a day in Eyeth

There’s a legendary world in Deaf culture lore. It’s like Earth but it’s for people of the eye, so they call it Eyeth. (get it? EARth, EYEth) In this world, people listen with their eyes with the comfort of being normal, typical, just the way life is, unlike the heavily mediated existence of a Deaf person on Earth. Mediated through hearing devices, pads of paper, interpreters, lip reading, gestures.

I got a small peek into what Eyeth might look like last weekend. I jetted down to Louisville, KY at an unearthly hour in the morning on Saturday. When I got there, the biennial meeting of the National Association of the Deaf was wrapping its week-long meeting and they were launching DeaFestival, a day of arts and fun. My goal was to catch as much music and time with musicians as possible, especially with the Deaf rock band Beethoven’s Nightmare.

When I stepped across the crosswalk of the streets bordering the convention center, I crossed the threshold into a Deaf world. Everyone around me was signing. Every restaurant in the vicinity had a pad of paper on its counter, a few brave servers had learned some signs. I have been in Deaf environments before, like at the Deaf school. But this was different, like a small town, adults conducting business in ASL. There were interpreters and CART at all the events, but it was very much a Deaf majority.

At first I was a little worried. I have a hard time meeting new Deaf adults. As everyone has their own voice, everyone has a unique way they sign, and my receptive skills take a little while to adapt to a new person. Once I got into the groove, though, I found myself able to understand more and more, many different people and many different signing. And my job for the day was listening (LISTEN-EYES in ASL).

A break in the afternoon allowed me to approach the drummer of the band, “let’s talk.” He says “Ok.” And I’m whisked into a conversation about music with total strangers. He pauses in the middle “Are you getting this?” Just barely. A woman about my age said she’s never liked music, she never understood it, and it wasn’t fun to try to lip-read bands. Her friend said, “oh, you need to learn how to feel it. I love music! It’s like a drug!” She’s open to being convinced.

All afternoon I’m whisked around the vendor booths of the NAD meeting, following drummer guy who often introduces me to random Deaf people whom he may or may not know. Another woman was “forced” to take music classes in her mainstream education. (A mainstream education is something to be pitied in Deaf culture.) Many Deaf people haven’t had opportunities to experience music so it is nothing; others love it and over and over again I heard “Once you connect what you’re feeling with what’s going on on-stage, it’s amazing!” After a few hours I was exhausted, had an unanswered list of questions, but had met more Deaf adults than I ever had in one place and learned more about drummer guy (including the fact that he does not ever stop).

So I turned to the bass player, “let’s talk.” We sit down. It was 104 degrees under the tent. He tells me again how much they want to reach out to their Deaf culture with music. He said that things have changed more recently for Deaf culture. I assumed he meant post-Gallaudet protest of 1988. But he said, “No, since Obama.” This surprised me. I asked him if it was the captioning law Obama had passed, and he said, no, that now there is a greater sense of acceptance for Deaf people since Obama. I found it interesting how strongly he felt about Obama that he would put so much strength in this tide of change. Bass player also teaches in a Deaf school. He has middle and high school students and is experimenting with teaching them how to feel different sounds. Like “ear training” for the hands.

There are many more stories, but you’ll have to wait for the article. Much more to process.

 

first encounters with queerings

20120216-185301.jpg

Suzanne Cusick’s essay, “On a Lesbian Relationship with Music: A Serious Effort not to Think Straight,” was first published in the 1994 volume Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology, a ground-breaking book in queer theory in musicological circles. I first encountered Cusick’s essay last semester in a proseminar (a one-semester introduction to the development of the fields musicology and ethnomusicology). This essay was lumped into Gender day. I read it at 2 am, while trying to cram in all the readings for the next day’s seminar. I couldn’t sleep afterwards. It floored me. How is it that, nearly 20 years after it was first published, I am only now finding this? I recently reread it a few times to try to unpack its impact.

I think it affected me so much partly because, for the first time, I read something that really explored the connection between the person and the scholar, in a deeply profound way. She offers the possibility early on: “I needed to understand what relationship, if any, I could suppose to exist between my being a lesbian and my being a musician, a musicologist (69).” Perhaps her statement causes us to take a step back. Before considering the co-existing identities of lesbian and musicologist, we can possibly acknowledge that other aspects to our personhood matter to our musicological identities–that the private and professional can mingle, that we are somehow physically present with the music.

I have read a lot of personal reflections. And I have read a lot of postmodern criticism. I have even read combinations. But I have never read anything quite like this essay.

The content itself is very fascinating. Cusick defines what she means by “sexuality,” that “it is a way of expressing and/or enacting relationships of intimacy through physical pleasure shared, accepted, or given (70).” How this definition intersects with “lesbian” and “musicality” has to do with what Cusick calls “the enacted structure of the power/pleasure/intimacy triad and the gender of the beloved (71).” In other words, when we think about ways we enjoy music, we pause to consider, in that moment, who has the power: who is the lover and who is the beloved? Is the music, the lover, and the listener the beloved, in the weaker position? When we are performing music, do we become the lovers? In this expanded view of sex (something other than reproductive act), the notion of music as lover, or beloved, challenges us to consider what music is, how we listen to music, and what kind of place it has in our lives.

But I think it is something beyond content that I am so fascinated with. It’s how the personal is situated in all the intersections of lesbian, musicologist, criticism, music. I’ve always been interested in these kinds of intersections–though the details are different for me: woman, mother, Christian, musicologist, emerging critic(?). So how is it that I only just now encounter queer theory? a nearly twenty year musicological void in my life? And as I explore more about how the body is expressed critically in scholarship with my work in disability studies, I think I will find these new friends very helpful.

Feeling Beethoven

In Susan McClary’s controversial book, Feminine Endings (1991), she semiotically inscribes sex onto musical events. When I read the bit about the violence a certain Beethoven recapitulation wrought on the virtuous ears of his listeners, I snorted. No, Susan. You may have got Madonna right, but not Beethoven. When I got to a certain “violent” part, I heard a deaf man pounding the floor for our attention. I know the gesture. I have done it a hundred times on a hundred floors, to see my little boy’s eyes turn to meet mine.

I have to be careful with the terra sancta of Beethoven. I haven’t delved yet into the literature on Beethoven’s deafness, of which, I’m told, there is quite a lot. I’m almost afraid to. Will they get it right? Will they understand that hearing loss in general is so much more complex than one man’s hearing loss?

I haven’t overcome my reluctance yet, because right now I’m enjoying my private exploration. One thing I’ve been working on is describing a deaf experience of music. There’s a physiological aspect and a cognitive aspect. The former is a bit easier to describe–it’s a matter of noting that as sound waves hit our ear drums, sound waves hit our bodies, and a deaf person is so much more tuned in to that experience without the distraction of auditory hearing. A deaf experience of music is fundamentally embodied hearing. But what is the next step, the cognitive aspect, where our brains make sense of musical sound? That is harder.

I recently taught Beethoven in the music history survey that I’m teaching. I indulged a little and talked about deafness. Since I’ve been concentrating on deafness and music recently for a conference paper, it seemed a pity not to use some of that work in the classroom. I had the students place their hands on their desks, palms open facing down on the desk. I played the opening exposition of Beethoven’s Fifth, loudly. I hadn’t planned on this exercise, it kind of came to me in the moment, and I went with it. So I did the same thing, not knowing what really would happen. The sensation I was left with was the short-short-short-long motive. You know, the germinal motive that ties the whole symphony together? It was always placed in a position of maximum vibration. When I tuned into the vibrations, albeit, in a rudimentary manner, what I felt was short-short-short-long. I don’t want to make critical mistakes of semiotically inscribing deafness into Beethoven’s music, but I did find the experience curious and a little thought-provoking. At some point, I will have to come to terms with the scholarship on Beethoven’s deafness, but for now, I will just feel Beethoven.