Composing for Aural Diversity

The first Aural Diversity concert is now approaching fast. I have composed three pieces for this concert.

“Where two rivers meet, the water is never calm” is written for my diplacusis piano and reflects my hearing without aids.

“St. George’s Island Revisited” and “Kelston Birdsong”, on the other hand, show what I can do when I wear my GNResound Linx Quattro hearing aids.

This video explains the Aural Diversity concept, but I wanted to reflect on the composition of the three pieces and the challenges they involved in this blog post.

The main challenge for me as a composer with severe hearing impairment is whether to compose ‘normal’ music whose sound I can imagine (if not hear), or to compose music that reflects my hearing as it actually is.

“Where two rivers meet, the water is never calm” adopts the latter path and was extremely difficult to compose. First I had to build an instrument that accurately reproduces my hearing. This includes severe hearing loss, fluctuating tinnitus, and diplacusis (wherein you hear two different pitches when a single note is played). Composing for such an instrument is laborious and painful, because I hear my own diplacusis with diplacusis! It’s like endlessly receding mirrors. I developed a visual method using a scrolling spectrogram to enable me to match frequencies from the overtone structures of each sound. What I found was that very minimal music works best, because otherwise the results get muddy very quickly and sound simply like an out-of-tune piano. I have tried to make something beautiful out of what is quite a distressing flow of two different information streams, hence the title.

“Kelston Birdsong” is written with the hearing aids, which reduce the diplacusis and increase the audibility of the sounds as far as the Ménière’s will allow (lower pitches are still lost). I composed the piece to theatricalise the listening of the great musicians who are taking part in the concert: Simon Allen (percussion), John Drever (digital sound), Ruth Mallalieu (clarinet), Matthew Spring (viol), Anya Ustaszewski (flute). The way the piece works is that a birdsong is played from a pool of 35 songs. Each birdsong is assigned to one of the musicians and sits within their comfortable hearing range. On hearing the song, they play a ‘call’ from a sheet. When the rest of the band hear that musician’s call, they play a response from a menu that is geared to each individual’s hearing range. The process then repeats until all 35 birds have been heard.

The idea is that the audience can go for a walk outside during the piece, wearing radio controlled heaphones which stream the music to them. They can then hear the sounds the kind of birds encountered on Kelston Roundhill.

Finally, “St. George’s Island Revisited” features Matthew Spring on viol. It is a simple but lovely tune for the entire ensemble to play. Matthew and I go back a long way together and I have always admired his great musicality and his cheerful disregard of his own hearing limitations, which he has had for much longer than I.

Anyway, I do hope we have a good audience for the concerts. There will be two performances, one at 2.30 and one at 6 pm. Do come along!