Intersectional Identities in Western Art Music: Performing Womanhood, Blindness, and Islam in the Al-Nour Wal Amal Chamber Orchestra
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There is a rich history of disability performances outside of music, namely, the freak shows and carnivals of the nineteenth century. Disability studies scholars have examined these “theatrical displays” of disability and have drawn parallels between the social performance of disability and its performance on stage. The performance of disability has been discussed within the field of disability studies, particularly when analyzing the intersection of disability and music, but authors tend to ignore the wider field of identity politics. This is an issue because disability has an intersectional history that is intertwined with issues of race, gender, class, and sexuality. While these dehumanizing displays and performances of disability no longer exist, I argue that this “freak show” narrative still exists within Western art music (WAM) performance, and when a musician does not fit into the concept of the “ideal” body in WAM, they do not just perform the music, but also their identity. Because I am focusing on repertoire within the Western canon, which Alex Lubet (2010) calls “the most ‘sighted’ musical repertoire the world has ever known,” I am interested in the ways that blind musicians navigate this repertoire without sight. To do this, I take an intersectional approach to music and disability performance, using the Al-Nour Wal Amal Chamber Orchestra as a case study. The Al-Nour Wal Amal (“Light and Hope”) Chamber Orchestra is an all-female, blind, and majority Muslim orchestra from a school of the same name in Cairo. The group mostly performs music from the Western canon, but the gender, ethnicity, and disabilities of the women in the orchestra place it outside (or on the very periphery) of what is considered “ideal” or even “normal” orchestral praxis. While they do play with a conductor, the Al-Nour Wal Amal Chamber Orchestra has its own way of musicking that is affected by the individual members’ visual impairments. This orchestra serves as a great example of the ways in which disability is deeply intertwined with ethnicity and gender, and how music performance can exacerbate disability performance.