On Sunday 14 May 2023, City of London Sinfonia will present two concerts at Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, of composer Amble Skuse’s specially commissioned soundscapes, which explore neurodivergent experiences and identity.
Entitled Divergent Sounds, the project is a collaboration between the orchestra and King’s College London, aided by a steering committee of neurodivergent people with an interest in collaborative and socially engaged projects. Musical pieces are based on a series of focus groups with neurodivergent people, where topics such as neurodivergent experiences of the world, the ways in which neurodivergent people’s brains may work differently, and the strengths and challenges that come with being neurodivergent in a neurotypical world were discussed.
Themes that emerged throughout these discussions were reviewed by dramaturg and librettist Jen McGregor and composer Amble Skuse to create sonic and verbal explorations of neurodivergent identity. The soundscapes will convey a sense of all the multi-faced and diverse ways of being which exist in this world. City of London Sinfonia will perform these musical soundscapes that weave together musical interpretations of neurodivergent perceptions and experiences with recorded excerpts of neurodivergent voices from the focus groups.
Composer Amble Skuse said: ‘I’ve worked a lot with interview-based soundscapes, and with disabled led work, highlighting disabled justice issues. This project combined both of those aspects and so it felt like something which would allow me to develop the two strands together. It really allows space for disabled and/or neurodivergent voices to be heard through the medium of soundscape so that’s something I was keen to be involved with. Being disabled and having some neurological differences myself, my brain has some of the intensities and disconnects which the interviewees talk about in the piece, so it really helped me to understand my own experiences and perspectives and bring this into my work. Working with Jen McGregor (librettist) was fascinating as we had to work through all the interviews to find themes and work out how those themes could be presented to the audience in a form which would be engaging and take them on a journey. Once we had a selection of themes and phrases, we then had to decide which of them would be the singer’s journey and which would form the choruses in the soundscapes.’
Dr Virginia Carter Leno, Postdoctoral Fellow at King’s College London and Principal Investigator for the Divergent Sounds project said: ‘I really hope these performances give people who want to know more about neurodiversity a sense of what the world can be like for neurodivergent people, and build understanding of all the different neurotypes in our society. It has been such an exciting, creative and rewarding project to work on, especially working alongside our neurodivergent steering committee. It’s quite different from my usual academic work but it has really taught me the value of using creative and collaborative methods to engage people in what can be at times quite complex concepts. Having heard a few snippets from the composer, I think it’s going to be an incredible and very unique concert. I was especially keen to work with City of London Sinfonia given their interest and experience in collaborative projects focused on mental health and wellbeing, and the creative ways in which they engage their audiences. I hope audience members will leave feeling that they have learnt something about the concept of neurodiversity and the experiences of neurodivergent people.’
Jon Adams, Divergent Sounds steering committee member, contemporary Artist, autistic advocate and researcher, said: ‘Neurodiversity is shared by all of us, a commonality that’s not something you acquire or win but rather are genetically and naturally part of. Personally, for me being autistic (Neurodivergent) simply confirms my innate place within humanity and that I’m not broken but belong. Music seems safe for us; it does not oppress or bully us nor judge our worthiness for existence. I am often situationally mute or lose words in the whirlwind my head often contains and can only communicate my thoughts, emotions, and experiences through pictures, but they too require interpretation leaving room for assumption and error. Music does not carry this baggage or a fixed code and there is an openness that leaves room for individual interpretation. I feel music doesn’t discriminate, it enables me to unmask mentally, it simply makes me feel human and share the experience without an explanation.’
City of London Sinfonia have worked with the steering committee to make the event as inclusive as possible for neurodivergent people, for example by providing Quiet Rooms on site and sending ticket holders additional information about both the venue and the performance content beforehand. A recording of the piece will also be available to watch after the performance for those who prefer to watch from home. The concert will be signed and will be available to view online from 16 May via the City of London Sinfonia website.
This project is funded by The Wellcome Trust.