Able Audio: Megan Steinberg

Megan Steinberg is an experimental composer and abstract turntablist based in London. She works with found sound, chance procedures, graphic scores, quietness and microtonality. Originally a jazz guitarist, Megan studied Composition at Brunel University where she fell into experimental music. After discovering free improv using objects, violin, and cello, in 2016 she began performing free improv and experimental music for single-deck analogue turntable.

Megan is currently studying a PhD at Royal Northern College of Music, where she has been appointed the Lucy Hale Doctoral Composer in Association with Drake Music, from 2021. Her project is focused on the creation of works for disabled musicians, new instruments and AI, placing accessibility at the beginning of the compositional process.

In this episode, Megan talks to host Sam Morgan about her advocacy of accessibility and music.

The transcript

Sam: What got you into accessibility? 

Megan: Yeah, it's a really interesting question because I get asked this quite a lot and there isn't a moment that I can think of because when you have a disability or a long-term health condition, you are always managing it. And I met with a friend recently who has just developed or is developing a disability, long-term health condition, and she's a musician and artist herself. And she said something really poignant, which is that it's a full-time job having a disability, like managing it, managing your health, making adjustments and working around, and living is more work. And so, I've had these health conditions since I was a teenager, and that's the same time that I really started pursuing music as a career.

So it's always been a quite selfish concern to make sure that I can do what I want to do. But then you become aware of other people as well who are living with different conditions and needs. And I think I particularly started noticing it in the industry when I started working in the industry - noticing inequalities.

I don't remember there being a significant moment. It's just always been a requirement, like in my life, to think about access. I did have a really amazing job at the British Library here in London, working on their learning schemes, which involved outreach with groups of people with additional needs, and I think that was such an amazing job that the facilitation, and outreach, and engagement, and inclusion became really important to me and I just found myself kind of knowing more than the average person about disability rights and disability equality and started being an advocate. But I'm not sure how it happened. I guess you just take that experience of being your own advocate and you apply it to other people.

And I thought that was really important. But selfishly, whenever I'm acting as an advocate, it's for my own benefit. So I don't think there was a particular moment. It's just, it's always there. Obviously if you have a disability, you don't need to be an advocate for other people. We are not a monolith. You will obviously have more awareness than other people, but it's not a requirement that you be an activist just because you're disabled. I just think I felt a lot of discomfort and outrage seeing inequality in the music industry and had to do something about it in whatever way I could, and that's still something that I'm reckoning with and trying to decide what it is that I can do.

Sam: How much of your work do you try and advocate and spread awareness about disabilities to your peers that maybe aren't disabled? 

Megan: I think I don't. Up until now, I haven't had any works that explicitly discuss disability. I think thematically, there's some themes in my work that imply conversations about disability, but it was only when I got this PhD position with Drake Music that I started thinking about music as activism. Art is activism. So very little up until now. And now I'm starting to think about it as a means to communicating things about disability to the world. And it's really interesting. It's definitely a thing that I have to work on because I haven't done it up until this point. My works have not been explicitly about anything.

I've felt quite strongly in the past. That sound is just sound. But also that if I'm disabled, then all my music is disabled music, even if it's not about, in quotation marks, ‘disability’. So yeah, it's a really interesting question about where the line is, and what is art as activism, and how explicit you have to be, and what are you trying to say with music, and how are you trying to say it? And does it matter if it's explicit or not? Is it, you know, poetic and implied? Or is it, like, very explicitly showing something about disability, culture, or inequality. I think there are really, really important questions that I'm currently actually having to think about.

And listening to a lot of music that does try to make statements about political and social issues. Because I would really like to, I think be quite explicit. I think I'd like to do both. I think I would like to make some pieces that are explicit and very clearly say something and raise awareness through the music, and then also do some work that is inspired by that, but maybe is not, the audience does not go away realising that they have seen a politically driven piece of work, but they're driving the work.

So I have just done a piece, I'm working on a piece at the moment that premieres in Manchester in October of this year that is influenced and inspired by the process of artificial intelligence and the generalisation of artificial intelligence that is often very biased against people with disabilities as well as people from ethnic minorities and gender minorities.

That piece is not explicit in that relationship, in that inspiration, but it was integral to the making of the piece. So I don't think, as an audience member, if you listen to the piece, I don't think you would necessarily know that. And the question is like, “is that important?” And I think for the music, it's not important, but if I'm trying to display some kind of activism, then it does need to be more explicit.

So yeah, I think I'll do both now and I'm gonna start working on a piece later in the year for next year that will deal explicitly with my own health condition and my own experiences and try to raise awareness of that in particular with a couple of other performers. So I think it's getting the best of both worlds and deciding for yourself what's important. The piece about AI processes, I think it sounds really good, and I think that's one of the most important things about music. It doesn't come across as, you know, if the meaning behind it doesn't come across, but it sounds really good and people enjoy it as a piece of music, then I'm still happy.

Sam: Yeah, I think it's an interesting one because I think when I ask that question about, like, advocating and, I think advocating in my mind is always like stomping your feet on the ground sort of thing and saying this is not okay, but that's not always possible in a piece of music. I think if you are big and famous then maybe you can go “Hey, let's make sure that people have access to all of this,” and it's just hard to convey it in a piece of art. 

Megan: Yeah. I think it's, it's so tricky. And you're right. Like when you think about activism, it's like kind of loud, obvious. Getting the attention and demanding change. And it is, and that's what it should be. But sometimes activism is also just existing as a disabled person and just making something as disabled person and being like “Hey, I'm over here, and, like, I exist.” And just showing I exist. And that can also be a kind of activism. And so that's what that piece is doing, I think is just quietly being like “I'm here and we are here and listen to these cool sounds.” 

And then there is the process and the structure of the piece is symbolic of these bias processes. And so I think even if it isn't explicit, I think that audiences will come away with the sense of structure of the piece and what happened in the piece, and that will affect them in a certain way and they'll still recognise it.  Even if they don't link it to disability and access in artificial intelligence, they'll still have come away with this feeling of what happened over the course of the piece. And I have opportunity to also do some explicit activism pieces as well, which I will work on.

So, it has been a question that's been on my mind an awful lot. I don't know if there's one answer. I think you just have to decide what you wanna do and what's important to you. And I did decide when I started this work with Drake Music, that it was important to me to say something and to try and affect change.

And that does sometimes mean stamping your foot and making a message really clear. The next piece will probably involve some text, and text helps because it's a clearer form of communication than music to get a point across using language. 

Sam: Tell me more about your PhD project.

Megan: Yeah, so, it's in collaboration with Drake Music who are a disability, music technology, charity here in the UK and the, kind of, premise of the project is looking at what universal design in music can be. So I've kind of called it universal composition and what does that actually mean? And I think that's what I'm exploring.

I don't suggest that I'm gonna have an answer, but just looking at what it might mean. So, universal design in the world, it's mainly an architectural term and a design term for creating products and buildings. It’s basically the theory that if you design something for as many people as possible, then everyone benefits.

So that's, like, immediately, designing buildings with ramps, designing rooms with adjustable lighting, with signs that have braille and space for a braille, designing buildings that have lifts put in. There's also the universal design and learning, UDL, which is a pedagogical theory and that’s designing education so it's accessible.

It’s basically this idea that you start with accessibility. You start with the question of making something as accessible as possible rather than adding it on at the end. So in architecture, that would be a building that has lifts and ramps for people using wheelchairs and with mobility impairments.

And that also benefits people who have buggies and people who are feeling tired or suffer from fatigue. It benefits everyone. And that’s built into the blueprints of the building at the design stage as a given. The alternative that you see in older buildings before universal design was made a thing in architecture in the 20th century is buildings that have lots of steps, buildings that are not built on ground level or they have a step into the building. And so the afterthought is possibly buying a mobile ramp. 

When I was teenager, I worked in a cafe that was quite a relatively old building, and if somebody came through who was using a wheelchair, we would have to go back into the back of the cafe and get out this very heavy ramp and put this very heavy ramp down. And the person using a wheelchair was just, like, waiting very patiently. All credits to those customers I served that waited very patiently for this ramp to be put in. That's an example of an afterthought of accessibility. That's accessibility at the end of the process. And so, what I've been thinking about is how does universal design work in music? What does it look like in music to think about accessibility first?

And I think that's a weird concept for a lot of people because they think music is just accessible, right? Like you don't have to do anything special, and that's not true. So, so far what it's meant is I've been making different scores for different people based on what requirements they have and how they learn.

So the pieces that I've been working on that premiere in October [2022], Outlier. Everyone has a different score, because I had individual conversations with each performer and asked them how they learn best. All of them had a different answer. And so I've made a graphic score and a video score. I've made an audio score for people who, like me, respond best to auditory input. 

And then I've made a tactile score, which is quite an interesting one, for a performer who identifies as neuro-divergent who wanted to respond to touch. So I made him a score that has lots of different materials on it, and it shows change in timbre over the piece. So it starts with very soft material, and then moves like crumpled paper and tissue paper, and then moves to tin foil and hard material. So moving from this soft to hard. And the other scores showed that movement as well, just in a visual way or in an auditory way, and that was something that I really enjoyed. Actually, it was really interesting experience. As composers we’re used to just making whatever score we want, what we think is best for us, and then communicating that, and then performers have to interpret that. And as an experimental composer, I'm very used to making graphic scores and tech scores and then having performers interpret that. And this is kind of flipping it on its head and asking the performers what they want the score to be.

And it's a very different process than you would normally do, but I think that that's what an example of what universal designing music can be. But there could also be adjustments, or the music is written for the performers. So if I'm working with a performer who is triggered by particular noises. For example, they have a health condition that means that hearing particular kinds of sound is very uncomfortable, I won't use those sounds, and it will directly impact the piece. And I think that might be the more controversial part of this project, is I'm changing my compositional creative ideas to fit the requirements of the performers, but I'm embracing that, basically, and taking it as, part of the design of the piece is the access requirements.  Just like part of the design of a building is to include lifts within the building, they’re part of the building and they can be part of the design and the architecture of a building. The requirements of the performers or the audience are part of the design of the piece. So that's, I think, what I'm getting at with the universal composition.

What I'm discovering is that, actually, universal is a bit of a misnomer, because there really isn't a way of doing something that fits everybody. There really is not a one size fits all. And one of the critiques of universal design is that it somewhat erases the unique experiences of disabled people and tries to make it a one size fits all, which is not possible. Because there are people have different needs and actually recognising that certain access requirements are going to clash with another person's access requirements. It's really important and it's just about, I think what I'm discovering in the music, is that it's about addressing the individual and the needs of the individual.

So universality is actually talking to everybody individually and not trying to find a one fits all approach. 

Sam: That’s a huge critique because we are pushing for universal design in general, and then it's kind of like, the lived experiences of people is so important. One thing I wanted to ask is, because you're fascinated by space, silence, and architecture. Do you feel like performance spaces, if the space you're in is built with universal design in mind, or when you are giving a score to a performer, the performer performs differently because you've taken into consideration their access needs or the space is more accessible?

Megan: Yeah, I mean, now, I'm so aware of these things and I am always the first person to ask about access requirements and put access requirements first, that I always find accessible spaces. And hopefully that means the performer can show up and not be uncomfortable and do their best. Yeah, definitely. It just shows thoughtfulness. I kind of see it as the bare minimum, to be honest. But a lot of people don't. A lot of people do not. In terms of space and the music, like I just love architecture and I think the space that you're playing in does have direct and indirect control over sound, and I like to play with that a lot in the music. And I think that different people with different experiences, different lived experience, different attitudes, different perspectives. They will have a different perspective on the space, but I think the most important thing is they're comfortable in the space and that will always lead to a better performance.

But I do love writing music that can involve the space that it's in somehow, if that's the resonance, or getting particular harmonics that ring out in particular spaces, or this shape of a piece influenced by the shape of the room that it's in. And I think that performers definitely have a lot to do with that because they're the ones making the sounds in the space. And it has to be accessible for them. It's a really interesting question because I think about it as the bare minimum of you have to, you have to get an accessible space for people. And I hope I'm doing a good enough job at that, but we can always do better as well.

Sam: For people that maybe are listening that are composers themselves or musicians themselves that don't have any experience with working with people with disabilities or don't have  a disability themselves, do you have any tips or tricks on these things?

Megan: Ask. Don't be afraid to ask and listen. The person that you are speaking to, don’t make any assumptions because the person you are speaking to lives with that condition. And even if it's new and they're learning it’s still theirs, and they know more than you. So don't, don't make any assumptions. And ask, don't be afraid to ask. I think maybe, particularly in Britain, I'm not sure about in New Zealand, but particularly in Britain, we have a bit of a politeness issue where we don't wanna ask about people's requirements because we think it's prying or rude, and it's completely the opposite.

Ask right at the beginning is the best advice I can give because you might ask too late and realize that you have got an inaccessible process or space. So ask right at the beginning, and I hope what my project can do is teach people this. If you start with it as the first question, then you won't have any problems and it will all be fine.

Just listen to what they say. Trust them because they’re adults and they know what they're doing and they've had to make adjustments and live. They live their life 24/7 with that disability, so they know how to work and what they need. I think there’s good and bad ways of asking, but one, just a standard is, “do you have any access requirements?” Just ask before you start working with someone. Or, as soon as you do start working with someone, don't be afraid of that, because they'll tell you in response to that question. Don't always assume that people will tell you without being prompted, because sometimes as a person with disabilities or long-term health conditions, if someone doesn't ask, it can be hard to bring it up.

Because if they don't ask, if they don't bring it up, I feel personally like, oh, they’re not ready. They don't know how to handle this, so I'm not going to bring it up. And that's going to get in the way and that's going to cause major problems. So yeah, don't assume that someone will tell you if you don't ask them. And put it right at the beginning of the process. 

Sam: You have access riders in the UK. [They aren’t common here.] 

Megan: Oh, they're so simple. I mean, to be honest, they're quite rarely used. I think that's a really great thing to mention to everyone listening. If you know a musician or an artist with disability or health condition, if you yourself have one or you work with musicians a lot or performers of any kind, tell them about an access rider, which is basically like a tech rider, but for your requirements and it can be a really easy way of communicating it.

Yeah, we do have them. They are endorsed in the UK by the Musicians Union. So in the UK you can go to the MU website and find all the information about that and lots of examples.

And I have one that I send out to people and I think it'd be amazing if it was a more established thing that people did. So yeah, plug access riders. Get people to use them because the more people that use them, the more normal it will be. I imagine you guys have like a union body?

Sam: No.. we're quite backward. We don't have much funding in terms of accessibility. Like if we want to put New Zealand Sign Language on something, there's no funding for that. So most of the stuff doesn't have it. New Zealand is seen as this very accessible place, well not an accessible place, but maybe a very warm and welcoming place. But we're quite backward in a lot of these things. But with the access riders, it's kind of like certain artists will ask for only orange Skittles in a bowl, all I ask for is you have a light in the hallway to the green room. 

Megan: My access rider has like the Musician's Union logo on it, and I think that's really important because it gives some validity for a lot of organisations who may have never seen one before. And yeah, maybe have the attitude of “oh, what is this? I don't wanna bother with this.” Here, if you put the MU logo on it, which you can get from their website, that gives some kind of validity to it. So it'd be great if some New Zealand organisation could endorse one, but that doesn't mean you can't make one for yourself and send it to people. Yeah. The Musicians Union website, which is UK based, does have great examples. There are other websites that I cannot think of off the top of my head that also have them, but yeah, just look up access riders.

Sam: It was really interesting talking to Megan, discussing her approaches to accessibility within music. Her use of music technology to promote individual accessibility as a response to ideas of universal design prompted me to question my approaches around accessibility.

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.




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