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Happy New Year, everyone!

Ceiling of the Grosser Musikvereinsaal, Vienna. The rich visual environment adds to the enjoyment of the music, but also creates an excellent acoustic experience. See here for an explanation: http://www.musikverein.at/dermusikverein/goldenerklang.asp . I found listening to the BBC's Last Night of the Proms on TV disappointing but the Albert Hall's acoustics have historically been notoriously difficult, and perhaps I wasn't at the right stage of my hearing journey to appreciate it, either.

This time last year, as I was counting down apprehensively to the operation, if you had said that I would be getting as much out of the CI as I have been doing, I wouldn’t have believed you. I just thought that maybe I would get some dim impression of sound – not enough to identify much, but perhaps to tell me there was a car coming or something like that. Actually, I remember watching the Viennese New Year’s Concert (Wiener Neujahrskonzert) in 2010 and wondering if I would be able to listen to it next year.

Well, I did, and what’s more, thoroughly enjoyed it. It was always a fixture at home, and I always used to enjoy the visuals from the concert – the ballet interludes, the use of extraordinary instruments which were interesting to look at in themselves, a characteristic of the Neujahrskonzert, the very clever filming always focusing on the sections of the orchestra coming to the fore: so if, for example, the harp or the wind instruments come in, the camera pans to them, it is possible to ‘read’ the music visually and imagine how it might sound. The logistics of setting up all these shots must be a complete nightmare when you think about it, but well worth the effort when you consider its worldwide audience. The ballet  interludes always give a strong impression of the music, one reason I have always loved ballet as an art form (as well as having had ballet lessons as a child). The choreography goes beyond the speed of the music to the emotions the composer intended to evoke. The ballet interludes from the Neujahrskonzert almost always include an interpretation of the Blue Danube waltz – by turns slow and meandering or fast-flowing, like the river itself.

 

A surprised question by someone who queried why I enjoyed ballet when I missed the music has stuck with me for years: it seemed rather to miss the point because dance became a medium allowing me to access music. Ballet generally is very accessible for deaf people: as the plot is driven through dance and mime, there’s no speech to have to follow. Ballet mime is an iconic form of sign language, that is, representing ideas through natural associations, because the audience, whether deaf or hearing, of whatever nationality, has to be able to follow: so that shaking one’s fists in the air at a character demonstrates anger, or crossing one’s hands over the heart denotes love. The only sign that might not be naturally intuitive is circling the hands in the air over the head, which means “dance”. For deaf people the meaning might be more easily guessed, perhaps: it is not dissimilar to the upward circling motions, with different hand shapes, that denote “singing”, or “choir” in BSL. Ballet is not the only dance form incorporating mime. Once, shadowing a museum access officer many years ago in Leicester, I was privileged to see a Kathakali performance at a museum as outreach to the local Asian community. I was told then that Kathakali mime, which is an integral part of the dance, has also formed the basis of natural sign language amongst deaf people in India. (I’d like to hear more if anyone knows.) Both ballet and Kathakali are conceived as integral works of art bringing together various art forms: music, costumes, drama, dance, art (backdrops), though in Kathakali the signs are an art form in their own right. As usual there is no English word that does justice to the concept of an art form where all the arts combine, so the German will have to do: Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art.

But now I get why I was asked the question above, because watching the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Cinderella over Christmas gave me some real insight into how the choreography expresses the music more precisely, and all the nuances of the music can be seen in the placement even of a finger or of a dancer rising up en pointe. In this way my enjoyment of the dance is heightened by seeing it as an interpretation of the music, not merely conveying something of its flavour. It also enhanced my appreciation of Strictly Come Dancing, when I could actually see that someone was off the beat! (Never mind Widders’ repeated appearances, the funniest things I have seen for years.)

The Neujahrskonzert is mainly, but not exclusively, devoted to the works of the Strauss family, with amazingly descriptive titles which shape your expectations of what is to follow and give you a helping hand into the world of the music. The self-evident title Furioso-Galopp is a case in point – or the Abschiedsrufe, “Cries of Farewell”, evoking the sound of voices calling out at 4am after a long night waltzing one’s feet away at an elegant Viennese ball, each note human, plaintive and yet joyous.

So you can see that I use every tool available to haul myself on with music interpretation and my own listening ability is a work of art in progress, so to speak. I’m fascinated to look back on the change in myself within a few short months, because I am passionately interested in all the arts – literature, painting, drama, dance, and in the crossover between arts and genres: illuminated manuscripts (no, I’m not going to write a lengthy essay on those again) bring together art and the written word, for example. I’ve always thought that there was a part of me missing because I couldn’t add music to the list, except indirectly through my other senses and through other media, but I soldiered on and did without, because what else could I do? I couldn’t spend my life yearning for what I didn’t have, but made up for it with my enjoyment of the things I *did* have. So now there’s this odd feeling that the CI has enabled me to be the person I was supposed to be, all along, and all the past 30 years not hearing anything have been a bit of a bad dream, really. So Abschiedsrufe to the permasilence!

Oh, and did I mention that Santa brought me an iPod? Certainly not something I ever thought I would get last Christmas . . . ☺ So my New Year’s Resolution is to get the most out of it!

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