Aural Diversity: the first concert

The first Aural Diversity concert took place at the Old Barn, Kelston Roundhill, on Saturday July 6th.

The old barn pre-concert
Outside seating

This was an extraordinary and unique event of musical performances by aurally diverse people for an aurally diverse audience. The audiences included people who are deaf/blind, profoundly deaf, hearing impaired, autistic, tinnitus sufferers, and many other hearing types. The concert offered ways for all of them to access the music, including video and BSL signing, vibrating floors and haptic interaction, and streaming to radio headphones.

The concert was “relaxed”, meaning that people could sit anywhere, move about during performances, listen outside (the weather was great), or adopt any other listening mode that suited them. Our audiences for the two concerts took full advantage of these opportunities. For some individuals, it was a very powerful experience. One deaf/blind person said that, for the first time in his life, his cochlea had responded to music, as a result of combining the vibrating floor with the input stream.

Vibrating floors.
Vibrating floors in use.

My personal feelings are one of great pride that we managed to pull off such an extraordinary event, and great excitement about the possibilities of Aural Diversity as a project for the future. The next event is the conference and concert in November.

Here is a picture of some of the musicians and me rehearsing in the barn. In the background you can see our terrific BSL interpreter, Elizabeth Oliver.

The musical programme offered an enormous diversity of music that reflected the diversity of hearing approaches of the composers and musicians. I have severe hearing loss, tinnitus and diplacusis due to Meniere’s Disease. Anya experiences hyperacusis. John has notch losses and tinnitus. Matthew’s hearing was severely damaged by childhood meningitis and has worsened over time. Simon has lost much upper frequency hearing due to head trauma. Sam has a notch loss in the higher register. Ruth was deaf from birth and wears cochlear implants.

The concert began with Arbometallurgism by Anya Ustaszewski. This is an electroacoustic piece featuring some exquisitely delicate sounds. I listened on the roving headphones and it worked brilliantly outdoors.

Ruth Mallalieu and her husband Jonathan performed some jazz standards on clarinet and piano. Ruth’s profound deafness and cochlear implants mean that she has to transpose the music within a range that works for her limited hearing, and the accompaniment must be pared down. It was quite moving to witness her performance.

I played my own piece “Where two rivers meet, the water is never calm” for my specially constructed “diplacusis piano” (see previous postings). This used a rolling spectrogram to convey, both to myself and the audience, what I cannot hear. The sound of the instrument is quite disturbing, so this was a very minimal piece. The virtuosity was in the listening. It was extremely hard to compose and perform this piece.

Matthew then sang some lovely and sad Cornish folksongs that he had composed, accompanying himself on banjo and guitar and with lyrics signed by Elizabeth.

Simon Allen’s ‘Map Fragments’ introduced a fascinating range of sounds, including two home-built instruments, rubbed fishbowls, gongs, rustling leaves, rubbed surfaces, viol, piano, and percussion. Elizabeth also signed a poem which was understood only by those who could read BSL. There was a video accompaniment too. The piece had a memorable and lasting impression.

John Drever had recorded the musicians imitating hand-dryers, which then played back while the musicians made further imitations of the imitations through radio microphones, allowing them to wander around the performance space and outside. The result was partly comical and partly mysterious, but underpinned by a powerful message about the way hand dryers are damaging the hearing of children, in particular.

‘Meditations on Hildegard’ by Matthew Spring comprised himself singing, playing hardy-gurdy and handbells. The piece evokes the 12th Century music of Hildegard von Bingen, but adds a new interpretation. It worked brilliantly in an environment made largely of stone, and seemed to connect with ancient history of Kelston Roundhill.

Anya Ustaszewski’s Vox Random is another electroacoustic piece, this time using vocal sounds. It evoked very effectively an attempt at communication across hearing limitations.

The matinée performance had continued for so long that I was obliged to drop the next piece, my “St. George’s Island Revisited”, but I was able to include it in the evening performance, when we had speeded up a bit. This little chorale has sentimental value for me and Matthew Spring, whose parents loved it. It evokes Looe Island. It was also the hardest piece to perform well, because it relied on quite conventional musical abilities which are normally taken for granted: the ability to hear in tune, to stay in time, to produce good tone. These are always challenged by hearing impairment. Nevertheless, it sounded good!

My own “Kelston Birdsong” gave people the opportunity to listen outside, or to watch a slideshow of the featured birds. Each bird triggers a particular musician who plays a call. Hearing the call, the other musicians play a response. This process repeats. All the birds, calls and responses sit within the comfortable hearing range of a particular musician. The piece feels quite profound and beautiful as it meditatively pays homage to these creatures that are steadily disappearing.

The final event was Sensonic by Sam Sturtivant. This is a low-frequency/sub bass installation that gets the most out of the vibrating floors. This was very popular with those who enjoy vibrations and ‘feeling’, rather than ‘hearing’ music and sound.

All in all this was a very successful first concert. There were things that went wrong or were less effective, of course. We had a couple of moments of feedback with the roving mikes in John’s piece which were disturbing, and an unexpected crash of an object falling over during the final rendition of Kelston birdsong. The “silent disco” headphones worked very well, but unfortunately the ear pieces were not big enough to sit around hearing aids. “Streaming to hearing aids” was advertised but did not work (nobody asked for it, in fact). We really needed a loop system and some dedicated devices for other forms of streaming.

No doubt there will be more issues raised when we read the feedback forms from the audiences, but that was part of the purpose of this event: to learn and develop.

Here’s to many more Aural Diversity concerts! I very much hope that other people will get involved and start staging similar events elsewhere.