Thoughts before the Aural Diversity conference

Tomorrow is the first day of the Aural Diversity conference, which also includes the second Aural Diversity concert. I thought this would be a good moment to reflect on how far I have come and what lies ahead.

It was back in September 2017 that I attended the Hearing Aids for Music conference at University of Leeds. This was a very important event for me, because it showed very clearly that there should be no obstacle to my talking freely about my own condition and that, furthermore, there were positive benefits in so doing. Shortly afterwards I wrote my text ‘Ménière’s and me‘ which attracted a lot of attention and revealed for the first time that I had severe hearing loss, tinnitus, balance problems and all the other symptoms of Ménière’s. This was a pretty big step, because I had kept it a secret for over ten years, out of a mix of professional pride and fear.

At the same conference, I first made the acquaintance of Miguel Angel Aranda de Toro, Director of External Relations at GN Hearing, and through him a whole range of people at GN Resound, including audiologists, engineers and many people working in hearing care and hearing technologies. I was fitted with Linx Quattro hearing aids, which enabled me to consider making music once again.

My approach to adversity has always been to seek to understand through research and then to try to turn it – whatever ‘it’ might be – into a creative opportunity. So, the first thing to do was to research Ménière’s and its consequences for musicians. I undertook a qualitative study, interviewing several musicians with Ménière’s and several with other forms of hearing loss. The results of this will be presented in my keynote at the conference.

However, as is my way, I wanted to do something larger and more strategic too, that also offered opportunities for others. ‘Auraldiversity’ was a term coined by Professor John Levack Drever as a kind of auditory corollary of ‘neurodiversity’. He elaborated it most recently in this Organised Sound article. I’ve known John for many years and have always enjoyed his ideas about hearing and listening in relation to sound studies and acoustic ecology.

I thought that Aural Diversity sums up the differences in hearing between individuals, both in a musical context but also in terms of daily life. I decided to start a project that would explore these differences in a musical context. How can musicians with a range of hearing conditions play together? And how can audiences with a range of hearing conditions experience such music? What does this mean for music itself? I recorded interviews with BBC Radio 3 and BBC Radio Leicester that explain these ideas.

GNResound very generously provided financial support for the project and this was further enhanced when I was awarded an Arts Council England grant. With that funding in place, we were able to stage the first ever Aural Diversity concert at a wonderful venue near Bath: the Old Barn, on Kelston Roundhill. This was a fabulous and memorable event, which is summarised in this video. We tried out many different ways of listening and performed a wide variety of music, with musicians ranging from profoundly deaf to hyperacusis and everything in between.

The potential of ‘Aural Diversity’ is so strong that a call for papers produced a remarkable international response. Perusal of the conference programme will reveal a fascinating and diverse collection of topics coming from a range of disciplines, including: medicine, hearing sciences, acoustics, engineering, creative computing, psychology, therapy, various arts and humanities fields, and of course music and sound studies. This diversity reflects the diversity inherent in the speakers themselves and the field as a whole.

The conference, which takes place at the University of Leicester, is accompanied by a second concert at the Attenborough Arts Centre, a venue which has a long and noble tradition of supporting disability and access to the arts. Once again, there will be many ways of listening and an aurally diverse collection of musicians. We have also worked with local groups such as the Hearing Impaired Unit at Beauchamp College. The concert will follow our set of conventions and includes BSL as well as video interpretations alongside streaming to remote headphones, haptic (touch) interfaces and vibrating floors.

I am hoping that the conference will provide both the foundations of a research network and a collection of future directions for the Aural Diversity project. I will be working to develop a concept map to define aims and objectives within each line of research. The delegates represent a self-defined grouping that will no doubt provide plenty of energy and momentum for our future endeavours.

Whilst Aural Diversity has come from my own experiences and interests, I know very well that it is not, and could never be, a project just about me. It relies on active participation and engagement by a cohort of musicians and researchers and therein lies the future, I think. Advocating for change in respect of aural diversity is important not just in music but for society as a whole. This is a topic that is barely discussed, but which affects all of us to some degree. I hope that in future we can achieve changes in attitude and indeed in policy in respect of all this, as well as re-evaluating how music works. Music should adapt to us as individuals and our hearing needs, and not require people to measure up to the standard of a pair of “normal” and perfectly balanced ears.

‘Thirty Minutes’ for diplacusis piano

The Aural Diversity conference is fast approaching. This includes the second Aural Diversity concert, which is being curated by Duncan Chapman. I have been asked to contribute a performance on the diplacusis piano. The idea is that my performance should be done as an installation in the intervals between the more formal sections (three of them) of the concert. I like this format very much. The audience may come and go as they please, and there is less pressure on me and my hearing to deliver a typical concert performance.

Which brings me to the composition itself. Previous blog entries have detailed just how hard it is for me to compose for this instrument. The ‘diplacusis piano’ is a digital instrument that reproduces what I actually hear when I play a normal piano. In the low to mid register, notes are unevenly ‘split’ between the actual pitch and a detuned pitch, which may be anything up to a minor third flat. In the low register, I cannot hear fundamentals, which means that the overtone structures that I do hear are similarly pitch-distorted. High register is not too bad, although the top two octaves sound increasingly harsh. And the whole thing is unbalanced by the fact that my right ear has much less hearing than my left, and everything is heard through a wall of ever-changing tinnitus (which I do not reproduce on the instrument).

Not surprisingly, therefore, composing for this instrument is hard because it sounds like endlessly self-reflecting mirrors. It is psychologically and acoustically distressing. My objective is to make something beautiful out of this, so I persist. But it is very hard to do.

My solution this time is to compose thirty one-minute pieces that may be played in any order. This way, I only need to listen for short periods, and I can vary the range of listening required, which makes it easier for me. I am forcing the music (and the instrument) to adjust to what I can do, rather than trying to push myself to meet the demands of the instrument. I hope that this kinder, gentler approach will reflect in music that is more approachable for another listener. At any rate, if someone does not like a particular piece, they only have to wait one minute for something different. That’s aural diversity!

As before, I am using a visual composition method, involving a scrolling spectrogram (see below). However, I have also included now a Lissajous vectorscope, which shows the behaviour of the various notes within the stereo field. You can get the idea from this video.

Spectrogram display

The music is very diverse: everything from Feldman-esque pianissimo minimalism to textural builds, pretty melodies, tintinnabulations and even the occasional silent piece. The visual display will be projected throughout and a poster will explain what is going on to the audience.

‘Hear More’ seminar, Lima, Peru

On Thursday I had the pleasure of addressing GN Hearing’s ‘Hear More’ seminar in Lima, Peru, via Skype. It turns out I am “very famous in Latin America”, no doubt thanks to the Spanish version of this video. At any rate, when I was revealed onscreen, an enormous cheer went up from around 100 Latin American audiologists, so I suppose that must mean something!

I was interviewed by Paula Duarte for about an hour. I told my story first of all, and then went on to report on my recently completed research project into the consequences of Ménière’s disease for musicians. This included some very interesting findings, such as the fact that all the Ménière’s musicians I interviewed had diplacusis (even if they had never heard that word before) and the consequences of that and other symptoms for musical perception. The resulting paper should be published soon and I will include a link to it here when that happens.

I passed on to the audience some of the comments about hearing care and hearing technologies from the musicians I interviewed. I always have to tread carefully when discussing this, because musicians generally are rather frustrated by audiology and hearing aids, whereas audiologists tell me repeatedly that musicians can be very challenging clients! The way I describe it, there is a difference in expectations between musicians and audiologists. Musicians are generally disillusioned with the shortcomings of hearing aids, frustrated by the lack of consideration given to sound quality (rather than just amplification), disappointed that hearing tests restrict themselves to frequencies in the middle and upper range, and downhearted by an apparent lack of empathy. Audiologists, on the other hand, have to deal with an array of new and unfamiliar terminologies (the languages of music and hearing science are really quite different) and the fact that they have certain professional priorities which are not necessarily those of the musician/client. Their training does not fully equip them to deal with the kind of questions musicians frequently raise.

My solution to this, as always with interdisciplinary exchanges, is to try to find common areas and develop a shared language and understanding. This is not easy: audiological training does not generally study music (any more than ophthalmologists study painting) and musical training can be surprisingly indifferent to both sound and hearing. But there is evidently a will amongst audiologists to move towards better and more supportive care for musicians, which is great. With that in mind I shared a few musical aspirations:

Let’s give users more control of their hearing aids (e.g. full EQ, sound mixing, filtering capabilities);
Why can’t hearing aids reduce sound as well as amplifying it?
Improvements to localisation perception would be great, especially for those with uneven hearing loss;
Could a hearing aid correct diplacusis?
Please can we have benchmark consistency in everything that is heard!

Hearing aids are designed mainly for speech, as everybody knows, but increasing their potential for music is becoming more important all the time. I also suggested some more creative uses…how about a hearing aid that could identify birds when they sing in nearby trees? Or how about some kind of hearing aid-based Pokémon Go? Then it would be really cool to wear a hearing aid! AI seems to offer a way forwards here.

After all this, I talked about the Aural Diversity project, which everybody found fascinating and very valuable, to judge by the comments I have received subsequently.

Questions form the floor focused on some of the technical details. They were very interested in the extent to which the hearing aids have really helped me to hear music again. This is something I followed up with some individuals subsequently in chat. The essence of my response is that I am still finding out. Listening to music without hearing aids is now more or less impossible for me. It is unpleasant and the pitch distortions turn it into a kind of acoustic mush. The hearing aids improve on this: they ‘flatten out’ the diplacusis – not by removing it, but by lessening it and making it more predictable. Also, the increased flow of information means that my brain can fill in the gaps and make better sense of the music. So, for example, pitches below the octave below middle C become more audible thanks to the increased upper headroom. This seems crazy: how can more high frequencies improve perception of missing low frequencies? I think it is because the available overtones provide my brain with enough information to be able to figure out what the bass note should be. This combines with the residual hearing in my good ear to create a pretty convincing bass note.

However, I would not want to overstate the case here. Hearing aids create an artificial listening experience. I am aware that I am not hearing what is really there. And the sound is still pretty thin compared to natural acoustics. But I am so grateful for any meaningful sound input I can get. I become emotionally overwhelmed quite quickly, just listening through the music programme on my hearing aids, so thank you GN! Whereas I had given up listening to music altogether, I do now listen more, even though I tend to stick to fairly simple music that does not become too muddy. Also I cannot listen for long periods without making the tinnitus worse, so I have to be careful.

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.