Unlearning Sound Etiquette
I was thrilled when I received an email earlier this year informing me that I’d been selected to be part of the Deaf Explorers project supported by Arts Council UK and Deaf Cultural Centre in Birmingham. I am one of six along with other professional deaf artists. Other artists were in the field of poetry, theatre, visual arts, comedy and dance. Their aim is to support our practice, develop network, recognition and diversity in the arts world. They also strive to promote Deaf culture as well as provide international travel and research.
So, the excitement came to a head in March this year when I flew over to New York to meet Christine Sun Kim who is a Sound artist and Composer. Hailing from California, this New York based artist has been deaf all her life, uses American Sign Language and has never really benefited from wearing hearing aids. I mentioned about hearing aids because anyone might question ‘how could you call yourself ‘Sound artist and Composer’ if you cannot hear at all?
In life, everyday sounds and spoken language are something that the hearing take for granted and in her Selby video she regards sound as akin to ‘ghosts’. As she cannot naturally hear and see them she knows it could possibly be there. I enjoyed her video where she did an exclusive performance of her playing with field recordings of the street sounds of her Chinatown neighbourhood which included nails and cogs dancing across paper, ink and powder drenched quills on thin wooden boards on top of vibration speakers, feedback sounds and helium balloons. This is one small example where she deliberately clings on to the world of sound and silence, making its presence shown by creating and transmuting them through the use of advanced technology, composition, visual and performance art.
Her work sometimes includes people. In her current project “Face Opera” she looks at removing vocal and spoken languages. Basically performers took turns conducting and share-conducting four separate scores using words on ipads. The aim is to bring out face and body language which Christine says in her email to me, is roughly made up of about 50% of American Sign Language. For those who don’t predominately use sign language can often forget all the other basic elements of communication that aren’t vocal or sound based so this opera highlights that.
After a few email exchanges we finally met each other at Recess Arts in Manhattan on a cold, lightly snowy day, at an event where she set up a silence lecture on the topic of ‘Seeing Voice, The Seven-Tone Colour Spectrum’ with other artists on each colour. Prior to the start the room was buzzing, noisy and jam packed, and there was a mixture of deaf and hearing people. When the curator indicated the start, the room became absolutely silent. Not a vocal sound or even sign language. Each colour topic by different presenters lasted roughly 45 to 60 minutes each. At first I found the silence ‘eerie’ as many people would but I quickly became comfortable with it. I think the audience could only imagine Christine’s world through her eyes.
The presentations were carried out on the ipad and projector where words were typed out, photos shown, quotes from poetry, life stories, materials/objects passed around for observation and touch. As for applause at the end of the presentation everyone’s hands lifted in the air and did a silent ‘Deaf’ hand shake.
Generally, if a signing deaf person gave a presentation to the hearing audiences a qualified Sign Language interpreter will do the voice over so that weekend I felt everyone was on an equal footing. There are many ways of communicating, listening and hearing. Presentation aside, Christine communicates and greets people via ‘big words’ on the ipad. They even used her ipad to type talk back. It felt like a digital replacement of the old pen and paper communication days.
We clicked really well and had a very good deep and thought provoking discussion in the library café using a mix of American, British and International Sign Language. We compared experiences; my relationship with music, study background and hers. She told me about her experiences at Bard College doing music courses, what appealed to her and the composers that bended the traditional rules in music.
From our conversation we both know that music is such a broad subject basically meaning beauty of form, harmony, expression of emotions and language. Therefore, in the café I was so interested in telling her about the theory of music, and the clever things that has evolved over hundreds of years. For example, the harmonies – how changing them can affect the whole subject of the music/piece, its journey and destination, and with scales, the major and minor keys are like colour palettes. There is also something very appealing about rhythms and no limits to writing and playing them too.
I delved straight on to that subject because melody, harmony, key changes are something that hearing people have immediate access to by listening, whereas for me I gain these information slowly via wearing hearing aids, from reading notation and playing on my flute/piano. It is also very rare for me to talk to another Deaf person about music/sound at that deep level and I was looking for common ground, opinions and views. While she engaged on the subject she was looking at modernism and seeing music from a pure ‘Deaf’ experience.
Although I have been formally educated about music, her work does have a huge appeal. I am shown that music can continue to stretch its boundaries. It is very much a search of discovery, drawing from inspiration, influences, bringing out and redefining what’s already there, embracing the digital age, often incorporating Sign Language and Deaf identity. She composes and experiment sound elements at a raw level, finds many avenues to reach out to them and becomes ‘art’ at a really personal level. Her Deaf identity makes me feel very connected to her work but it also strangely connects anyone else too just like music does in its way. I bought a couple of her speaker paintings home, in this subject she explores the reaction of her voice in low and high pitch where the nails and coins vibrate on the speakers. Both pictures have an interesting contrast.
Thanks to Rachael Veazey, Alan McLean and Alison Smith (Deaf Explorers team) from Deaf Culture Centre in Birmingham for making this amazing trip happen and giving me the opportunity to meet Christine. I think she is mind-blowing, very forward thinking, and inspiring. I feel her energy. I am very interested in working on music and sound with her in the future, I think we would unearth so many elements in music that can be interpreted visually and something from a Deaf perspective, just like people discovered and learnt something new when vocal sounds were removed from her ‘Face Opera’ series.