Michael Gaspari’s Senior Recital Celebrates Neurodivergence

Michael Gaspari wears their heart on their sleeve. It’s something I noticed as soon as the fourth-year double-degree student let me into Wilder Main, where they’ll be performing their new album On The Bridge for their senior TIMARA recital on Saturday, May 21, at 8 PM.

Even amidst the drum kits, percussion machines, amps, pedals, and synthesizers (Nord keyboards, a Moog, a Prophet 12, all linked in a thicket of wires) arranged carefully across the stage, what stood out the most was Gaspari’s gray T-shirt, proudly emblazoned with the word “neurodivergent.” Needless to say, that is central both to Gaspari’s identity, and to their deeply personal opus, On The Bridge

Amidst hectic rehearsals for their recital, Gaspari graciously agreed to sit down and discuss their music as an exploration and celebration of their autistic identity, creating safe and stim-friendly spaces for neurodivergent people, and finding a community at Oberlin. 

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

When did you first start thinking about a project like On The Bridge?

Basically, this all started when I first got here. I think I was expecting to go to college and not feel like an outcast. But because of my autistic identity, it still felt like that for most of my freshman year. I was diagnosed at a pretty young age, but it wasn’t until sophomore year where I began learning about that identity. 

Researching that identity — especially at home, when school got cut off because of the pandemic — was a first for me, because at that time I hadn’t realized I was nonbinary yet. It was like “wow, this is why all these things happened to me as a kid.” I’ve gone through a lot of tough things, as most autistic people in this world have, because the world is not really built for us.

Anyway, after I figured that out, I wanted to write an album about it. In freshman year, I conceptualized an album about the changes from high school to freshman year. But then, as I kept learning more about my autistic identity, I was like, “now that I know all this stuff about me, and why the way I am the way I am,” why don’t I just write an album about my entire life, from my childhood to where I am now?

So this album is your life’s work? 

Yeah! This is like my biggest work so far. It’s the most vulnerable thing I’ve ever written. The recording sessions aren’t entirely done — I’m expecting a release around late July, maybe early August — but I’m trying to get it out as early as possible while also making sure that everything is perfect. 

What have those recording sessions been like?

I’ve had a lot of interesting experiences… It’s my first time doing this sort of thing. Being a TIMARA major, we get access to a lot of equipment, and to this really nice studio with this 24-channel mixer that’s the size of the room. It’s really cool because we’re able to play with the sounds and stuff. I put like, 10 microphones on the drums. *laughs* My really good friend, Ellie, was the drummer on this album, and oh my god, she did phenomenally. I had such a blast during those recording sessions, just having all my really good friends around me. Even when we got stressed out or overwhelmed, I had stim toys available, fidget cubes and that sort of stuff, just as a way to make everyone feel more comfortable. I’m making an album about the world being more accessible for neurodivergent people, so I’m going to be as accessible as I can.

On The Bridge, Michael Gaspari

I’m sensing that this is an album about community, about finding comfort in the people around you.

Yeah! Specifically, the second part of this album is about finding the people who actually love me and care about me. And it’s something I think I can connect with, with some other people at Oberlin who also didn’t experience that. I feel like everyone’s dream at college is to immediately find your people and travel in packs and hang out all the time, and it can feel really isolating when you come here and it’s hard to make friends. It’s why I’m glad so many of my friends are part of this, because I really learned what platonic love is from all of them.

The third-to-last track on this album is called “the moment i belong,” and it’s just about one of those moments where I really bonded with one of my friends, where we just got food at the Rat, sat and talked about stuff for a while, and got really close. It’s a song you can really relate to anything, which is why I love it so much. It’s my favorite song on the album, although it’s probably one of the hardest ones to play. It has a lot of weird time-signature changes and stuff… It’s a little crazy. *laughs*

That brings up a good question: what is the sound of the album?

The genre is definitely this mix of prog rock and R&B. It’s a synthesizer, keyboard-heavy sound, even though we do have guitar, electric bass, drums, stuff like that. There’s a couple fun additions. Ellie plays the iPad on GarageBand on one track, where she just starts playing this little rhythm. There’s a lot of vocal parts. I’m singing lead, and there are three backing vocalists, one of them who plays the keyboard. There’s a sampler, and this electric marimba that’s played with mallets, which is cool. This is a TIMARA concert so there’s some noise stuff hooked up to the Eurorack, but it’s only on one track and it’s dialed back just so that no one’s uncomfortable.

How do you think it’ll be to experience this live?

Expect it to be focused on making sure that it’s accommodating to people. We’re gonna have a few rows reserved specifically for anyone with sensory issues, so if they need at any point to leave — maybe stuff’s too much for them, or it’s too loud — they can step out without having to walk in front of people. There’s gonna be earplugs and stuff too. Even though the music never gets too loud, it’s just in case some people have sensitive ears, just like mine.

There’s also a visual element, a projector screen running video. I don’t know if you know the concept of liminal space, but it’s footage of me as a child, and images of certain liminal spaces, of all of these places I’ve passed through throughout my youth. It’s nostalgic, but it’s also a source of anxiety because of trauma from childhood, from being outcast and bullied. It’s the warmth of childhood memories, but it’s also a way to unpack that trauma. 

Honestly, it’s gonna be emotional. This is the last big thing I’m a part of here, and I really hope the audience can connect with it, and feel like they’re a part of the story. I want them to feel like they are a part of everything that’s helped me, in all that I’ve dealt with, because I’m surrounded by people I care about. It’s about creating something that’s loving and warm and comforting, especially to the neurodivergent people at this recital. I want this to be a stim-friendly environment. I know that this world makes us mask a lot, but this is a space where there’s no judgment, a space where you can be your true, authentic self.

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