Henry Threadgill speaks with Marc Medwin about providing better information access to the blind on his latest CD

“I wanted to be sure I wasn’t leaving anybody out. Exclusion is a huge and growing problem in this country.” Henry Threadgill’s voice is as adamant as his musical vision is unique. However, our discussion concerning “Tomorrow Sunny / The Revelry, Spp” the new disc by his long-standing ensemble Zooid, released on Pi Recordings, was focused, at least superficially, on an extra-musical issue. In a bold move, Threadgill has made all of the album’s written material accessible to those with visual impairments. The information is read aloud, in a separate track at the disc’s conclusion, and the CD is available with identifying Braille label, upon request, when ordering directly from Pi.

As a blind listener and long-time Threadgill fan, I am elated by the decision. There is nothing more frustrating than knowing that the personnel, track list and liner notes are all sitting right in front of me, but as far as I’m concerned, the page is blank. This means having to memorize the information for any given album. Practically speaking, it seems only fair that we who have limited and often problematic access to printed material should be included in this way, but, to my knowledge, Threadgill is among the first to consider our needs important enough to address.

Our conversation revealed that visual impairment, and its attendant concerns, has been an issue of importance for Threadgill since his earliest days in the AACM. “There used to be a blind man who would attend all the concerts,” he reminisces. “He travelled with a cane, and mostly, he’d come alone. Over the years, I often wondered how he thought about the music, what he might imagine while he was listening, but I never had the chance to ask him.” Beyond this direct experience with blindness, Threadgill’s general regard for humanity incorporated an interest in what might be called visual metaphor. “When I graduated from high school, my original plan was to go into music therapy,” he muses. “At that time, I was interested in color, not for its own sake, but as a spiritual device. I wanted to understand how it could be used to help people on a spiritual level.” Such life-long concerns are, obviously and inextricably, linked with the music he composes, rendering his interest in accessibility issues a very natural progression for this constantly questing artist.

The desire to understand and empathize with the handicapped is indicative of Threadgill’s overarching observance of the human condition, especially as manifest in this society. “Those who have disabilities are getting the short end of the stick” he observes with some bitterness. Yet, the difficulties of processing information constitute only a part of what Threadgill sees as the larger problem. “People are distracted in this country.” His voice, which had been fairly reserved, begins to increase in tempo and power. “You can’t go anywhere without running into this. It is very difficult to make eye contact with anyone anymore, because everyone’s looking into his hand—iPod, cell phone, you name it, and they have plugs in their ears at the same time! They don’t hear you when you try to talk to them, and half the time, they don’t even follow the basic travel rules, like walking on the right side of the street here in this country. They are endangering everyone else’s safety just trying to absorb the massive amount of information being transmitted all the time. How is a handicapped person supposed to work through that?”

He is correct, and his observations speak to the depth and breadth of his experience and understanding of the way our society functions. It isn’t just that information is hard to obtain for anyone with reading difficulties. It is that we live in a society where, despite advances stemming from the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act and the many good people making certain that its policy changes are implemented, the disabled face the increased confusion resulting from information overload. The streets are louder, cell phone ringtones are a huge distraction to those seeking audible cues for travel, and in general, people are less responsive than they were even ten years ago. “Of course,” Threadgill states with certainty, “It’s because here, vision is the primary mode of perception.” He maintains that this is not the norm. “I don’t see this in Europe,” he laments. “Sure, they have the technology, but it hasn’t taken over in the way it has in the States. Here, it’s an addiction, it’s causing problems for everyone, and it needs to be treated like an addiction.”

However, despite the disadvantages associated with visual impairment, Threadgill also recognizes it as a possible boon. For him, blindness, and its attendant ways of survival, constitutes a potential new audience. “The way I see it,” he reasons, “here is a whole group of people that is not distracted in the same way most people are. Just because of the way they live, they have to listen much more carefully than the average person, and my music requires that kind of attention. It’s a spiritual music, addressing spiritual concerns, not a party or dance music, though there are places for all of that.” He begins to laugh. “To be honest, I don’t imagine most of those people I see out my front window, always distracted and looking in their hands, having any interest in spending the time it would take to come to terms with my music.”

Those who appreciate Threadgill’s steps toward accessibility may, in fact, end up being more numerous and more diverse than even he imagines. The beauty of what Threadgill is doing, as with so many products and services designed to aid a specific group of disabled people, lies in its accessibility to everyone. Curb cuts aid wheelchair users, but they also prove indispensible for people moving hand trucks, or people making a delivery. Spoken album credits will certainly benefit those who can’t read the cover, but they may be blind, or dyslexic, or perhaps just using an iPod, having left the cover at home. The information track is, of course, easily programmed out by those uninterested in it, allowing for a win-win situation. There is no reason that, in 2012, access to printed material should be denied to anyone. Henry Threadgill has taken a small but important step toward making this goal a reality.