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A conversation on music and autism (part one)

Earlier this year, Music and Autism: Speaking for Ourselves author Michael B. Bakan sat down for a Zoom conversation with his Chapter 7 co-author, the Vancouver-based multi-instrumentalist and music instrument collector Graeme Gibson, and with Graeme’s parents, autism researcher Dr. Deborah Gibson and bestselling science fiction author William (Bill) Gibson. Their four-way conversation covered a range of topics, from how raising a child on the spectrum shaped Bill’s writing of iconic novels like Neuromancer, to how Deborah’s advocacy on Graeme’s behalf helped to spearhead the movement toward inclusive public education in Vancouver, to how Graeme’s abiding fascination with musical instruments—combined with his prodigious research and memory—enabled him to identify virtually every instrument in the expansive world instrument collection of London’s Horniman Museum. Here is part one of the interview; read part two here

Michael (M): Hello, Graeme, Deborah, and Bill! Thank you so much for doing this interview. I’ve really been looking forward to it.

Graeme, a question for you for starters: You have a collection of, what, more than 400 musical instruments? And these instruments are from all over the world, and you can actually play most of them, some very well, which is really impressive. How did your interest in musical instruments start?

Bill (B): Wasn’t there a little electric keyboard you used to play when you were really little?

Graeme (G): Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. There was, and that’s also what propelled me to be able to learn where the notes are laid out on the keyboard.

Deborah (D): Actually, it wasn’t electric—Michael, I think I sent you a picture of Graeme playing it when he was a toddler—it was this tuneless little wooden toy piano that we got him for his second Christmas (he was one year old), and he was so mesmerized by it. From the time he was a baby, Graeme was just so interested in sound, and he showed a real affinity for instruments of all kinds. He liked Santa’s jingle bells more than any other present. He was just drawn to music and sound, and when we had records he would insist on Bill playing them over and over again. At that point he was signing rather than speaking, and he would make a very insistent gesture, spinning his finger around in circles like a record spinning on a turntable, to say to Bill, ‘Play it again, play it again!’

Graeme with toy piano. Photo by Dr Deborah Gibson, used with permission.

G: Then later, when I was a teenager, I did have an electronic keyboard—a Casio SK1, and I would play that for many hours every day.

D: And then, all of a sudden, you asked for a balalaika!

G: Yeah, yeah. In terms of instruments from other world cultures, my first major acquisition was a Russian balalaika.

B: What I remember is that Graeme walked up to me one day and said, “I want a balalaika.” [Graeme laughs] And I only barely knew what a balalaika was: it’s triangular, it’s a Russian, like… something. How on earth do you think you ever decided to get a balalaika?

G: I might have heard it somewhere, maybe the radio or something. I sort of had an idea of what it was and the way that it was played. It’s just the way my ears pick it up. I wish I could explain that, but unfortunately, I can’t translate that software here, so… And later, especially after I started studying with my music teacher Randy Raine-Reusch, who owns thousands of instruments from around the world, he introduced me to many other instruments as well—especially stringed instruments, which are my specialty—and my collection grew and grew. Now I have an online instrument museum where people can visit my collection.

M: Right, and I seem to recall that you enjoy visiting “live” musical instrument museums as well, right, Graeme?

G: Yes! Like last year, when Mom and Dad and I went to London.

D: There was a wonderful museum of ethnic musical instruments.

G: Yeah! The Horniman Museum in, uh… I forget where exactly it is, but, uh…

D: It wasn’t close.

G: No, it was far, but well worth it.

D: And Graeme knew the name of every single instrument without even looking at the label.

G: Yes.

D: He was the most incredible museum guide, and he would describe the slight discrepancies between that version of the instrument and then the one that came from twenty miles further south. It was a real eye opener for me on how much Graeme knows about music, about instruments, about all things music-related.

M: Yes, his knowledge—of instruments, the Indian raga system, you name it—is immense. When I assign our chapter in the Music and Autism book to my students, I’ll say to them, ‘Check out how much this guy knows. You’re Ph.D. ethnomusicology students; you should know as much as he does!’ [laughter]

D: And we have to thank Randy [Raine-Reusch] for that. He’s just been an extraordinary teacher for Graeme. And as far back as when he was a baby, it wasn’t just music and instruments that interested Graeme. It was sounds of all kinds. When the fridge went on and off…

G: Usually around 9 p.m. or so. [Deborah and Bill laugh] Yeah, yeah. There would always be that time, sometime in the evening, when it was very routine. You’d hear the click, and then you’d hear the fridge cycles. [Deborah laughs]

D: I gotta say, I never, ever paid attention to our fridge before in that way. [laughter] 

Graeme with some of his instruments. Photo by Michael O’Shea, used with permission.

M: A question for you now, Bill. At the same time that you were being a stay-at-home dad to Graeme, in the late 1970s/early 1980s, you were also working on your first novel, Neuromancer, which would of course bring you considerable fame—not to mention revolutionize the literature of science fiction, inspire the iconic Matrix film series, and (along with some of your earlier short stories) even change the English language with your coining of the term “cyberspace” and such. I have to think that being a first-time dad—and a dad to Graeme in particular—would have influenced your writing during that time. True?

B: I think that being Graeme’s dad made me think more actively about consciousness and perception than I would have otherwise, that is, had I not had that experience, because I had the example of Graeme totally perceiving everything, but perceiving it often in a slightly other way. And I think, particularly for someone that writes the sort of fiction I write, that’s a hugely useful example to have every day, as opposed to, you know, watching everyone else doing what everyone else is doing with the information they’re receiving, although that’s essential too.

Also, on a practical level, as it became more evident that Graeme wasn’t “just any baby,” it sort of upped the ante on what I was doing. And I also was in a situation where if I was going to be doing anything other than co-parenting Graeme, the perfect thing to do would be trying to become a writer, because you do it from home, literally any time of day, you know, whenever Graeme was asleep, for instance, which is when I did a lot of my writing. So, in some ways it was sort of a natural fit. Yeah, I can’t think of anything else I could have done. And I was lucky, because I was able to make a living at being a freelance writer of fiction, even though, looking back on it, there’s almost no one else I ever knew who tried to do that who was able to do it; they all wound up having day jobs. And I have yet to have one, I’m happy to say.

And there’s one other thing I’ve wondered about, too, that seems relevant to your question. Something that’s been consistent through my work are characters who are AIs, they’re Artificial Intelligences, but are unnervingly human in their presentation, and seemingly in their consciousness. As far as I know they’re much more totally human than we have any right to expect Artificial Intelligences in the future to be, at least so far. So, something that happens, I know from watching reader feedback, is that readers become invested in the AI’s humanity, but then are occasionally henceforth startled by moments of cognitive dissonance where they realize that it’s human but it’s not quite standardly human. And that’s the result of me, if it were music playing it a certain way, to get that effect of deliberately going slightly off key to remind the reader that the character’s not “standard issue” human. And, you know, that may be something subsequent to being Graeme’s dad.

Read part two of the interview here.


Feature image by Karim Manjra

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