‘Musicologia della vita’: talking about autism, memory and music with Anna
I speak to Anna Ward, a disability activist and languages student, about music, memory and being autistic.
Plastic People is a series of interviews and articles about the intersection of neurodiversity and culture. In this edition, I speak to Anna Ward (they/them), an autistic student and disability activist, originally from York and now studying languages in Cambridge. They are also a wheelchair user and have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS).
I’ll be honest, I had concerns about how exactly I was going to turn my interview with Anna into a coherent article. As with my previous piece on music, they sent me a playlist of music that is important to them. For starters, the playlist was four hours! Entitled Musicologia della vita, it was more or less their life condensed into a playlist. ‘There’s these films that I study for my dissertation [on Catholicism and homosexuality in Italian art] by the director Pasolini, which as a trilogy are called Trilogia della vita or the trilogy of life. So this playlist is the musicology of my life.’ Like many autistic people, myself included, Anna’s experience and understanding of music is deeply grounded in memory and a sense of place and time. We talked through the playlist in a manner that will be deeply familiar to anyone in an autistic friendship — jumping freely from topic to topic, back and forth, going on extended tangents. It was both a testament to the uniqueness of neurodivergent and autistic forms of socialisation and talking about things, but also how deeply woven music can be into the lives and experiences of autistic people.
Our journey through the musicology of Anna’s life starts with Morrissey, the frontman of 1980s jangle-pop group The Smiths and later solo artist. The track on the playlist, Why don’t you find out for yourself? is a windswept lament of record-label exploitation and the ‘glass hidden in the grass of the music industry.’ It would be remiss, of course, not to acknowledge the singer’s checked history of racism and support for nationalism (a good deep-dive by a black music journalist, Cameron Cook, can be found here.) ‘He’s a piece of shit,’ Anna tells me frankly. ‘But I’ve grown up listening to Morrissey and the Smiths so like, it’s really hard to suddenly stop listening to something that has a lot of importance to you. The first song I ever got into was a Morrissey song called You’re the one for me, fatty, because I thought it was funny.
‘When I was 3, my mum had a CD walkman and made me a mix CD for it of stuff she’d recorded off random casettes. A lot of it was like, her music taste but there was also like, some random Kylie Minogue on there.’ They recall showing friendspeople they met on holiday the song Bankrobber by The Clash, a blistering reggae-punk track from 1980. ‘Nobody wanted to hear it. They wanted to listen to Atomic Kitten.’
‘In my first years of secondary school, I was like, very into new music,’ they explain to me. ‘I would super-hyper-fixate and spend all day on YouTube looking up songs, trying to find new artists.’ They recall being introduced to Nir din wort, a rollicking, sun-specked and impossibly catchy tune by German pop-rock band Wir Sind Helden, by a school friend — also called Anna. ‘She was doing an exchange programme at our school, it was the sort of school where people thought you were weird if you were into indie pop. We sat there in the canteen taking it in turns to listen to stuff on each others iPods. She bought me the album on CD for my birthday and I’ve loved it ever since.’
The inclusion of Kraftwerk’s ‘The Model’ perks my interest. Having discussed music as an auditory stim in my other writing, I’m a firm believer in the stimmy quality of music for autistic people. ‘So the reason I put that on there,’ they tell me, leaping immediately into another story. ‘I was in a synth-pop band in school. It was like a school-endorsed club called Keyboard Club. Me and this guy Tom carried the whole thing. We did Our Friend’s Electric by Gary Numan, and Kraftwerk and got these two year 11 boys to sing for us and do the lyrics — they were supposed to have choreographed a dance, they did not learn the words. It was a disaster but we had the best fun and all the parents loved it. For the third school concert, I had to leave the band because the other guy asked me out. Little gay me panicked and said no, but I mainly said no because his no. 1 hobby was morris dancing. I was like, this is social suicide. I’m already in keyboard club.’
They even met their first girlfriend at school through music, albeit in an indirect way. ‘She started flirting with me over Facebook, and later was like, “I thought you were the girl I was talking to at a party about Sufjan Stevens. You weren’t, but you’re cool anyway.” I’d never heard any Sufjan Stevens but now I love him. The song, Casimir Pulaski Day, from 2005’s Illinois, is a heartbreaking pop-folk song about childhood grief and faith. ‘She [their first girlfriend] put it on a mixtape for me. We used to spend hours drawing album art, it was very gay and cute. I was listening to it as a I walked into school and I was literally like, crying, as I walked into my photography class. I think it was the first Sufjan Stevens song I listened to.’
‘When I first came to Cambridge for university I found comfort in music that eminded me of home, like my record collection, a lot of Cure, Joy Division, Television, because it was so comforting,’ they told me. Much of the music we discussed in the interview is from their time spent in Milan, studying for their year abroad at university. Me ne Frego by singer and rapper Achille Lauro, a euphoric piece of synth-pop with blistering guitars and rolling drums, was entered into the Sanremo Music Festival, an annual competition to determine the Eurovision entry for Italy. ‘Sadly, he didn’t win, which is a shame because it’s gay as fuck,’ they explain. ‘Some of the costumes have religious connotations, so I wrote about him in my dissertation.’
They also pick out MILANO SUSHI & COCA, by underground pop star, art project and general enigma M¥SS KETA, whose music draws from Milanese and Italian pop culture together with the satirisation of Italian high society. The song is three minutes of pumping kick-drum, layers of clicks, bleeps and notification sounds, and KETA rapping about sushi. ‘She makes a ton of really niche references to Milanese sushi restaurants and clubs and stuff.’ The video, which is particularly interesting, can be found here — although please note it contains heavy strobing and flashing images.
Finally, we touch on Jesus, Etc., a piece of tender and heartfelt lounge-rock by US alternative country band Wilco. ‘You told me that I’d really like Wilco and I listened to it for the first time in Piazza Gae Aulenti in Milan, being like, I need to stop and appreciate this,’ they explain.
What is so special about this kind of relationship to music and memory is that it can be all-encompassing. You’d be hard-pushed to find a song Anna likes and not have them be able to relay a story or a memory relating to it. ‘Music makes me remember a lot of stuff that’s quite inconsequential but, because there was a song playing, I remember it, and I like that.’
Thank you for reading and please stay tuned for future articles! If you would like to write something about the intersection of neurodiversity and culture or feature in an interview, please contact me on Medium or on Twitter at @ 128harps, where I can be found musing on music, disability, neurodiversity and the professional wrestler Kazuchika Okada. I’m keen to offer up space to platform the voices of non-white neurodivergent people and those with non-autistic neurodivergent conditions like dyscalculia, tourettes, dyslexia and ADHD.
Anna can be found at @ wheelygay where they talk about being a disabled lesbian and being sent copious amounts of prawn based merchandise from anonymous sources. Seriously.