It’s been all go for the last couple of months as I’ve been writing and producing a new work with composer Stephen Bentley Klein and a host of amazing and surprising people. We performed two work-in-progress shows at Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival over the weekend. You can see the result here as well as links to articles and interviews about the piece.
This was the first stage in the development of a new opera looking at ways for deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences to explore sound, as well as speaking to a hearing audience about the experience of deafness. future plans are afoot, so watch this Space..
Nest up, I’ll be exploring sound with performance artist Alicia Radage at her month long ]performance s p a c e[ residency and visiting China to hear things in the future! Their today is our tomorrow, after all.
This weekend was one of my favourite theatre events: the annual D&D gathering run by Improbable. Using Open Space technology to generate a conference/meeting place for anyone involved with theatre, anyone can start the debate they need to have in a fluid and informal way.
In between group discussions on Alan turing, folk music and being grumpy, I spoke to Martin McLean from Deafinitely Theatre about my fledgling opera project that aims to engage the hearing impaired with sound and music. He pointed me in the direction of performer Sophie Woolley, who has been working on new captioning technology. Using motion sensors and speech analysis, caption programmes can respond live to the delivery of lines and change size, font and colour as a broadening the communication of performance to deaf audiences. Could this be used as a way of expressing musical changes? Could this improve the ability to communicate opera to deaf audiences?
We also discussed the political implications of casting a hearing person as Annie, who was deaf. This is a thorny issue for deaf theatre-goers, but how many deaf opera singers are there? I know of one; Janine Roebuck. Would it be possible to have an orchestra of mixed hearing abilities, and a deaf singer? I’m looking forward to finding out..
In other news, my experiments with looping sounds and using programmes like Garage Band have sparked an idea for a new kind of album. Listen to this space for more developments.
This week I’m responding to Abigail copeland on the stella* website. Generating work from both sides of the Atlantic, we are continuing our collaboration online by making public responses to each other’s work. I’ve been using Garage Band and a series of digital audio-manipulations to create a piece of ‘music’ in response to Abbey’s thoughts about virtual communication. Here’s the end result, but please visit the stella* art chain to get the whole picture.
This week I spent two days with Sound Designer Seb Frost as he supervised the fit-up for a musical. Planning and building the acoustics for a large auditorium is a delicate a and complicated business; a slight difference in the angle of how a speaker is hung can radically alter the sound-experience of the audience. As sound waves bounce around the wall and seats, weird things happen. Sound smears and distorts in the back seats, appears where you don’t expect it or gets lost altogether. Complicated looking computer programmes are used to work out exactly how high and at what angle each speaker needs to hang for the clearest sound across the whole area.
The human ear is a precise instrument. It picks up the direction from which a sound is coming by noticing millisecond differences in the acoustic field. This is ability is used to balance out sound in a performance by putting delays of fractions of seconds on the speakers. A person sitting at the top of the back row will still identify sound as coming from the stage even though they are really hearing through the speaker above their heads, because their ears will detect the source of the sound a split second before the speaker repeats it.
The sound designer’s job is intimately connected to audience experience, although invisible, It is akin to sculpture – manipulating and shifting the acoustic field to create a coherent shape, an audible body, an environment.
It’s been a noisy few weeks for me, as I sand and drill and build in my home. This experience of sound as something tangible, physical, is helping me form ideas for a new opera project with composer Stephen Bentley Klein and Tete-A-Tete. Looking at astronomer Annie Jump Cannon; whose life work was the cataloguing of over 300, 000 stars using spectroscopic photographs, we were struck by the isolated nature of her work, and the link between this and the severe hearing impairment she suffered.
Annie was born in 1864, and went deaf after a bout of scarlet fever at the age of about 20. She was studying physics at the time; an unusual occupation for a woman in the 1880’s. Did her deafness help her single-minded concentration as she spent four decades counting the stars?
I have also been looking at early hearing aid technology as research for the project. In the examples below, there are many objects that funnel or pour sound into the ear, but the ones that intrigue me most are the bone conductors. These convey sound- which is a vibration, a physical presence – into the body without needing the ears. These objects allow you to hear through you teeth. Sound is a made a sense of touch, a haptic hearing that requires the whole body. We will be harnessing this concept in our opera piece as we develop work that deaf and hearing audience members alike can appreciate.
On a recent visit to the far north of Scotland, I found myself crossing the Atlantic to the Orkneys. Having studied archaeology as a teenager, the islands have long held a fascination for me. This odd outpost of the British Isles is full of pre-historic monuments, better preserved than many on the more populous and busy mainland. Skara Brae is unique; a paleolithic habitation that survived untouched for centuries as it was buried under the sand dunes, revealed finally by a storm in the 19th century.
On the day of my visit, warm sunshine met a strong wind, and the coachloads of American tourists wandered around the site trying to appear impressed. It’s a quiet affair atmospherically, but the soundscape was extraordinary. As we tried to connect with the everyday lives of those generations of early farmer/hunters, the modern farm close by provided a background of distressed cattle. The wind ripped through my wind shield, building an almost tangible wall of bass, in and out of which the inhalation of the sea shuffled and drifted.