I finally achieved one of my ambitions a couple of days ago – going to a Promenade Concert. I think of my CI as giving me sensory input and new opportunities that I have never had before: it opens doors to discovery.
We made our way to an Olympic-mad London, standing on the train, heaving with Games volunteers and visitors from all over the world, displaying their national affiliations on their t-shirts. As the rain had stopped (for once in this exceptionally woeful British summer), and wanting to stretch our legs after an hour and a half of standing, we walked down through Hyde Park towards the Royal Albert Hall, so we were able to take in the current Serpentine Gallery Pavilion.
It’s been designed to appear as an ‘archaeological excavation’ of past pavilions, which have been temporary structures of the very recent past. On top is a wide pond, mirroring the trees above, drawn up from the groundwater below, and underneath is a seating area, with pillars, steps, gaps, and structural elements that suggest excavations of a Roman hypocaust, a medieval crypt or a whole ancient street uncovered. In an inversion of our natural expectations, the water is on top, and we are dry below, not in a place in which the dank smell of the ancient past leaches out of the stones.
In these environments the sound often echoes: how often in the past the echo reached my ears not through sound but just how the atmosphere felt as I spoke, how the words felt as they left my mouth within a tunnel, an underpass or a huge barrel-vaulted hall. I could sense vibration and reverberation without ever hearing it. This pavilion, however, is built of cork, absorbing the sound and deadening it. It thus became a place of quiet chatter, as families, friends, and lovers explored it, not one of shrill bounding echoes. To experience an attraction as a soundscape as well as an intervention in the landscape remains a novel experience even after two years post-implant.
Not far away is the dome of the Royal Albert Hall, a vision in rich, opulent, terracotta. It had always been somewhere seen on television or passed in walking through London, but never actually visited. My mind went back to a London Open House quite a few years ago, when I had the opportunity to see the magnificent Art Nouveau decor of the Wigmore Hall, a place I would never otherwise have visited because I had no occasion or opportunity to do so. Open House is all about accessibility in its widest sense, for everyone likes being able to pass through hitherto unimagined doors, but it struck me then that by opening the Wigmore Hall up to the non-paying public in this way it enabled me as a deaf person to be a tourist in the country of the hearing – much as when one visits a national monument abroad, or a religious building from a different faith.
Today accessibility was about more than that, oh, so much more. Being able to book tickets online with sectors of the seats clearly marked up as offering good views of the signing was a great start. These seats, besides offering a clear sightline for the signing, were so close to the choirs that the full volume of the singing could be clearly heard, as if we were sitting right amongst them, and the premiere performance of the Angry Planet by Bob Chilcott was signed by Dr Paul Whittaker, of Music and the Deaf.
Signed performance – whatever it translates – becomes something else, almost another art form. Hearing people often talk about music in visual terms, recognising the composer’s attempts to pin down places of inspiration, or things seen in the mind’s eye – the flowing of the Blue Danube, or the Thames in Handel’s Water Music.
The interpreter has to create a visual soundscape which echoes the music’s physical structure and tempo, the feeling the composer wishes to create and the content of the music and lyrics. It is rhythmic expressivity that transcends literal interpretation to become an integral part of the performance.
I’d like to compare this briefly with signed gallery talks for D/deaf people because sometimes I’ve seen hearing audiences ‘get’ this by chance to add to their visual experience. It’s no good waffling on about as Style II zoomorphic interlace – rather, it makes more sense to show where one animal ends and another begins, something that can be done economically and expressively through BSL. I’ve seen hearing people pick out intricately squirming beasties, even though they don’t know BSL, because their relationships are made more transparent through the lecturer’s fingers than any academic description of what constitutes an Anglo-Saxon animal could do.
Something similar happened here. The fluid signing gave me access to the lyrics and enhanced my understanding of what I was hearing through its physical expression of tone and structure, mood and atmosphere, word and accompaniment. At the same time, it helped along the Bear, who can just sign his name, especially in the roll-call of extinct animals as he was able to see which animal was which (words can be difficult to distinguish in singing, even for the hearing). I especially enjoyed the otter who was a curl, a flip, a slippery slink, a slosh, its onomatopoeia reflected in the patterns and ripples of signing.
It became a level playing field – we both got something different out of what we heard and saw, but we each enjoyed it as much as the other. At the same time, I felt as if the two halves of me – the bit that can hear and enjoy hearing, and the bit that is firmly rooted in visual experience – were made whole by the complementary aspects of this new experience, going to a classical music concert. I have Prommed!
(If you’d like to listen to the programme it is on BBC iPlayer, Radio 3, available until Sunday 12.08.2012 here.)