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.