And Joyce has achieved all this not so much despite a severe impairment of her left hand (the result of a childhood car accident) but through it. She has carved a unique sound as a composer by treating disability differently: not as an impediment but as a wellspring of creative potential.
But coming to terms with disability meant coming to terms with that term.
“For a long time, I really didn’t think I was disabled enough,” Joyce, 28, says by phone from her home in Fairfield, Conn. “I wasn’t in a wheelchair. I didn’t want to play up a victim or pity story. I realized this is an identity for all to claim. Why should I try to sidestep around it?”
Joyce’s disability never kept her from embracing music — she holds composition degrees from Juilliard, the Royal Conservatory in The Hague and Yale. But as her studies broadened beyond the purely technical bounds of the conservatory and into philosophy and theory, she made a startling realization: In many ways, music was keeping her from embracing disability.
“I feel like I was trying to kind of conform to these instruments that were clearly not made for my body,” Joyce says of her early encounters with cello and trumpet. “Classical instruments are made for very specific abilities, and so even new-music compositions are reiterating these flawed notions of what human ability can and should be, or disability in general.”
To address this problem in her own work, in 2016 while at Yale, Joyce turned to an instrument that remains her go-to: an electric toy organ of the sort you might find in any well-appointed Goodwill. Its limited array of chord buttons on the left and standard keyboard on the right have provided Joyce a surprisingly vast palette, and its sound — both scruffy and sturdy, dreamy and a little wheezy — has become something like an early signature.
Joyce keeps a small stash of them on reserve. Despite their formidable plastic bulk and relative ubiquity on eBay, they remain delicate treasures (a lesson she learned the hard way from a power outlet during a 2019 residency in China).
“I think my relationship to it actually really parallels my relationship to my body,” she says. “Seeking creativity from unexpected places.”
But it wasn’t just the instruments that felt at odds with Joyce’s experience in music.
Also while at Yale, she explored the work of scholars David VanderHamm (who has written extensively on the “social construct of virtuosity”) and Stefan Sunandan Honisch (who has argued that disability actually requires a heightened form of virtuosity). Both writers were doing their part to loosen the bolts of that particular V-word — which, it bears mentioning, etymologically boils down to “manly skills” — and Joyce felt her focus turning to making work that sprang from disability rather than despite it.
Along with the toy organ, Joyce was discovering another core part of her practice: vulnerability as ability.
“Being a disabled musician,” she says, “you get onstage and especially with some of my work, you’re sharing part of your experience. I think that’s equally virtuous as some very impressive physical feat.”
After finishing studies in 2017, Joyce began experimenting with lyrics and her voice, expanding her sense of composition beyond the page, and “Breaking and Entering,” released this year on New Amsterdam Records, feels like both the end of a long journey and a grand coming-out.
Joyce loves to layer rich, trancelike textures and subtle pulses in her music, stretching them like luminous scrims between the poles of their binary titles: “Body and Being,” “Form and Flee,” “Front and Center.” Her voice cuts through these cloudy soundscapes like a searchlight. Reverb halos everything. There’s some Terry Riley here, some Laurie Spiegel there — though she also mentions her fondness for Cocteau Twins and the Spanish DJ John Talabot. I’d resort to the reliable critical chestnut “ethereal” if her music didn’t feel close and present enough that you could feel its edges between your fingers.
On Friday, the Hirshhorn will host Joyce for a talk with assistant curator Sandy Guttman about Joyce’s latest project, “Perspective,” an ongoing audiovisual project that pairs her music with interviews she conducted with an unseen panel of disabled participants. One by one, they’re asked to respond to terms often associated with disability: control (“Something I don’t have”); access (“It’s really a form of love”); care (“Recognizing and honoring your needs”); weakness (“That’s so loaded!”).
Asked to define “strength,” one respondent says, “Knowing who you are, what you do, how well you do it, and choosing to live in that.” It feels like a thesis statement for Joyce’s own perspective.
Musically, “Perspective” sounds like a continuation of the explorations on “Breaking and Entering,” but its larger presentation hints at how Joyce intends to answer these questions of access and equity in her music.
In each installment of “Perspective,” the captioned text of the interviews provides the only visual element — it’s a wry promotion of a feature often viewed as an accommodation into a place of primacy. Joyce also furnishes written descriptions of the music for deaf or partially deaf people, detailing the “muted and covered sound” of “Strength” and the high organ notes in “Care,” “resembling a fast medical monitor.”
If there’s such a thing as a spirit of entrance, Joyce’s music is suffused with it: It offers everyone a way in. And for young artists with disabilities seeking to define virtuosity on their own terms, it offers a path forward.
“When you think of disability, a lot of people are even afraid to say the word,” she says. “This is about rethinking that. And it’s not like it has to have this over-the-top positive connotation — but maybe just releasing it from its negative connotation and opening up other avenues.”