Although niche, composing in today’s world of technological advances and artistic expressions around every corner, it’s hard to believe that people still struggle to make it big in today’s world. With creativity being widely accessible to the non-creative, it can be a daunting process to acquire any opportunities.
Being a composer today is all about knowing the right people, networking and long tedious hours spent gazing at a computer.
For autistic people, however, knowing to succeed requires breaking routine, talking to others, and selling our craft, seems like a chore and an exhausting one.
I have found, through careful observation of my own practice that these ‘preparations’ are rarely discussed or taught. I, being autistic and a composer, found that it is crucial to talk to others. There is a way in which people on the spectrum do get networking done and that is through masking.
Masking is a self-explanatory talent. It is where one would pretend to be another person, putting a ‘mask’ on. I use it to pretend to be the person I would be in absence of autism. Others use it in a way to cope with the neurotypical world, so as to not draw attention to themselves. Not to say we are not the same people you see every day, just a heightened version of ourselves. When we go home, a place of comfort and security, we tend to be the people we really are. It is our decompression time.
Every day-people use masking too! People will change a part of themselves for different environments, it is just a normal human characteristic. The difference between neurotypical and neurodiverse masking, however, is the exhaustion felt after a long day of masking. Yes, we do this all day, all the time and don’t stop until we are in our comfort zone.
Over time, masking becomes part of our routine, our personality and, much like training through the gym, we become accustomed to it. It becomes easier and second nature.
Autism is defined as a ‘spectrum condition and affects people in different ways’. There is a full spectrum of differences among autistic people. A personal difference would come between my brother and I. Although we have the same umbrella term of ‘Autism’ my brother differs from me in many aspects, including as someone obsessed with cleanliness, difficulties with food and being highly intelligent. Whereas I have issues concerning learning, obsessive traits through my composition work and not having issues with food. Where we do connect however is our love for certain fabrics, difficulty with routine changes and love of games.
Having autism does not hold any of us back. I am fortunate that, through my time as a composer, to meet amazing and talented composers who also have autism.
This year has been full of amazing music written by fabulous autistic composers. I am delighted to share with you these composers and what has led them to this point in their lives!
First, we have the incredibly talented Rylan Gleave who is currently taking over the world of composition.
Born in Manchester and currently residing in Scotland, Rylan is a classically trained composer and vocalist who creates experimental music often described as ‘personal and political’. Being a trans man has allowed him to create very interesting music with his voice, as quoted as ‘instrumental qualities of his late-breaking trans-masc voice through queer autoethnography, and autistic-specific notation’. What I love about Rylan is he is not afraid to be himself, he creates wondrous music that captivates people. He allows himself to be swept away into his world and is not ashamed to show others his creations. He has captured his voice breaking and turned it into something special.
Recently Rylan has had the opportunity to record in Abbey Road Studios. For those non-musical-minded out there, this is a big deal. It’s like a millennial buying a house, super rare and an amazing opportunity.
Described by ‘The Scotsman as “One of the brightest lights in Scotland’s new music scene”, selected for the RPS composers scheme 2020-2021 and most recently shortlisted for the Royal Musical Associations Tippet medal award. This is just a small chip into Rylan’s achievements. Not only has his music been performed all over the world but he is also the lead singer for his black metal band, Ashenspire. He is also a New Voices 2021 composer.
Ben Lunn is another one of our fantastic autistic composers who you might recognise from the award-winning ‘Diversions’. Ben is an awesome person as he brings together the diversity of disabilities and creates something with us all.
From his time studying at the Royal Welsh College of Music and the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre and now undertaking his PhD at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland studying a very interesting topic about how composers use politics in their work. Ben, unsurprisingly, is taking the composition world by storm. With his successes starting from winning the RWCMD Composition Prize to his work being performed all over the U.K, Europe, Baltic states, and many (many) more, to most recently his part in founding the Disabled Artist Network in 2021.
His music reflects the material world and how his disability affects the world around him. Often described as ‘Otherworldliness’, he takes a keen interest in the space around him.
Not only does Ben compose but he is an active member in many other projects too! From conducting, musicology, teaching and writing he also plays an important role in disability awareness by giving opportunities to those with complex needs. He is also a highly intelligent multi-linguist, knowing Lithuanian, French, Latvian, German and English.
Joe Stollery is a composer who I could not leave out of this mix of talented people. Joe is currently studying his PhD in composition at the University of Aberdeen. His music ‘stands somewhere between common-practice and the avant-garde’. Being twice a finalist for the Carlaw-Ogston Composition Award, a predominant figure in writing children’s operas and having a multitude of commissions from Scottish ensembles has made Joe a standout composer in Scotland.
Not only does Joe compose but also performs alto saxophone in his local university concert band and saxophone ensemble and is also an established pianist.
Over the last year, Joe has been involved in some very exciting projects and opportunities. His newest piece Seely Circles, performed by the amazing Red Note Ensemble and commissioned as part of Noisy Nights: unbound sound:
“as an autistic composer…. Often I find my mind touching lightly on certain things and wondering in different places, but with some similarities”
Joe aimed to capture this idea through music, he uses three variations slowly with a gentle repeating rhythm. Another piece with this similar ‘structure’ is his piece ‘The Skene Obsession’, which is a piece I was grateful to be in attendance for.
In the last year, Joe has also been interviewed on BBC radio three; Music Matters; where he discussed music and autism. He describes his music and how having autism impacts his compositional life. Outside music Joe has a fascination for mythical creature, the paranormal and the history of places. These interests play a keen role in his music, as aforementioned in Seely Nights, with Seely being fairies from Scottish Folklore. Another piece from Scottish folklore, which is also the title of another of Joe’s pieces is the Skene obsession, where skene derives from The Wizard of Loch Skene tale.
Now we take a trip to the beautiful country of Wales and its exceptionally talented composer and organist Benjamin Teague. Benjamin is graduate from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and is currently an active musician, touring in and around their hometown of Cardiff. Dean of Guild of St Teilo, Accompanist for the Canton Chorus and Côr Meibion De Cymru as well as the director of music for the Archive Ensemble role, Benjamin knows how to keep themselves busy.
Living with a mental illness themselves had inspired Benjamin to pursue an area of study into symptoms and presence of mental illness, specifically into composer Robert Schumann. During Benjamin’s Masters studies, they decided to pursue a dissertation on the topic, with the interest of mental health among musicians and composers. This has allowed others to understand the delicate nature of mental illnesses and has forced these issues into the light.
Recently Benjamin has been writing small 60-second miniatures for accordion, the most recent being the, hopefully pun-intended, “Just a Minute!”. I am greatly looking froward to hearing these pieces soon!
Writer, Performer, painter, composer and sound artist, Elinor is an all-round creative inspiration to women and gender minorities, especially those with autism and ADHD. As a woman myself, I gravitate to others like myself trying to make a name for ourselves and to also inspire the younger generations as we had no one from our world to look up to. She is the founder of ‘Magical Women’ where she invites women with neurodivergence to come together and create art.
Elinor’s work is a mixture of exploration into her neurodivergent experience, creating an engaging soundscape. She uses her own paintings as scores for her music and vice versa, performing and creating through expressive means.
Her most recent performance “To Exist Beyond the Glass” is a 45-minute-long piece which is an exploration of autism and how autistic people are normally seen as ‘objects’. Along with her performance, Elinor has also released more music, the most recent being ‘Bright Flower Cracked Star, Shine On!’.
With her multi-disciplinary work, she has managed to bag so many opportunities this year including, but not limited to, her partnership with Arts Council England and presentation by Camden People’s Theatre. Her collaborations with Oily Car Theatre where she edited, filmed, and scripted a video on disabilities and access and doing voice-over work for Jo-anne Cox’s film’s “Blurring the Boundaries”. She is also a prominent speaker for universities and arts centres, provides workshops and training and is a multi-award-winning artist. Her talents are endless, and I look forward to seeing her career grow.
Looking into composers on the spectrum, I am overwhelmed with the talent and persistence of those with ASD. Knowing some personally has given me this opportunity to tell the world of their great success. I am truly honoured to have this space to spread awareness of this disability and I cannot wait to see how all these astonishingly talented individuals advance.
Siobhan Dyson is a composer, musician, film maker and creative based in Glasgow. She is currently working on a multitude of projects including a collaboration with a P.H.D student studying English; Electroacoustic works for an ensemble; an installation piece for Sound Scotland and a brass quintet for ‘in the night with’.