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A Voice More Beautiful Than Blue

Katie Booth
174 Snaps

I was with my friend Jeff Mansfield, on the porch of a hand-built cabin in Virginia, when I began to realize how little I understood about sound. It was a mild morning two winters ago and we were the only ones awake. The lawn stretched before us, long and rugged, with a single tree in the middle of it. In the morning stillness, Mansfield and I would talk for a while and then return to sipping our coffees and pretending it wasn’t as cold as it was. He was better at the cold, having the broad, sturdy build of a former hockey player. At one point, as I watched the birds that flew in and out of the tree, Mansfield turned his steady blue eyes to me and waved his hand to get my attention. Then he asked me something he’d never asked before: “What do you hear?”

Although I grew up with two generations of deafness in my family and can communicate in Sign, I am hearing. Since I was about ten years old, I have lived almost solely in the hearing world. I’m aware of the wide, sometimes antagonistic gulf in understanding between the hearing world and the Deaf world, one that rests on a foundational assumption: that deaf people cannot access sound without the help of benevolent hearing people. Still, on some unconscious level, this idea operated within me too.

“Birds,” I described, indicating with my hands where they flocked between the tree on the lawn and distant trees, their songs traveling back to us. “And, over here, machines, construction.” From the road beyond the tree line, clanks and grumbles broke through the morning.

For a second I was pleased with myself, but I quickly realized how empty my descriptions were. I had skipped over the most interesting elements of the sounds, instead identifying what was producing them: a bird, a machine. Birdsong, in my hands, had only birds, over there. It had no song.

The truth was that Mansfield, despite being profoundly deaf from birth—or because of being deaf from birth—knew more about certain elements of sound than I did. To me, sound was simply a thing that came through my ears. It was an unexceptional part of the everyday, the humdrum. I listen to music on headphones, I respond when someone yells my name, but I don’t think much about the meaning contained in sound. Mansfield’s life, though, is largely dictated by it—not in the conventional sense, but as it ascribes social power. “Imagining a deaf person’s relationship to sound is challenging,” he writes in a text about a workshop he taught in 2013, “not only because deafness implies a diminished capacity to aurally process sounds, but [because] doing so would upset our predictable, if not delicate, understanding of sound.”

Mansfield had already begun to upset my understanding a few months earlier. He is an architect and designer, and has explored sound in his work. I watched a video from that 2013 workshop, in which he explored sound with students from the Al-Amal School for the Deaf, in the United Arab Emirates. Mansfield stands in front of the class, his hands resting on a speaker, and a video of a drummer is projected on the wall next to him. Then he starts to interpret the music. He listens for a few seconds, shapes his hands into two claws, and rotates them rhythmically against each other. When his hands move apart, still rhythmically rotating at the wrist, you sense the sound becoming more expansive. When one hand becomes still and the other hand pivots away, you sense the sound drifting off. Mansfield’s fingers straighten and bend, make small movements and larger movements, close movements and far-apart movements. The interpretation is not a one-for-one representation of the sound, like a foot keeping the beat. Rather, it is musical in a way that is native to Sign.

In the video, none of Mansfield’s movements pantomime playing an actual drum, and this is deliberate. Mansfield believes that connecting sound to an object, as is done so often in the hearing world, does nothing to describe how sound feels. He seeks to create a space in which Deaf people are empowered to experience sound—just sound—and find their own meaning within it. Mansfield listens, then interprets, listens, interprets. After a few beats, he invites the students to come forward, place their hands on the speaker, and make their own music.

On the porch in Virginia, I thought about my own inadequate description of birdsong and realized that I still didn’t fully understand the different ways the hearing and the deaf interact with sound. In Mansfield’s hands, music had an entirely new life. He wasn’t simply interpreting English lyrics into ASL, which is many hearing people’s first encounter with deafness and music. I see this type of “signed” music shared as videos on social media, or performed by kids in church—even though the majority of the interpretations are garbled word-for-word translations that ignore the grammar of ASL and serve hearing voyeurism more than deaf inclusion. But Mansfield’s work suggests that there is something much more interesting at the intersection of deafness and music. I began to wonder: in a world without hearing, what does song look like?

Christine Sun Kim is a Deaf sound artist who has exhibited work at the Whitney Museum, MoMA, and MoMA PS1, and is at the forefront of the artistic exploration of Deafness and sound. When Kim was growing up, she believed that sound was for hearing people, not for her. The hearing adults around her insisted that she be hyperaware of sound—don’t slam doors, don’t eat too loudly, don’t burp. She learned to play the recorder in music class, but the sound wasn’t visual or tactile; it wasn’t fun. Kim started her career as a painter, but during an artist residency in Berlin, she encountered several art exhibits that were almost entirely sound-based, and this absorbed her attention. She realized she could join this new conversation, that she knew sound deeply and intimately.

In her art, Kim explores the way sound functions and how she experiences sound through deafness and Sign. Sound, she says in a 2015 TED Talk, “doesn’t have to be something just experienced through the ears. It can be felt tactually, or experienced as a visual, or even as an idea.” But her art is also an act of resistance to hearing-based norms. When I spoke with her over FaceTime, she described her evolving relationship to sound as a process of liberating herself from the norms of the hearing world. She lives in that world every day; most spaces, media, and communities are created with hearing people in mind. “It’s hearing, hearing, hearing,” she says. “It’s hard to separate the hearing-centric from the authentic Deaf experience.” When she first started experimenting, she would create different sounds with a microphone, subwoofer, and synthesizer, and ask her hearing friends what they thought. “This sounds nice,” they’d say, or “This is unpleasant.” But there was something wrong. Even though she had created the sounds, she felt they were for hearing people—based on their judgments, made for their ears. She needed to make sound on her own terms.

In Face Opera II, performed in New York City in 2013, Kim conducted a deaf choir that used only ASL facial expressions—no hands—to create a visual song. (By her estimation, just 30 to 40 percent of ASL is performed with the hands; the bulk of meaning is communicated through the face and body.) Last year, she commissioned seven lyric- and speech-free lullabies to play for her baby as an alternative to commercially available songs. In 4 x 4, exhibited in Stockholm, Kim placed four speakers directly on the floor in the corners of a room. Each speaker emitted a voice that Kim had manipulated to register below the typical human threshold for audible sound. The voices could not be heard directly, but the secondary sound, the sound of the room, resonated: the windows shuddered, the walls shook, the fluorescent tube lights rattled.

The result was a leveling, a collapse of the social advantage to which hearing people are accustomed. In the room, only Kim knew the content of these voices, their words and cadences, while all that her audience could experience was her interpretation; for them to perceive this, they would have to be as attentive as she had been. They would have to experience the sound through their chests and feet and the ripples in their glasses of wine. In order to hear fully, they would have to become a little deafer.

*

There is a false assumption in the hearing world that the deaf can’t experience music. This assumption rests on a second: that the only access point to music is through hearing. Growing up, when I would reference a Deaf friend’s love of music, the response was often a raised eyebrow or a stifled laugh. The very idea was a joke, an impossibility. But there are many access points to music, and many types of deafness. When he’s in the car or around a campfire, one of my friends likes to sing his favorite songs from before his hearing left him: Billy Joel, Journey, Guns N’ Roses. Even people who have been deaf from birth can physically sense music through Bass Eggs, devices that turn any surface into a speaker; Woojer Straps, which wrap around the waist or chest and send vibrations through the body; or just by pressing a hand against a subwoofer. The DJ Robbie Wilde composes using technology that color-coordinates sound frequencies; the ASL poet Douglas Ridloff sometimes pairs his poems with music; and educators Andrew Bottoms and Megan Malzkuhn wrote a satirical ASL song, “Hearing Knows Best,” which uses no sound at all. The deaf experience of song can go beyond representations of traditional music; it can become a unique category.

After the students in Mansfield’s workshop felt sounds through the subwoofer, they placed their hands on a giant weather balloon, which transmitted vibrations with more nuance. They started to create their own signed representations of sounds. The idea was to move away from their inherited understandings of objects and toward an expression of individual, idiosyncratic experience. “What we were really trying to do,” Mansfield told me, “was to unlearn sound, to get to the core physical sensation of its vibrations.”

At the end of the workshop, the group filmed videos of the sign language they had invented to represent various real-world sounds: an airplane engine, the drone of a TV, waves hitting the shore. They were infusing the noise of ordinary life with musicality. In one video, Mansfield describes the sound dirt makes when falling in clumps, as if from an excavator. His right hand, shaped into a claw, drops onto his left forearm, then his fingers straighten and fall, showing the sound of the clump of dirt hitting the ground and scattering. This was not the type of sound I heard from the cabin porch, but in my hands the description of a close excavator and a distant construction grumble would look essentially the same: machines, over there.

Mansfield’s hands, falling as dirt, make a simple, mesmerizing tune. Another participant describes the sound of a siren so well I can almost hear it. He spins one hand chaotically, beginning behind him and moving toward his face as he looks around worriedly, then speeding past, the spinning becoming smaller as the sound fades into the distance. Another signer’s hands hold the sound of a sewing machine, his hands flat and moving forward slowly, back and forward again. Trembling ever so slightly, they humm, hummm, hummmm.

In the hearing world, the medium of song is the voice, whereas in Sign it is the body. For a work titled Close Readings, Kim asked deaf and hard of hearing friends, including Mansfield and Lauren Ridloff, an actor on The Walking Dead, to add to the sound captioning of scenes from several well-known movies. For the deaf, says Kim, the quality of captions is essential to the experience of a film. But typical, reductive sound captioning totally misses the multi-
dimensionality and layering of sound—the emotion, the meaning—that is expressed in a film.

One of the films captioned for this project was The Little Mermaid, in which the mermaid Ariel makes a deal with the villain Ursula to give up her voice in exchange for a human form. As Ariel sings, relinquishing her voice, the original caption simply reads, “[vocalizes].” Mansfield’s captions reads: “[sound of vortex spinning],” then “[whooshing sound],” then “[sound of voice being extracted]” and “[glowing, pulsating hum of voice].” Ridloff’s reads: “[a voice more beautiful than blue, more beautiful than tomorrow slips out].” Their captions are more than flat descriptions of sound; they hold the meaning and essence of the story.

The captions also stretch the definition of sound. Many treat the body as a site of sound, though not necessarily audible sound. It becomes something closer to body language: what the body says when it is not speaking words.When Prince Eric and Ariel first meet, another captioner, Ariel Baker-Gibbs, alerts us to “[the tinkle of dimples]” and “[the sound of a huge finger very close to your face].” Upon learning that Ariel can’t speak, Eric looks away from her: “[the sound of eyes moving in a different direction than where they are looking].” As they try to communicate: “[failure of gesture].” This attention to the body is the inverse of typical captioning. It draws attention to visual details that hearing people are likely to miss.

The body has a sound all its own, and ASL is as much about reading the body as it is about reading hands. In her TED Talk, Kim likens ASL and English to playing the piano. When speaking or writing English, it’s as though you’re playing single notes in succession: word word word word. Tone of voice and body language play roles, but usually a sentence means fundamentally the same thing with or without them. ASL is more like a piano chord, with multiple notes played simultaneously: facial expression, hand shape, the speed and direction of movements, a pivot of the signer’s shoulders. A slight adjustment of any one of those components alters the meaning of the idea being expressed. A friend recently asked me about the ASL word order for the sentence “The snow fell slowly and softly,” but this is a question without an answer. You would use only one word—snow—and the rest of the meaning would be carried by the face, body, movements. Like complex music, Sign depends on timing, layering, inflection. The body is the thing that speaks, and so the body, too, can be a thing that sings. 

Kim talks about the signs for all day and all night, in which the dominant hand traces the movement of the sun, sweeping a wide arc over or under the nondominant arm, which is held flat like the horizon. These signs, she tells me, are musical. The musicality is hard to define, but she says it has something to do with manipulating the pacing of a word or sentence by slowing down or speeding up her movements. In her talk, she demonstrates the sign for once upon a time—she sweeps both arms above in a grand arc that finishes behind her back—and says it is her favorite among the examples she gives, the most musical of them all.

Seeing the sign for once upon a time brings me back to my childhood, when I watched ASL videotapes of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” and “Little Red Riding Hood.” Linda Bove, from Sesame Street, narrates these stories. There is an expression of deep peace on her face. And just as the telling of these stories in English is singsongy, so it is in Sign. Bove’s signs slow in places, creating rhythm; her face exaggerates certain words, giving them emphasis; and her fingers are controlled and graceful, easy to read. I wonder if non-signers can perceive the song in of all this. I don’t know. What I do know is that certain signs—wolf, hood, once upon a time—will forever appear in my mind in the body of Linda Bove, telling a story like a song. In the words of one of Ridloff’s captions, it is a “[gentle, warm, inaudible lullaby].”

*

ASL trains the body and the mind differently. It is a trope that the lack of one sense will amplify the powers of the others—that a blind person has supersensory hearing, or that a deaf person can magically sense what is behind them—but using Sign does train one’s ability to read bodies, to visually take in cues that non-signers miss, and perhaps even to experience music in expansive, unexpected ways. Rachel Kolb, a writer and Rhodes Scholar, wrote about her experience of music two years ago in The New York Times: “Watching visual rhythms, from the flow of water to clapping hands and the rich expression of sign language, fascinated me. But in the hearing world, those experiences often didn’t count as music.”

When Mansfield saw The Nutcracker at the Boston Ballet as a child, he had a similar attention to these visual details. He was mesmerized by the dancers’ costumes, in particular. “In my innocence,” he writes, “I believed that each crease, each fold, was specified by the choreographer.” To me, this is such an enchanting idea, so centered on the visual nature of movement and dance. It was, perhaps, a form of visual listening.

There are two signs for to listen in ASL. The first is located at the ears; this is listening in the hearing-typical sense of the word. The second is the same hand shape located at the eyes; to listen by looking, usually applied to language and communication. The sign is distinct from that for to see or to look at. It is an altogether different concept, one that doesn’t exist in English.

If some of us can hear words with our eyes, why can’t we hear song in different ways too? Why can’t there be a more expansive notion of what music can sound like or look like, how it can feel, what it can be? Leaves in an undulating breeze, the sudden meeting of eyes in a crowded place, the steady feeling through the floor of a friend’s footfalls.

Once I began to wonder where the real borders of musicality are, the world started to crack open in beautiful ways. Some particular types of movement pattern, sensations of wind. Watching telephone poles through a car window is a musical experience, Kim tells me. As soon as she says it, I remember a 2013 event in Boston in which the poet Raymond Luczak read a poem with this same image, his arms embodying that exact tune: “As you drive home, notice how rhythmic / telephone poles and corner signs are. / Wonder why no one ever thinks of making music / for eyes alone.”

I can understand skepticism about the idea that these things are music. Kim suggests that maybe a new word is needed. Mansfield also pushes against this idea a little,insisting that music is a specific sensory experience. To him, physical vibrations are fundamental to music; this solidified for him in 2014, when he collaborated with dancer and choreographer Noé Soulier to create a map of where sound resonates in the body depending on its volume, timbre, and pressure. He thinks the fullness of a musical experience resides in those vibrations and where they hit your body. “I don’t feel a sign in my ribs, in the balls of my feet, or the small of my back,” he says, whereas he can feel a song in his body. But he acknowledges the relative newness of Sign and of this exploratory work in the nature of hearing and music. “Musicality is an immersive experience,” he says, “where you get lost, overwhelmed, almost, by the sensory quality. That’s what masterworks of sign language can do.”

Like any other language, Sign can transcend basic communication and bend toward art. Sometimes this looks like the use of attentive descriptions to create complex worlds; other times it is about pacing and repetition. Rhyme doesn’t exactly exist in Sign, but it has a cousin in the repetition of specific hand shapes. The ASL poem “Need,” by Peter Cook and Kenny Lerner, begins with the sign for “need,” the index finger crooked and pulsing: need, need, need. Soon, the location of the pulse shifts; no longer bending his wrist, Cook begins to bend his arm at the elbow, his whole forearm now pulsing. He shifts the sign to the side view, and now it is no longer the sign for “need”; it has evolved into a pumping oil derrick. The most masterful compositions of Sign employ this conflation of language, image, pacing, repetition, and intensity. They draw on something like music. Or, maybe more simply: they are music.

I don’t know exactly what should or what shouldn’t be counted as music, but I do know that hearing people have been permitted to draw the borders of music for far too long. It is not our work to determine what counts as music for deaf people—to applaud some forms, like ungrammatical “interpreted” lyrics in YouTube videos, while deriding others as “not music” because they don’t appeal to traditional hearing sensibilities. If we do, we are treating music as yet another way for hearing people to define what the deaf can or cannot do, it limits the way hearing people experience the world, and it is a barrier placed before Deaf creative output. This lack of imagination in favor of hearing power impoverishes us all.

*

Thinking about music more expansively has changed me, permeating even my memory of that morning at the cabin. While Mansfield and I sat shivering in our pajamas on the porch, a guinea fowl waddled toward us. She was as big as a goose and almost entirely without elegance. We’d been watching her since the day we arrived at the cabin, when she had greeted us. Mansfield and I had approached her slowly, entranced, and soft-stepped a respectful semicircle around her. She came and went over the next few days, causing a ruckus throughout the cabin whenever someone spotted her.

Now she was sharing our morning: her funny walk, her big butt swinging to and fro. Her body was speckled with black-and-white patterns that undulated as her feathers passed over and under one another. I think of the way we watched her, so closely and attentively. Wasn’t there something musical about her? Her motions were both rhythmic and jagged, a small song her body played as her head moved back and forth, back and forth. 

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