Professor Joseph Straus Wins the 2020 Wallace Berry Award for ‘Broken Beauty: Musical Modernism and the Representation of Disability’

Professor Joseph Straus and his book "Broken Beauty: Musical Modernism and the Representation of Disability"

For Graduate Center Professor Joseph Straus (Music), the most meaningful part of winning the 2020 Wallace Berry Award from the Society for Music Theory for his book Broken Beauty: Musical Modernism and the Representation of Disability is the recognition of a sub-discipline that didn’t really exist until about 15 years ago, when he wrote a seminal article and co-edited the first essay collection in the field.
That sub-discipline joins the field of disability studies — an area of scholarship that embraces disability as a form of diversity and looks at how culture and society influence and are influenced by disability — and music theory. His book argues that modernist music can be understood, at least in part, as a cultural representation and narration of disability.
Straus offers mobility impairment as one of the disability conditions at the core of musical modernism. “There's this very deep notion that music is movement in time, that music is directed motion towards some sort of goal,” Straus says. “Modernist music short-circuits that sense of directionality toward a goal — its mobility is impaired. And its mobility impairment is understood not as a deficit, but rather an artistic resource, a new source of beauty.”
The Wallace Berry Award is considered the highest award in the field of music theory. The Society for Music Theory described Straus’ book as “breathtaking in its ambition, scope, and achievement.”
Straus, whose music theory textbooks have become standard references, came to the field of disability studies only 16 years ago, through an encounter on a train. Returning from giving a talk at Pennsylvania State University, he sat next to an English professor whom he vaguely knew. After chatting, Straus, whose son is autistic, took out a book on autism. At the time, autism was not nearly as well understood and was considered very rare, Straus recalls.
“I was gathering as much information as I could,” he says. “I thought of autism as a medical condition for which one might seek a cure.”
This professor suggested that he learn to think of disability as a cultural manifestation, not a biomedical problem.
Though at first, he concedes, he considered the idea “crazy,” he started to read about the subject. That’s when “some light bulbs started to go off about my life and about my son and about music and how these things are quite intertwined for me,” he says.
Straus began thinking about autism and other disabilities as a difference, not a deficit, which he describes as “sort of the disability studies mantra.”
“Thinking about autism as a form of neurodiversity, a way of being in the world, changed my way of thinking about music,” he says.  
In recent years, he’s seen an explosion of interest in the topic. It is now widely accepted and widely understood. He also finds it gratifying that there’s now “recognition that disability is a core issue. It's not just a niche thing. It doesn't just affect a few people. Everybody has a relationship to disability and ability, just as everybody has a gender.”
He explains: “Just because you identify yourself as able bodied — in fact, I would say precisely because you identify yourself as able bodied — you are implicated in this ability/disability system.”
The award, he says, “recognizes what for me is a profound shaping fact of our political lives, our cultural lives, and our musical lives.”
And for Straus, there’s the serendipitous note that he also won the award in 1991, at a much earlier point in his scholarship.
“In some ways, these two awards bracketed my career,” he says. “In my field, or in any sort of technical field, to have people even just read your work is already like a miracle. To be publicly recognized by a group of your peers is very gratifying.”

Submitted on: NOV 30, 2020

Category: Faculty | GCstories | General GC News | Music Ph.D. - D.M.A