Interview by Marcus Gordon www.shapearts.org.uk
Shape speaks to Ruth Montgomery, Creative Director of deaf-led arts project Audiovisability, to find out more about their upcoming performance showcase “The Unheard World”.
Shape: We’re delighted that Audiovisability’s new showcase “The Unheard World” will be at Brighton’s Fabrica on 6 December! Could you tell us how you first developed ideas for Audiovisability, and the notions behind the showcase’s name?
Ruth Montgomery: Thank you! The name ‘Audiovisability’ comes from three separate words: ‘audio’ (sound/music), ‘vision’, and ‘ability’. Audiovisability highlights that deaf people can listen to, appreciate, and interpret music, particularly through its inherently visual nature.
I wanted Audiovisability to be a celebration of deaf arts in classical and modern music, using visual language and art to bring more access to the deaf community in an easily relatable way. I wanted to work with other deaf artists with finding ways of portraying the elements of music – rhythm, pitch, emotion, and more – whilst maintaining the integrity and sophistication of the music in a way that wasn’t over-simplified.
The first Audiovisability project, ‘The Elements of Music’ was designed to portray each musical element visually to increase understanding of how music works. Now our second project, ‘The Unheard World’, builds upon this with a wider theme, by exploring the richness of Middle Eastern and Sudanese cultures, as well as the experience of migration, deafness, identity and language from a deaf perspective.
You’ve mentioned previously that each of the art forms in the project fuse together, illustrating an “unheard world to be told to all”. Can you tell us a bit more about what this means?
British-Syrian pianist and composer, Waseem Kotoub, originally wrote ‘Stories of Syria’ for piano solo. When I saw him play the composition in Edinburgh, I was captivated by all the changes in tempo and dynamics, the emotions, and the range of motifs. It peaked my curiosity because I wanted to find out more about the composition and what Waseem’s thoughts and intentions were.
Waseem agreed to write a version for oud, flute, violin, viola, cello, and percussion. I felt that having an ensemble gave more potential for communication and team work, allowing each instrument to tell the story using its own personality. One of the movements, ‘Dance’, allows each instrument to come to the forefront of the performance one-by-one, so the audience can see and hear the singing qualities of the violin, the richness of the cello, and the exotic sounding oud.
I also wanted to use Waseem’s expertise to create a composition based on deaf culture, so took the opportunity to pair him with deaf textile artist Omeima Mudawi-Rowlings, to write a new composition based on her childhood experiences. Omeima’s story is deeply moving in that she was born hearing, but became deaf due to meningitis at the age of 4. Her life was changed, not only by finding herself in a new world of silence, but because her family had to make the decision to move from her homeland of Sudan to the UK in pursuit of specialist deaf education.
By working with Waseem and Omeima to analyse the music, explore the stories and emotion behind it, and bring it to life using an ensemble, BSL, and visual art, the performances become enriched, growing into something beautiful that can be ‘heard’ by all.
All of the artists involved are from various regions of the world: the UK, Syria, Iraq, the Middle East and the Arab-Sudanese area. How do you think this geographical diversity has shaped their respective creative responses to the theme?
‘The Unheard World’ focuses on three stories: ‘Stories of Syria’, which is about the civil unrest in Syria over the last 6 years, ‘Belonging’, which is about the early life of deaf professional textile artist Omeima Mudawi-Rowlings, and ‘Lawand’, the story of a 6-year-old asylum seeker who had to flee with his family from Iraq after the country became too dangerous for them to stay.
On a musical level, I was curious about how music from the Middle East differed to Western musical conventions, and Waseem was the perfect person to work with to gain this understanding. In turn, I learnt more about the beauty of Middle Eastern cultures, as well as the current conflicts and difficulties across many areas of the region.
The geographical diversity and experience of the other artists involved in this project has greatly enriched ‘The Unheard World’. Rachel Gadsden is a British artist who has a wealth of experience in the Middle East from working in and with people from the region. Rachel is in a unique position in that she can respond and appreciate live music whilst portraying its emotion visually through colour and shape.
Omeima Mudawi-Rowlings has brought her deeply personal experiences of the hearing and Deaf worlds and Sudanese and British cultures to the project in the form of ‘Belonging’. Both deaf and hearing people can deeply connect with ‘Belonging’ as it tells the emotional story of change and transition from hearing to deaf, the cultures of the East and West, and Omeima finding and accepting her unique identity.
‘The Unheard World’ also features highly talented musicians from Syria who have brought their expertise in Syrian and Middle Eastern musical practices and culture to the performance, creative sign by deaf actress Nadia Nadarajah, photography by Stephen Iliffe, and BSL storytelling by Layla Fitzgerald-Woolfe.
This fusion of cultures – deaf and hearing; Middle Eastern and Western – has been a positive influence across the project, not least because of the learning curves it has brought to everyone involved!
“The Unheard World” will feature “sign language storytelling”: how do you see the experiences of the showcase differing between BSL users and non-BSL users?
Society sees British Sign Language as ‘silent bubble’; those who don’t know a visual language would struggle to understand what is being said, particularly as Sign Languages can describe several things through just one sign, unlike spoken language which requires many more words. Yet from my perspective, Sign Language is visually very loud, emotional, and highly descriptive.
I had the idea some years ago to start pairing BSL and music together – firstly by recording a story told in BSL, and then composing music based on the features of the signing (a long process involving hours of watching and analysing each movement, then writing each note to its timing). Sign Language and music work very well together – BSL naturally features tempo, dynamics, rhythm, emotion, and even pitch – which is why BSL storytelling with music accompaniment has been such a success.
‘The Unheard World’ features a BSL story written and told by 12-year-old Layla Fitzgerald-Woolfe. The story is about a deaf 6-year-old asylum seeker from Iraq, named Lawand, who I mentioned earlier. The story is also told through photos, captions, and music composed by myself for Syrian Oud, so fluency in BSL isn’t crucial for this. However, I do encourage people to watch Layla’s expressions and emotion plus the rhythm of the BSL as this will enhance the experience further.
Lastly, how do you think the showcase will challenge the way the audience perceive deaf creativity?
‘The Unheard World’ is designed to challenge everyone in the audience – whether deaf or hearing – by presenting some difficult and emotional topics and expressing them through a range of artforms in a unique performance. Audiovisability gives deaf and hearing artists a platform to explore and express their creativity, whilst also turning conventional understanding of music on its head by focusing on music’s real and interpreted visual nature.
Audiovisability is pushing creative boundaries; not only through the use of multiple artforms and mixing of music and deaf culture, but also through technology. Audiovisabilty’s app, developed by Signly, brings virtual BSL interpretation to each exhibit, giving full access to BSL users in their first or preferred language.
Most of all, I hope that ‘The Unheard World’ will provide a space for people from all walks of life to come together to celebrate music, art, and deaf culture.
“The integration of deaf Culture and its language – British Sign Language (BSL) – with the musical world is new to me, as it was to two fellow audience members who themselves were deaf. It seems that British Sign Language, like music, has repetition, rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, and metre. Here the combination proves winning for audiences both deaf and hearing, judging by the final noise of clapping and raising of rotating hands”.
– Lauraine Leigh Klugman, review for the Newbury Weekly News.