writing for my own body, my own figure, I view my impairment not only as a creative source, but also as an artistic process that involves interrogating a personal truth. A process that develops imagination, to refer to Dewey again, “while imagination is conceived in terms of concrete material.” That material, for me, is engaging with my hand in unexpected ways – choosing to employ its disability, its dysfunctionality and, in my opinion, its vitality.

And that is the material that has led me to ask not, “Why me, why my disability?” but rather, “Why not me?” Why can’t I be the one to deform, to explore something other than the norm? Why can’t I be the one to imagine possibilities not within ability, but beyond it?

Molly Joyce

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Molly Joyce

An active composer and performer, Molly Joyce’s music has been described as “impassioned” (The Washington Post) and written to “superb effect” …more 

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