A Lesson in Sound from the Hearing-Impaired
What can the hearing-impaired teach us about sound? How can they help expose us to the layered sensorial experiences it can provoke and the ways in which it can be used to communicate not merely to the ear canal, but to the entire body – to its organs and extremities, hair follicles and optic nerves? These are some of the complex questions raised by Lebanese sound artist Tarek Atoui’s workshop with hearing-impaired students from the Al-Amal School for the Deaf in Sharjah.
During the four-day workshop, which ran from April 23 – 27, Atoui taught the students how to use sound vibrations as a means of communicating with one another, their environment and the outside world. The idea behind the workshop has its roots in a performance Atoui gave at the Salzburg Sommorszene Festival in 2011. This performance focused more on the relationship between sound and our sense of touch than on the aural, in an attempt to explore alternative means of communication and non-verbal forms of discourse. During the performance, Atoui was able to produce very exact air and space vibrations by reducing the sound spectrum and sound palette to bass frequencies below 160 Hz. He believes that through vibrations, the audience can be made to feel the physical performance of the artist, which facilitates a nuanced conversation between the performer and audience member.
Atoui had a hearing-impaired audience in mind, he told me, when planning the performance in Salzburg, because of their heightened sense of touch and greater sensitivity to embodied information. It is difficult to describe the workshop to an audience that was not around to witness it. In fact, it was quite challenging for those of us who watched it unfold to fully grasp the experience being constructed in our presence. We listened as the students described the images, emotions and memories the vibrations evoked and observed as they sat with Tarek and composed their own vibration-based symphonies. It was clear to us that they were encountering strange and novel sensations, that they were genuinely enjoying themselves, that they found Tarek inspiring and that he, in turn, was deeply moved by them. However, nothing short of a body swap could have transmitted, to those of us that can hear, the particular sensation that seemed to be tingling the students’ insides and the euphoria that surely accompanied the feeling of having achieved the impossible – of having experienced sound without being able to hear. No amount of interviews could have meaningfully conveyed what it was like to listen with the body while silence clogs the ears.
Atoui ushered in the start of the workshop with an intimate performance in Bait Al-Shamsi. He had originally planned on modelling it after his Salzburg performance. He had hoped the event would spark a dialogue with the students but, as it turned out, they did not constitute a traditional audience. They walked around, touched and sat on the speakers, and played with Atoui’s equipment. Most of us are accustomed to treating the space of the performer as a sacred zone into which we must not tread. From within this sacrosanct space, he/she is meant to actively fashion an experience which is then transmitted to us, the audience members, who passively receive it. Atoui explained that together, he and the students desacralised this space and challenged the traditional performer/audience relationship. He found himself unable to remain behind the stage. He had to interact with the students as the performance unfolded, which allowed him to share in their experience as it was being constructed, instead of having to ask how they felt after the fact. By playing with his equipment, the students appropriated the sound he was creating, injecting themselves into the performance with the bursts of noise they threw into the mix. They built the performance together and jointly revelled in its unplanned effects.
Atoui first taught the students how to localise sound. Finding the source of a sound is quite difficult, he explained, especially when dealing with bass and vibrations. In order to listen with the body one must be relaxed and loose. At first, the students approached the buzzing, beastly speakers with caution. They let their fingers tap dance against their surfaces and placed their palms on the quivering skin of these foreign objects, giggling as their nerve endings reacted to the new sensation. Gradually, they involved their bodies more intimately with the speakers – sitting and even lying down on them and resting cheeks and ears against their surfaces, almost as if they hoped for some kind of a reaction, for a sudden awakening of their dormant eardrums.
To the hearing, the noise could be overwhelming. The buzzing occupied all corners of our ears and skulls and the vibrations climbed up our legs and torsos, grabbing our hearts and lungs like a jittery fist and making us feel nauseated and dizzy - like we were simultaneously experiencing a bout of arrhythmia and an asthma attack or had just swallowed a jackhammer. Juxtaposed with the anxiety and irritation that seemed to possess the observers was the excitement and joy that emanated from the students. They glowed with that unparalleled delight that comes with discovering a novel, elating sensation. Their positive energy and enthusiasm reminded us how important it is to savour new experiences, no matter how seemingly minor they are, and how essential it is to really open ourselves up to what our surroundings and environment have to offer.
When the students were asked how they experienced the sound, what images it brought to mind and the reactions it induced, they gave a variety of answers. Many of them said they felt the vibrations in their chests. One student compared the sensation to sitting in a tractor or a bulldozer. Most recalled that the first time they heard the noise, they felt shocked and surprised. When listening to music, they elaborated, it takes a long time for their ears to pick up the sound, but the noise that Atoui generated engulfed them immediately. It engendered fear and a sense of danger among some them. Others found that the noise relaxed and loosened them up. One young man compared his experience to the feeling of freedom that fills many of us up when we step into the open after having been cocooned inside the house for too long. The students compared the sounds to drums, massage machines, earthquakes and explosions, engines and construction sites. Some visualized soft colours like white, yellow and blue when hearing the noise, while others were reminded of more intense shades like red and black. Amazingly, Atoui told me, the students described the sounds quite accurately. Despite lacking the technical vocabulary, they demonstrated an uncanny ability to express the nature of the sounds in layman’s terms. For example, they compared a speedy slide up or down the musical scale, or glissando, to a violinist moving a bow along his/her instrument, which was spot on, Atoui pointed out.
The next step was to encourage the students to try to individually express themselves through sound. Using their sense of touch, they created their own compositions based on vibrations they had connected with or positively responded to, and that seemed to represent them emotionally and artistically. Atoui then showed them how to materialise sound by having objects interact with the speakers. The students watched paint melt into and blend with water in glass dishes as the vibrations created waves in the liquid mixture; they observed grains of Nescafe and rice shake neurotically to the buzzing; and they saw scarves inflate and dance as the speakers they were attached to blew life into them. Atoui showed the students how to send their personalities shooting up the spines of observers and spiralling through their retinas.
The workshop culminated in a performance by the students. They were both focused and animated as they handled Atoui’s complex machines like professionals, working together to transmit to the bodies gathered around them a story felt through vibrations and seen through dancing dishes of paint and rice projected on to surrounding screens. They invited everyone to freely interpret this non-verbal narrative. Participating in this performance as a member of the audience felt like being linked to the students by the gut. Instead of the usual exchange of opinions and descriptions that cannot really sink beyond the surface of cognition to root themselves in the viscera and connect individuals, the students made our eyeballs dance, our throats jiggle, our hearts vibrate and our toes buzz. Instead of walking away from the performance with a series of abstract thoughts and meaningless adjectives through which to analyse and rationalise what we had just seen, the students enabled us to leave with a new sensibility – the kind that just sits in the bones without necessarily making sense and without needing to be understood. It was a complex, novel sensation worth relishing.
One of the thought-provoking realisations to come out of this workshop was that for a sound to be meaningful to the hearing-impaired it must be so loud and intense that it is nearly intolerable to the hearing. The students felt guilty seeing the discomfort their teachers experienced and were hesitant to experiment with the vibrations for fear of annoying those who could hear. In order for them to experiment with self-expression, they had to create what they felt was a disturbance. But sometimes, the most interesting works of art are the ones that make their audience uncomfortable, that tie its stomach into knots, press against its ribcage, overwhelm its eyes and ears, and cloud its lungs. It is often only by being removed from our comfort zone that we can relate to another’s circumstances and experiences.