The Music of Aspergia

I’d like to tell a story about me, partially in hopes that someone will “listen”, but mostly with the goal of getting it out, I think.

I was diagnosed with Asperger’s last year at the age of 44. I have struggled socially and emotionally my whole life, collecting various labels along the way: ADHD, PTSD, Bi-polar, severe depression, etc. None of those conditions with their associated symptoms and treatments seemed to really fit, and even combined, they failed to cover the full range and complexity of my issues.

Asperger’s, however, fits like a glove. Taking a look back over my life, re-living each memory through the filter of this new knowledge, I have come to understand more and more who I am and why I act and think the way I do.

Granted, my life hasn’t been all pain and misery. I am mostly capable of taking care of myself and I can communicate fairly well when I’m not overly excited or anxious. I’ve managed to be fairly successful with a few things, including sustaining a career as a software developer, self-publishing a couple of books, and producing an insane amount of music.

It’s the music that I want to talk about, because I feel that it’s the most important thing I do. It’s not just that I feel it’s important that I make music; I feel that it’s important for people to hear it. I feel that the music itself is important.

What I’m not quite able to figure out is whether this deep, lifelong conviction of the inherent value of my art is real, or just some “theory of mind” Aspergian construct.

Music is my primary source of meaning-making, and it’s the only way I’ve found to communicate the subtle shades and intense depths of emotions I feel. Unable to express the nuances of feeling through standard neurotypical means, I have (I think) developed a language of sounds and noises better suited to communicate how I really feel.

The trouble is, the more adept I get at producing art that I feel truly represents what my words cannot, the less people seem interested in listening. I’ll explain.

The first music I shared consisted of “real” songs — music and lyrics. People told me they were truly and deeply touched. They loved my music, cried at the sad songs, and sang along. It was during this time, 17 years ago, that my wife fell in love with me and my music.

But performing was hard for me. Some of it was natural anxiety and stage fright, but mostly it was having to relive the emotional context of the songs I had written every time I played them. I often self-sabotaged, cancelling shows because I just couldn’t bear to go through it.

The next stage for me was improvisation. With words out of the way, I was able to use my guitar to express more of what I felt in the moment instead of revisiting past emotions. This shift in style and focus alienated most of my previous listeners who maybe weren’t “into that kind of music” or preferred my earlier music. Still, enough people seemed to get it, and maybe understand.

After twenty plus years of playing guitar, I got bilateral cubital tunnel syndrome, a nerve condition similar to carpal tunnel that makes it painful and impossible to play guitar for any length of time. In going through this deep and painful loss, I discovered the iPad as a musical instrument, and fell into the world of electronic and experimental music.

In the past few years, I have become increasingly prolific, releasing close to 100 albums as Mood481. In doing so, I’ve been able to delve much more deeply into the fabric of music and sound, using these new tools to craft soundscapes capable of recalling, and hopefully communicating, a greater breadth and depth of meaning.

Unfortunately, as I’ve moved further into the abstract, away from comfortable and easily recognizable forms of music, the number of people listening to my music has dwindled to dangerously low numbers. As I become more adept at expressing the emotions locked behind my autistic wall, I’ve become less able to get people to actually listen.

I honestly believe that listening to my music is the only path to truly understanding and knowing me. I struggle with the fact that so few are willing to listen. It’s even harder when the most important people to me don’t take an interest.

As with any form of communication — spoken, written, or otherwise — I don’t expect everyone to like, agree, or understand what I have to say. I just want more people to listen.

Like what you read? Give Clif Johnston a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.