Interview – ArtsAbly in Conversation with Charles Hsueh

This article presents a written interview of Charles Hsueh, a current Master of Library Science student at CUNY Queens College, and member of the AMS Music and Disability Study Group Communications Team. He was interviewed by Diane Kolin for ArtsAbly on March 31, 2024.

A man sitting at a desk with a violin on his left and a pile of books on his right. Behind him are white chairs and a table.

Resources mentioned by Charles Hsueh during the interview

M.A thesis

Charles Hsueh’s thesis is entitled “Viewing Heinrich Schenker through the Lens of Disability.”

Read the abstract and link to the thesis

Instagram page of the AMS Disability and Music group

Charles manages the Instagram page of the DisMus group.

Access the Instagram account

ArtsAbly’s interview with Stefan Sunandan Honisch

Charles mentions Stefan Sunandan Honisch and his piano playing. The interview and the performance video can be found on this website.

Listen to the audio interview or watch the video

Resources page including the piano performance

Joseph Straus’ Extraordinary Measures

Approaching disability as a cultural construction rather than a medical pathology, this book studies the impact of disability and concepts of disability on composers, performers, and listeners with disabilities, as well as on discourse about music and works of music themselves. For composers with disabilities–like Beethoven, Delius, and Schumann–awareness of the disability sharply inflects critical reception. For performers with disabilities–such as Itzhak Perlman and Evelyn Glennie–the performance of disability and the performance of music are deeply intertwined. For listeners with disabilities, extraordinary bodies and minds may give rise to new ways of making sense of music. In the stories that people tell about music, and in the stories that music itself tells, disability has long played a central but unrecognized role. Some of these stories are narratives of overcoming-the triumph of the human spirit over adversity-but others are more nuanced tales of accommodation and acceptance of life with a non-normative body or mind. In all of these ways, music both reflects and constructs disability.

More about the book and purchase

Interview of Charles Hsueh

Diane Kolin: Can you present yourself?

Charles Hsueh: Certainly. My name is Charles Hsueh. I received my Bachelor of Science degree in Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience with a Music minor at the Ohio State University in 2018, received my Master of Music degree in Music History at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2021, and exited the PhD program in Critical Music Studies with a Master of Arts degree at Stony Brook University in 2022. I am disabled, I have Wilson’s disease. It’s a rare disease that that affects the way that the body processes copper. Instead of processing copper and getting it rid of the body, the copper builds up, which causes first liver damage, and then brain damage. I was diagnosed at 18. It is a genetic disorder, no one in my family had it, so no one looked for it, so I was not diagnosed before I was 18 years old. I was also diagnosed with autism when I was 20 years old. But I recently had a conversation with my hepatologist, who seems to think that my diagnosis of autism was perhaps a misdiagnosis of the psychiatric complications with Wilson’s disease. But I am still neurodivergent on all counts. That revelation was given to me in January of this year, so that is actually quite new. That is also why recently I changed my own personal Instagram handle @autistwithwilsons to the handle @neurodivergentwithwilsons. This is, in my opinion, a clear and more accurate description of what my impairments are. The cognitive level is impairing my social skills: how I perceive social boundaries, how I perceive nuance, grey areas. It is kind of reflecting in my thesis. There is a reason why in the conclusion I say that someone else should do the analysis on whether it affected the perception of music. I am not suitable to write this because I don’t know what I’m talking about. That’s why that was left out for future researcher to do. After receiving my degree in Critical Music Studies from Stony Brook in 2022, I went on a long medical gap, and only this year did I start my Master of Library Science degree at CUNY Queens College. So, technically, I am no longer a musicologist; rather, I’m now a budding librarian, but I still have roots in musicology, in some ways. Or music studies, as I like to describe it more.

DK: Did your studies in cognitive and computational neuroscience impact the way you were studying music?

CH: The reason why I was a cognitive major was because I was actually premed. But then I was failing organic chemistry too many times. So, I thought, okay, medicine is not going to work out. Why don’t I try music therapy? But then, I met a really ableist professor at Ohio State – I am not going to say who, bur people at Ohio State will all know who I am talking about. Because of this professor, I did not make at as a music major, and therefore could not take many of the prerequisite classes that the music therapy program would require, like keyboard skills. So I thought, I still have the music. But for non-music majors, all you could really do was musicology classes. And that’s how I ended up doing my Music minor, which required 15 credits, and I graduated 52 credits. So I guess that’s why I pivoted to music history for my first degree, and critical music studies for my second degree. And that’s how I got into research.

DK: This is how you started looking at Heinrich Schenker’s studies?

CH: Yes. The reason why I started looking at Schenker is because one of the professors at UMass named Dr. Jason Hooper was a Schenkerian. At that time, he was their coordinator for music theory. I’ve heard that he’s now doing research in pop music, fading away from the Schenkerian research. I don’t know that for a fact. I just heard that from a friend with whom I spoke to, recently, at UMass. I was talking to him, and he said: if you want to talk about disability and music, Schenker says that there is the sight unseen in music and you could try to tie that to the blindness that he suffered with his diabetes. Dr. Jason Hooper was the one who informed me that Schenker might be “disabled” in his writing, but you don’t see it. He never identifies as disabled. Nowhere does he say that he is. This is why some scholars don’t even know that he’s disabled. Some pretty prominent disabilities and music scholars who have written books about Schenker might not even know about the fact that he was actually disabled. They might not easily make the connection. But since Jason did so much research about Schenker for his doctoral dissertation, he was able to advise me. Professor Emiliano Ricciardi, my thesis advisor, said: you can do this topic, but it is going to be very hard. There is a lot of nuances in this topic. First, how can we prove that his disability affected the way he saw music? And second, there is not a lot of scholarship about the fact that he was disabled. So I started, and it was difficult because I could not perceive the nuance. I could not perceive the social, grey areas that Schenker was probably implying. Part of my disability comes with the fact that I am horrible at perceiving implications. If you imply something, I am not going to assume that you told me an idea, unless you tell me so. These implications are not obvious to me. That is why my thesis is more taking a concrete approach than an abstract approach. One of the chapters of my thesis is purely statistics.

DK: This is the chapter that includes three different studies and an analysis on the words used by Schenker. Can you talk about these studies?

CH: Because Schenker went blind, towards the end of his life, he was dictating to his wife Jeanette, and she was writing all the work down. All the later works of Schenker were in fact dictated. All his lesson plans were also dictated. In my thesis, I list some conversational colloquial German words. When you put these into written language, it makes the sentence very hard to understand. You would have to be a native speaker to be able to understand what the sentence meant, and even then, if you read it out loud, you may not understand what the actual meaning is because this is not something that people write down, it is something that people talk with. That also makes it harder for translations of Schenker’s texts. In my German translation class at Stony Brook, the professor wanted us to pull up a random passage in German and translate a page of that. The book I took was an anthology of his essays. I picked a random essay out there and tried to translate it. The professor said that the text should not take more than 30 minutes to do. It took me 4 hours.

DK: Translations are always hard, even with one page, especially when it is not your native language.

CH: It is also older German, not modern written German. It makes it even harder. And I had a conversation about the fact that I was feeling like I may not learn anything from this task. The professor’s response was that the issue was more that Schenker is especially hard to translate. We spent 10 minutes translating one word. That was one of his early essays, when he could still see, and when he was writing himself. Even that was hard to translate. That became the basis of my thesis. With the additional words, how much more difficult is it to read? So in my thesis I do a comparison between before his disability and after, and how frequently he uses these words. My studies show that after he became disabled, there is a statistically significant increase on the use of these terms, which makes it statistically significantly harder for it to be read and translated. I was trying to use an OCR software to help me, and the best OCR software I found is called ABBYY. But to make things even more complicated, some of Schenker’s work is published in Frakturschrift, which is an old like gothic type script that Germans used back then. For example, the F might look like a R, and a T looks like an F. ABBYY is not able to transcribe that, unless you purchase the ABBYY plugin that recognizes Frakturschrift. It cost me 99 euros. I had to do that. And then I realized, okay, now I can understand Frakturschrift, but the OCR software cannot recognize written music. Schenker’s books have a lot of musical examples in it. The OCR software looks at these musical examples and thinks that these are words and tries to make sense of it. I have put examples in my thesis. Therefore, the word count is obviously affected. That was the challenge that I had when doing my research.

DK: how did you treat these musical examples that needed to be out of your word counts? How did you manage that?

CH: The best idea would probably have been to crop out all the areas of music and process to text only, but that would have taken way too much time. They were thousands of pages to work on. There was certainly not enough time for a Master student, even in the midst of COVID, to crop out every single musical text, and then run it through an app. That would not have been possible. So we ran several tests to get some statistics, and in these tests there are values to refine the results of the statistics. One of these values is p. The smaller the value of p is, the more accurate the test will be. The standard value of p is .05. In the end, I increased the value of p to .1, because the data I was running for the test was not the most accurate.

DK: Is your thesis available somewhere for us to read?

CH: Yes. Chapter one basically gives the biography of Schenker, establishing that he had a disability, proving the fact that he was disabled, that he had diabetes, that diabetes can cause blindness, and then proving the fact that he was blind. Then in Chapter 2 I look at the cultural context, the world that Schenker lived in, that may have affected his views. This is the most nuanced part because we can’t exactly definitively say that he read this person, so therefore he was influenced by this person, but we can probably predict that he was as everyone else in that in the society at that time was, people such as Weininger, Brücke, Freud. In chapter 3 I look at his own writing, to make the argument that Schenker may have been ableist. It describes how disability actually affected his work, how he wrote, and how it affected the comprehensibility of the work, along with the statistics. In the conclusion I propose that future researchers look into how his ableism may have affected his views on music. Because, as we all know, Schenker has a very narrow scope of what he thought was good, and everything else he thought was bad. Basically, Beethoven is great, everyone else is garbage. People respected him because he was well known in Germany, he was pro German, he was pro Beethoven. But could we also argue that he might have been pro Beethoven and pro Brahms because he was disabled and ableist at the same time? Because hos disability was preventing him from seeing this music as different, and that his ableism was pushing him to not even recognize that he was unable to see these differences. That’s how disability came into my research.

DK: I have a question related to your position as a disability researcher in the arts more generally. What is accessibility in the arts for you?

CH: For me, it really ties to the research I did, the fact that there is no OCR software out there to be able to parse up musical notation, that is already stumbling. Accessibility means better software, being able to recognize music from text, that would be helpful for anyone who works with both text and music.

DK: I believe that it is starting to be there. There are now more and more tools able to analyze scores if you provide an image or a PDF. Maybe it’s part of what AI can do today. Developers start including these components of AI in these OCR software and analysis tools. Not that you’ll have to run the full study again, but with the tools you have today you might have more accurate results for your three statistical studies, for example.

CH: New technology will hopefully offer better options for accessibility. But this is one of the reasons why I quit music and segued to library school now. Often, I go to the library, for example in Stony Brook. They have a collection of music CDs that looks very exciting. Recently, I went to borrow one of the CDs and they gave me a vinyl record instead. The person at the desk looks at the notes and sees that it says “Vinyl” in the entry. I said: I see that, but why is it referenced as CD in the catalogue? The answer I got was that libraries currently don’t have any cataloguing software able to make the difference in the entry between Vinyl and CD. I went to Library school to try to fix that in the future. Not only is that frustrating for people who are looking at the catalogue, but it could also be more cognitively accessible. Some people might not understand why it is marked that way and might be frustrated by the discrepancy in what they receive and what they expect to receive. For me, libraries are all about patron services. The priorities of libraries, in my opinion, should not only be to keep record of information, which is also valuable, but it should also be to improve the software and provide a better service for patrons. That would improve their accessibility. It is part of what accessibility in music means for me. But right now I am on my first year, I am still taking prerequisite classes, I am still learning about the field.

DK: With all that, you still find the time to manage the social media for the AMS (American Musicological Society) Disability and Music group, right?

CH: That’s correct. We just started recently on Instagram, people slowly join and follow, and we are following back. We might start LinkedIn page. We talked about creating a TikTok account, but we quickly agreed that it was not a good option because no one in the group makes video, and none of our team is equipped to do that independently.

DK: I have a last question about inspirational influences of other people who might have guided you, or helped you, or someone you admire in the field of disability in the arts. If you had one person to think of, who would it be and why?

CH: I have two people in mind. One is the current co-chair of the AMS Disability and Music group, Stefan Sunandan Honisch, and the second one is very obviously the music theorist and writer Joe Straus. Joe Straus was actually one of the people that got me into exploring Schenker. His work in “Extraordinary Measures” was one of the places where I started looking for in research first. And then I found out that he doesn’t really talk about this stuff in this book, so I can write the thesis that he didn’t write about, about the fact that Schenker was disabled. I understand that his focus has now pivoted towards music and old age.

DK: He is one the first who wrote a book about disability and music and made the study public. And then it launched more people and more ideas. He is an important person in the field.

CH: As for Stefan, the inspiration initially came from his sister, Erika Supria Honisch, who was my advisor at Stony Brook. Erika taught the introduction to Critical Music Studies class. It was a survey of all that pertained to current music studies research. In the week of disability, she assigned multiple works like Joe Straus’ “Extraordinary Measures,” a doctoral thesis written by one of the recent graduated, Jon Fessenden, about autistic musicality, and also a chapter from the Oxford Handbook of Music and Disability Studies written by her brother, Stefan. She told stories about how they both played piano when they were growing up, and Stefan had a very good fingering but couldn’t use the pedals because of his impairment in his lowest extremity preventing him from powering the mechanism of the piano pedals. The fact that he was able to adapt to the instrument, that was certainly an inspiration. Beethoven created ways to hear the piano better with a hearing machine. Tom Beghin played a whole album of Beethoven sonatas using a copy of Beethoven’s piano with that device on. But that is adapting the instrument. But what Stefan did was not to adapt the instrument, he adapted to the instrument. I find that to be more challenging, more admirable.

DK: I actually interviewed him for the podcast and he shared videos of him playing. He is a really good pianist. Thank you, Charles, for this conversation.