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Hub for Good

By Laura McCaffrey
Photos by Hasi Eldib

Music as a Fundamental Human Right

How many of us would describe ourselves as “not musical”? Maybe we didn’t grow up playing music, or we’re uncoordinated, or we don’t have the ear for it—whatever the reason, there’s undoubtedly many among us that feel we can’t participate in the musical community.

Jesse Stewart, an associate professor and researcher in Carleton’s music program, seeks to challenge that mindset. He is the creator of We Are All Musicians (WAAM), an interdisciplinary, community-based research-creation project premised on the idea that music is a fundamental human right. Stewart believes that every one of us deserves to have the chance to make music and to share musical experiences with our peers, regardless of our level of musical training, socioeconomic status, age or level of physical or cognitive ability—and he uses WAAM as a vehicle to bridge the gap between his beliefs and reality.

Stewart leading an interactive pop-up performance series to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Carleton University Art Gallery (CUAG).

Prior to the development of the WAAM concept, Stewart collaborated with acclaimed American composer and improvisor, Pauline Oliveros (1932-2016). In 2007, Oliveros set out to develop a musical instrument that could be adapted to anyone’s abilities and range of motion. As a colleague and friend of Oliveros, Stewart was inspired by her work and began working more closely with her and likeminded artists and researchers.

In 2012, Stewart had a transformative moment. He was invited by the National Capital Commission, as he had been for several years, to create an interactive percussion installation out of recycled materials for the annual Canada Day celebrations in Ottawa.

“At one point, a group of five or six people in wheelchairs came along, and I had designed the installation to be played while standing,” Stewart recalls. “I gave them [musical] shakers to use, but they couldn’t really participate—at least not in the same way as everyone else,” he recalls. “I just thought to myself, ‘I need to do better than this.’ I hadn’t even thought of it. My goal was to build this [installation] and to be inclusive, and I just excluded a whole group of people. So that was the point at which I started looking at using a broader array of interfaces, including adaptive and assistive technologies.”

Through reflection on this event and the inspiration he had gleaned from Oliveros’ work, Stewart began to formulate the WAAM concept in order to ensure that his work—and music more generally—is inclusive.

Founded on Inclusivity, Grounded in Social Connection

At its core, WAAM is a powerful social endeavour that enables inclusivity in the musical community. It aims to develop adaptive-use instruments that can be used by anyone, including those with limited motor and cognitive functioning. The project is inherently interdisciplinary; Stewart works closely with Adrian Chan and Lois Frankel, professors in the Department of Systems and Computer Engineering and the School of Industrial Design, respectively, to involve engineering and design students in the development of such instruments.

“I’ve been working with Jesse, trying to contribute to his vision,” says Chan. “A student of mine created the SensAble Adaptive Music Interface (SAMI), a ball whose motion is monitored as a control input for musical sounds.”

WAAM also partners with local organizations and community groups—such as BEING Studio (formerly H’Art of Ottawa), Regina Street Public School, Discovery University, Propeller Dance, Artswell, the National Arts Centre and Saint Vincent Hospital—to develop collaborative projects focused on inclusive music-making. Such partnerships make it possible for WAAM to reach different social groups that have historically been excluded from the musical community, such as students from low-income areas, people with physical and cognitive disabilities and people living with various illnesses. WAAM gives these individuals an opportunity to experience music-making and to connect with each other through music.

“In my view, the work that we do in the [university] is most meaningful when it is in dialogue with, or is otherwise connected to, broader struggles outside of the university—struggles for social justice, for example,” Stewart shares. “Part of that means collaborating with other disciplines, but it also means moving beyond the university and working with diverse communities.”

Influencing Others to Pursue Community Music

Through his work with WAAM, Stewart hopes to encourage others to get involved with community music. “Music reaches more deeply into our consciousness than almost anything else,” he remarks. “Studying music has been proven to make kids smarter. It has the ability to bring people together, to promote social skills and to improve health outcomes. That’s why it’s so important to make sure everyone has a chance to experience it.”

For more information about WAAM, watch ‘Rich Tapestries: The Ongoing Story of WAAM,’ a documentary by Hasi Eldib.

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