Monday, 7 June 2010

Autistic Superstars

The BBC are doing a series of programmes about people with autism and on the whole they've been very good (such is the advantage of license-funded television :) ) and one such show was Autistic Superstars. The show aims to show-case the savant-like talents that some people with autism can exhibit, although it was concentrating mainly on those with musical talents.

One such chap I want to concentrate on is Derek Paravicini, who is a blind pianist. One of the party tricks he did on the show was for people to shout out songs and he would play them as an example of his incredible memory for songs. The thing is…is he a musical genius? Or just someone with an incredible memory for songs? For him is a song just a series of notes, like a computer program is just a series of ones and zeros for me? It is also known that autistic people can have a talent for patterns so this all that Derek is actually demonstrating? Not music per se, but patterns.

When he was playing his songs there was an incredible lack of warmth in his playing, the songs were mechanical and cold. I know it's a hard thing to put into words, but his songs just don't "sound right", they don't sound like music. This was best shown when someone shouted for him to play "Poker Face" by Lady Ga Ga. I assume you're aware of the piece :) It's not quite Beethoven, and it has some rather repetitive elements with a certain note in particular being repeated, and when he came to the repetitive bits he just literally hit the exact same note in time with the song. Ok…it might have been technically correct…but it wasn't music. What song has a pianist just hitting the same note, twice a second for 5 seconds and nothing else? It was like he knew the notes and the order and the timing but he was unable to interpret and produce what we consider to be music. He wasn't able to inject warmth or emotion.

There was another girl called Carly Ryan who could sing, however there were incredible similarities with Derek. Was she really singing, or just replying those ones and zeros in the right order with the right timing? When she spoke she would often use lines from movies and songs as sentences and she would recite them in the same style as they were uttered at the source…almost like an imitation, so she would seemingly break into an American accent while reciting what seems to be a sentence but is actually a line from a movie. Were her songs just imitations too? If she was given a new song to sing could she sing it? Did she know what notes were and how to hit them?

Obviously I don't want to knock these people for their extraordinary talents and abilities; I just thought it was quite a fascinating insight into what is maybe going on under the covers with these savant-type skills.

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