Able Audio: Amble Skuse
Amble Skuse is a musician and artist, working with found sound, voices, electronic processing, and site specific locations. She works with oral history archives, interviews, community memories, radio interviews, found sounds and site specific compositions to explore myriad identities in myriad locations.
She explores these ideas of identity and power through a lens of intersectional feminism. Her focus is on disability, and she is currently studying for a PhD looking at ways in which a disabled composer/performer can ustilise technology as a tool for composing, improvising and performing.
In 2021, Amble’s work We Ask These Questions of Everybody was premiered. It was a 50-minute live and digital operatic event sharing disabled people’s experiences under austerity in the UK, performed by an exceptional cross-genre, all-disabled ensemble.
In this episode, Amble talks to host Sam Morgan about her work.
Amble Skuse: So yeah, at the moment I'm working with a dancer and a martial artist, and we've got a bunch of body sensors and I create a patch in Ableton Live where the sensors are connected to different parameters I’m processing.
So it's never really clear what the sensors will do because they're all connected in series. So if one is up and the other one's down, and then you move and the other one goes up and the other one goes down, then you'll get a different response every time. So as the dancer and the martial artist move, it creates a soundscape, basically. So their bodies become instruments And I'm really interested in how we might be able to use this with disability. So it's that we are not intentionally creating a sound. We're not intentionally saying, “Right, if you move your arm in this way, then you will get a drumbeat.” But it's really kind of abstract.
It's like, as the body moves it generates something and you don't really know what it's going to generate. But that's part of the kind of the collaboration with the sound and collaboration with the sound maker. So you create an audio sound world, and as you move through that world, your gestures and your movements create a very specific sound world.
Sam: I was looking at one of your works, Normalised Interfacing Plymouth, and it talks about how we can only interface with our environment through our body, and explores what happens when you don't possess a body that your city was built for and it kind of frames having a physical disability as unique. Could you talk more about that?
Amble: No, I mean the thing that I found is that the way that I interact with a city is really different from the way most people interact with a city. Before I had my wheelchair I would have to think like, well, how far is something, will I be able to stop and sit on the way? Will I be able to rest when I get there? How will I get back? What if there were any detours?
And then once I did have the wheelchair, I realised that a lot of cities are kind of made for convenience for non-disabled people, but then for a disabled person, the city almost sort of becomes a prison because I would use my car to get everywhere, but when I'm in a city, using a car becomes very tiring and very stressful. Because you've got traffic lights and pedestrians and you're stopping and you're starting, there's lots of other cars around. And then when you do get somewhere, you can't park your car, so you can't get close to the thing. And so everything in a city sort of becomes a blockage for me.
And when I was using my wheelchair, it was like, you know, I can't get from here to there because there's a step in the way, or there's a curb, or I might get to the end of this lane and then there's three steps, and so I have to turn around and come back again. So this idea of mapping a city became really interesting because I found I was doing it anyway.
Every time I went out somewhere, especially somewhere new, I wouldn't have a map in my head. And there wasn't really a map anywhere, which would tell me like, what are the routes you can take as a wheelchair user, you know? So there's nothing on Google Maps, which would be like, oh yeah, you go this way, and then you get halfway there and there's no ramp, or there's a curb, or there's a bus street, but you can't get on the bus.
And so this idea of saying, actually, a city to somebody who has a mobility impairment is a very different place. And people who don't have that never really see that. So I was really interested in trying to find a way to share that - the difference of experience with the listeners. So I started to make the soundwalks. And so partially I'm using, like, my wheelchair becomes an instrument because my wheelchair kind of goes, “clack, clack, clack, clack,” you know, depending on what ground you're on. If you have cobbles, or if you're on tiles, or if you're on wood, if you're on gravel, like, the wheelchair kind of becomes an instrument and it starts to play the city.
In a way, the texture becomes part of, you know, it's like the groove in a record and then the wheelchair is the needle of the record that creates the sound. So partially I'm using that and then partially I'm also creating a narrative. So if people are following the soundwalk, but are not disabled or not mobility impaired, anyway, they're getting to hear my thoughts about the place they're standing and I explain to them like, “Well, I would go down there, but then once we get round there, I'm not really sure if we'll be able to get out. So what I'm gonna do instead is I'm going to go up here and it's a longer route.” So I'm sort of talking it through with people.
But then sometimes I make them do things which are awkward. So like, I'll take them somewhere and there'll be steps at the end. I'm like, “Okay, you're not gonna go up those steps. You're gonna turn around and we're gonna go all the way back to where we were before.” Just kind of allowing them into that world and allowing people to see the city from the point of view of somebody who's mobility impaired and lifting the veil on that a little bit and sharing it in a way.
Sam: And in one of the soundwalks you choose to narrate it quite quietly? Could you explain the intention behind that?
Amble: I think sometimes I find I get really, like, sensory overwhelmed and I'm, like, super tired and I find it really takes a lot of processing power for me to understand what people are saying. Or if there’s multiple noises and say, if I'm in a cafe and there's the clanking of the coffee machine and people talking and I'm talking to somebody else, my brain doesn't always differentiate between those things. It just gives me all of that at the same time. And so I'm using a lot more energy to figure out what you're saying than most people would.
So I don't know if you've heard about psychoacoustics, but basically the brain doesn't give you all the information you're hearing and seeing. It gives you the stuff it thinks you need. So in a cafe, you might walk in and go “Oh, it's loud in here,” but after a couple of seconds, your brain goes “Oh, you don't need to hear the coffee machine. You don't need to hear the background noise.” And it starts to filter that out and only give you the conversation. And when my brain gets a little bit glitchy, it stops doing that. And so it's giving me everything at the same volume. So I'm just sitting like, “Oh Jesus, I can’t.”
Amble: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But also, I have to really concentrate to kind of pick out what somebody's saying because all the other stuff is like getting in the way. So part of the reason that I recorded it really quietly, was that I wanted other people to have to concentrate as hard as I do. And I wanted other people to experience that utter frustration of how hard it is to hear the thing you're trying to hear and, like, especially if you are in the street and there's cars going by and you're trying to listen to a soundwalk and you can't hear it, for me that's a really experiential thing. Like, it's one thing to tell people, oh, I feel really glitchy and my brain's not giving me sound properly. It's another thing to kind of put them in that situation where they're experiencing that as well.
So that was one reason I did it. And then another reason I did it was like, because I sort of wanted them to feel like my voice was inside their brain. And I think that's one of the nice things you can do with headphones, is that, depending on how you mix things, you can make things feel incredibly intimate and incredibly, kind of, interior.
And like, sometimes when I was mixing, there was one time I was mixing in Germany in my Airbnb and there was a Blackbird outside singing, but it was also on a track called Blackbirds and Builders. And there was a blackbird on the track and it was just like “I can't tell if I'm trying to mix a blackbird that's in the headphones or trying to mix a blackbird that's currently outside the window.” I mean, you don't get it on the track because it was afterwards and it's hard to, kind of, give to people, but it's that sort of vaguery of space that I kind of didn't - I wanted them not to know if they were hearing the blackbird on the track or if it was in the real world when they're on the soundwalk.
And so if you're on a soundwalk and you hear, like, a really subtle sound and you're like, “is that on the track or is that, that bird up there?” Or like, “did that car just go past me or was that on the track?” So I kind of wanted to kind of try and really subtly blend what it was like when I was there with their experience of being there and not block out the real world, but allow them to hear both at the same time.
Yeah, so the opera, um, I made it with Toria Banks, who's an amazing artist. She's a theatre director and a dramaturg. And she also runs an opera company called Hera - which champions female opera. And she has the same condition as I do. So it was super interesting because we didn't really have to talk about access issues very much.
We just did things our normal way and it just worked for both of us in that way. So the opera is - I don't know how things are in New Zealand for disabled people, so I'll just explain the system in the UK. They have this thing called P.I.P, which is the Personal Independence Payment. And as a disabled person you apply for it, and you fill in a form which is enormous and really intrusive, you know, it asks about how you wash, and whether you can make a cup of tea and a piece of toast, and how many steps you have to your front door and, you know, can you go to the toilet on your own?
It's really uncomfortably intrusive, because I think, what I found from interviewing disabled people, is that a lot of disabled people minimalize the awfulness of things, because they don't want to have to look at it every day. And so you just kind of accept it and then start to ignore it and go, “you know, well this is fine. This is okay.” But then suddenly, when you get a form and you have to admit all the shit things in your life, it’s really hard on your mental health to fill in a form. “Yeah, actually, I can't do that. This is shit, and this is awful. And I haven't left the house in five days.” And you know, all of those things that you just kinda say to yourself, “Oh no, this is fine. I'm fine, I'm fine, I'm fine.” So anyway, you have to fill in this form, and you send it off. And then eventually they invite you for an interview, which is done by a qualified nurse, but they're employed, not by the health service, but by a private company who are, it’s turned out, they are under instructions to only give a quota of disability grants.
So they were told to turn people away. So it's quite a big scandal in the UK. So, basically, what would happen was people would go into the meeting, be interviewed, and the nurse would write down not what they said, but what would get them kicked off the list. And then people would get their results back from the interview and say, oh no, you're not entitled to anything because this, this, and this. And they'd be like, “Well, that's not right. That's not what I said.” Like, what the fuck? And then you would go to tribunal, but it would basically be your word against theirs. And then people started to record their interviews so that they could prove that the people writing down the responses were lying and they were told you can only record your interview on a cassette tape.
You have to have two cassette tapes, identical machines, which run on batteries. So, like, the first time I went for my P.I.P interview, I had one cassette tape with batteries in it because, you are not allowed to bring anything into the room and plug it in, in case it's electrically unsafe and causes fire.
So it has to be battery powered. And I had one cassette tape and my phone, and I was gonna record it. And the idea is you give them one of the cassette tapes so that you can't edit it afterwards, and they were like, “Oh no, it has to be two cassette tapes so you can't edit either of them.” And I was thinking, “Well, if you've got the cassette tape and I've got my phone, I can't edit it anyway, because you've got the original.”
So then my first P.I.P interview ended at that point where they said, no, you can't. So I went away and got another cassette recorder. And what's really fun is that amongst the disabled community, there are now sets of tape recorders that people give to each other, specifically for P.I.P interviews. So I just put a shout out on my Facebook saying, has anyone got any P.I.P tape recorders? Because they have to be very specific ones. And then somebody who’d just done theirs gave me them, and then I used them and then I passed them onto somebody else. It’s literally a piece of gear from the eighties.
You have to ring up and get permission to record in advance. So when I phoned up to get permission to record, I put my phone on speakerphone and I recorded them giving me permission to record. Because then otherwise what happens is that you record it, you give them a copy of the tape, you keep a copy of the tape, they lie in the interview, it comes back as saying you are not entitled to anything, and then, you go to tribunal to sit in front of a judge to say, this is all lies, and I've got it on tape and they say, “Oh, she never had permission to record the interview, and there's no evidence that this is actually her interview. This could be anybody.”
And so they basically say you can record it to protect yourself, but if you don't record us giving you permission to record it, then we'll just lie and say you never had permission so that the tapes can't be heard in court. That's, like, they do everything in their power to fuck you up. And so this is what happened to the girl in the opera.
Everything in the opera is verbatim. We didn't make any of it up. So, she gave us a copy of her tape and everything you hear in the opera is on her tape. It's all real. All of it is real. And that's what is just so mind bendingly disgusting. And they did the same to her. They tried to claim that she'd never had permission to record the interview when she went to court.
And she had a recording of them giving permission and she then phoned them back and plays them it over the phone and says,”Ooh, this is one of your advisors giving me permission to record.” And they're like, “Oh, we must have made a mistake. Oh, here's your P.I.P.”
So the opera is broken up into verses and choruses and the verses are two singers playing the role of the disabled woman and the nurse. And the nurse is singing the interview and she's singing her responses. And it's all verbatim. It's all transcribed off this tape that we were given.
And we've agreed not to disclose the identity of the person, because she asked us not to. And the singing is all verbatim as well. So I would listen to the phrase over and over again and play the pitches and the rhythms of how they spoke. The nurses part is sung by Victoria Oruwari, who's a blind singer. And the part of Hannah, who's the disabled woman, is played by Steph West, who has a condition a bit like mine, but also has a hand difference. So she has, I think it's a form of gigantism. So some of her fingers are fused basically, and she's had lots and lots of operations on her hand. She also plays the harp in the piece.
So, we have a really simple continuo backing. So it's almost like a kind of early opera. Um, like a continuo, baroque style opera. We have a harp and a clarinet, and that's it. And electronics. The clarinet’s played by Sonya Laurie, who is also a disabled musician. And then we have Clarence Adu, who's a disabled musician, and he's triggering samples.
So I built him a sampler. He’s paralysed from the neck down, and he has a mouse that he can control with a stick in his tongue, and he pushes it around with his tongue, and then, when he blows into the tube, it creates a clip. So I made a sampler in Max MSP where he can trigger the samples for the piece by pushing the cursor around with his tongue and then clicking on different buttons to trigger the samples. There's a couple of creative things there, so he can multi trigger, so it it triggers the same sample over the top of each other. And he has control over, like, volume and stuff like that. And so the choruses then, between the interview sections, the choruses are made up of interviews I did with disabled people just talking to them about life, society, whether they feel safe, what they think people think of them, finding a community within disabled people, how they experience their day-to-day life.
And then we, amazingly, kind of went through all of that and found themes and cut them up into different sections. So each chorus has a slightly different kind of feel to it and a different subject matter. We loaded the samples of the people speaking - again, we got full consent and told people what we wanted to use and made sure they consented to all of that. Because that was super important to us ethically. We loaded those samples into the sampler and then Clarence improvises the triggering of those samples. And it was, like, really important to me that I gave the power to the disabled people in the show. So I think, as a composer, quite often we tell people what to do and they have to do it. And I think for disabled performers that can be a problem. And it's about reinforcing power structures. It's about trying to force people into a box that I've decided is what has to happen and you have to force your body to do it. And all of that just felt really wrong in terms of disabled theory. I kind of wanted people to be able to define their own space and to do what they wanted to do.
So all of the choruses are improvised between Clarence on the sampler, Steph on harp, Sonya on clarinet, and me on electronics. And so anybody on any given day could give as much or as little as they wanted to, and then I could take it back and kind of chop it up and make it work later.
I've seen models of disabled ensembles where the conductor or a composer is telling the disabled people, “Well, you have to be able to play this virtuosic bit on Tuesday at nine o'clock.” And, you probably know, like with a fluctuating condition, sometimes you can and sometimes you can't. And if the answer to the conductor or the composer is like, I don't know if I can do that, then certainly within classical music there's this sort of worship of brilliance. And it's like, “Well, if you can't do it, we'll get someone who can.” And for me, that's not accessible. That's not a disabled friendly way of doing things because you have to acknowledge that sometimes people are brilliant and sometimes they're not. And actually that's okay. And so we try to build that into the making of the opera that people could, if they weren't on form, it didn't matter and they could just give as much as they wanted to. And if that was just long notes. Then we could do something with that. And it wasn't a case of, “Oh, well you failed today.” You know, it's like, you did what you wanted to do today and that's fine.
Sam: I really enjoyed talking to Amble, being able to discuss her experiences as a disabled artist, issues of accessible and universal design, and how often, in music technology, the computer can be seen as a tool for empowerment and access.
This podcast has been funded by the New Zealand Music Commission and brought to you with help from producer Jesse Austin-Stewart, and Arts Access Aotearoa. I’m Sam Morgan and this has been Able Audio.