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A Voice More Beautiful Than Blue

On a cold winter morning two years ago, Jeff Mansfield and I were the only ones awake on the porch of a cabin in Virginia. We were both sipping our coffees, trying to ignore the frigid air.

Mansfield, who had a former hockey player’s strong build, was better able to tolerate the chill. At one point, he looked to me and waved his hand to get my attention.

He asked me something that had never been asked before: “What do you hear?” In the stillness, I gazed out at the lawn with its single tree in the middle, and realized how little I knew about sound.

Having grown up with two generations of deafness in my family and being able to converse in Sign, I am actually hearing. I can recall that since I was about ten, I have mostly been in the hearing world.

I am conscious of the expansive, sometimes conflicting difference in comprehension between the hearing world and the Deaf world, which is based on the supposition that deaf people cannot get sound without the aid of kind hearing people.

Even so, on some subliminal level, I too had this idea.

Pointing to the trees on the lawn, I indicated where a flock of birds were singing, their melodies drifting back to us. Then, I said, “And, over here, you can hear the machines and construction from the road beyond the tree line.” The clanks and grumbles of the work could be heard in the morning air.

At first, I felt proud of my accounts, but then I quickly understood how shallow they were. I had neglected to include the most fascinating components of the sounds, merely indicating what generated them: a bird or a machine.

My attempts at describing birdsong had only the birds over there, but not their song.

Mansfield, though born profoundly deaf, understood the power of sound in a way that I did not. To me, sound was mundane, just something that happened in the everyday.

But to Mansfield, sound was a tool, a way to assign social power. He commented that imagining a deaf person’s relationship to sound is difficult, as it “upsets our predictable, if not delicate, understanding of sound.” For Mansfield, his life was largely determined by sound, rather than in the conventional manner.

A visual representation of a believer is displayed in the form of an image, which can be seen depicted as a person with their hands raised in the air. The concept of a believer is being expressed with the use of this image, displaying the idea of one who has faith.

A few months previously, Mansfield had already started to challenge my comprehension. As an architect and designer, he had researched sound in his work.

I viewed a video from the 2013 workshop in which he investigated sound with students from the Al-Amal School for the Deaf in the United Arab Emirates. Mansfield stood in front of the class, his hands on a speaker and a video of a drummer projected on the wall next to him.

He then began to interpret the music. After listening for a few seconds, he shaped his hands into two claws, moving them rhythmically against each other. When his hands parted, still rotating rhythmically at the wrist, it felt like the sound was becoming more expansive.

As his fingers straightened and bent, making small and large movements and closing and spreading apart, the interpretation was not one-to-one like a foot keeping the beat, but rather musical in a way that was native to Sign.

Mansfield is careful not to mimic the motions of a drummer when playing music in the video. He feels that connecting sound to a physical object doesn’t accurately reflect what it feels like to hear sound.

Thus, Mansfield is attempting to create an environment in which Deaf people can appreciate sound for its own merits, and interpret it for themselves. In between beats, he encourages students to approach the speaker, lay their hands on it, and create their own music.

Sitting on the porch in Virginia, I reflected on my own inability to fully explain birdsong and comprehend how the deaf and hearing interact with sound. Mansfield’s work showed me that there is something unique at the intersection of deafness and music.

It inspired me to question: if we existed in a world without hearing, what would song appear to be? His music had a newfound life, not just the interpretation of English lyrics into ASL which is a frequent experience for hearing people when it comes to deafness and music.

This type of signed music is shared on social media and sometimes done by kids in church, although it is usually an inaccurate word-for-word translation that is more catered to hearing people than deaf people.

During her upbringing, Christine Sun Kim, a Deaf sound artist who has had her work showcased by notable institutions such as the Whitney Museum and MoMA, was made to be aware of the sound she created due to the insistence of hearing adults–forcing her to control the noise she made.

Music classes taught her how to play the recorder, but the sound was neither tactile nor enjoyable to her.

It wasn’t until Kim encountered several sound-based art exhibits while in an artist residency in Berlin that she realized she could join this conversation, that she had a profound understanding of sound.

Kim delves into the way sound works, and how she perceives sound through deafness and Sign. As she points out in a 2015 TED Talk, “sound does not have to be something solely heard through the ears.

It can be felt tactilely, seen visually, or even interpreted as an idea.” She also uses her art as a form of protest to the hearing-oriented norms.

When I talked with her on FaceTime, she discussed her developing association with sound as a way to free herself from the hearing world’s standards.

Everywhere she goes, most structures, media, and communities are created with the hearing population in mind. “It’s all about listening,” she states. “It’s hard to distinguish the hearing-centric from the genuine Deaf experience.”

At first, she experimented by making diverse sounds with a microphone, subwoofer, and synthesizer, and then asked her hearing friends for their input. They would answer with things like, “This sounds nice,” or “This is unpleasant.” Still, something was not right.

Even though the sounds were created by her, she felt they were meant for the hearing people, based on their judgments and tailored for their ears. She needed to make sound based on her own standards.

At Face Opera II in New York City in 2013, Kim conducted a choir of deaf individuals who used only ASL facial expressions to create a musical piece.

She noted that only a small percentage of ASL is expressed through hand movements, with the majority of meaning conveyed through the face and body.

Last year, she commissioned seven lullabies that were free of lyrics and speech to be played for her newborn baby in lieu of commercially available songs. In 4 x 4 , which was exhibited in Stockholm, Kim put four speakers on the floor in each corner of the room.

The voices that the speakers emitted had been manipulated so that they were below the audible range for humans. Although the voices were not audible, the reverberations in the room were tangible: the windows vibrated, the walls quivered, and the fluorescent lights hummed.

The consequence was a reduction of the societal privilege usually enjoyed by those who can hear.

Within the room, only Kim was informed of what these voices were saying, their phrases and tones, while all her listeners could do was observe her rendition; to catch this, they would have to pay as much attention as she had.

They would have to feel the noise through their chests, legs and the vibrations in their beverages. In order to completely listen, they would have to become a bit less sensitive to sound.

It is commonly assumed in the hearing world that the deaf cannot experience music. This is due to the belief that the only way to access music is through sound.

Growing up, when I mentioned a Deaf friend’s appreciation of music, the response I got was usually one of disbelief. But there are many ways of engaging with music, and several types of deafness.

One of my friends loves to sing along to the music he enjoyed prior to losing his hearing, like Billy Joel and Guns N’ Roses. Even those born deaf can feel music through the use of Bass Eggs, Woojer Straps, and by placing their hands on a subwoofer.

Robbie Wilde, an ASL DJ, creates music by color-coordinating sound frequencies, while Douglas Ridloff, an ASL poet, often pairs his poems with music. Andrew Bottoms and Megan Malzkuhn wrote the ASL song “Hearing Knows Best,” which relies solely on sign language.

The deaf experience of song is not limited to traditional music; it has evolved into something unique.

The pupils at Mansfield’s workshop tested out the subwoofer to feel the sounds, then shifted to a bigger weather balloon to sense the more delicate vibrations. They subsequently built their own signed translations of the noises.

The point was to progress away from the preconceived understandings of things, and to show their own, unique experience. “We intended,” Mansfield mentioned to me, “to unlearn sound, and come to grasp the physical sensation of its vibrations.”

At the conclusion of the workshop, the team created videos of the sign language they had created to represent various sounds in the real world: a plane engine, the hum of a TV, and waves lapping against the shore.

They had taken the noise of everyday life and made it musical. In one video, Mansfield depicted the sound dirt makes when it falls in clumps, as if from a excavator. His right hand, made into the shape of a claw, dropped onto his left forearm and then his fingers expanded and fell, illustrating the sound of the clump of dirt hitting the ground and scattering.

The sign language I would make with my hands to represent the close excavator and the faraway construction grumble would be the same: machines, over there.

Mansfield’s hands, like dust, weave a captivating melody. Another speaker’s representation of a siren is so precise that it’s almost audible.

His hand rotates agitatedly, starting at the back and moving closer to his face as he gazes around anxiously, then proceeding swiftly, the rotation becoming more subtle as the noise diminishes into the horizon.

The other signer’s hands imitate the sound of a sewing machine, his palms lying flat and advancing slowly, back and forth. Quavering lightly, they make a humm, hummm, hummmm.

When it comes to the hearing world, the primary medium of vocal expression is song, while in Sign the body is the primary medium.

For her work entitled Close Readings , Kim requested her deaf and hard-of-hearing friends, including Mansfield and Lauren Ridloff, an actor from The Walking Dead , to supplement the sound captioning of movie scenes from some well-known films.

Kim conveyed that for deaf individuals, the quality of captions is essential to the film-viewing experience. Unfortunately, typical, simplified sound captioning fails to capture the multi-dimensional and layered nature of sound–the emotion, the meaning–that is portrayed in a film.

The movie The Little Mermaid, featuring Ariel and the villain Ursula, was captioned for this project. With the deal between them, Ariel gave up her voice and the original caption simply stated “[vocalizes].”

Mansfield’s captions instead reads, “[sound of vortex spinning],” “[whooshing sound],” “[sound of voice being extracted]” and “[glowing, pulsating hum of voice].” Ridloff’s captions have a more poetic feel, “[a voice more beautiful than blue, more beautiful than tomorrow slips out].”

These captions are more than just descriptions of sound – they also communicate the meaning and emotion of the scene.

The captions also push the boundaries of what is considered sound. Rather than strictly audible sound, it is more akin to body language: what the body conveys without words.

When Prince Eric and Ariel first meet, captioner Ariel Baker-Gibbs notes “[the tinkle of dimples]” and “[the sound of a huge finger very close to your face].” When Eric realizes that Ariel can’t speak, he looks away: “[the sound of eyes moving in a different direction than where they are looking].” As they attempt communication: “[failure of gesture.]” This focus on the body is the opposite of traditional captioning.

It brings attention to visual elements that hearing people may not notice.

The body has its own form of communication, and ASL requires one to not only read hand gestures but also body language.

Kim likened ASL and English to playing the piano in her TED Talk, explaining that English is like playing single notes in succession (word, word, word, word) while ASL is more like a chord with multiple notes being played at the same time (facial expressions, hand shape, speed, etc.).

A friend asked me about the ASL word order for the sentence “The snow fell slowly and softly,” but this is something that cannot be conveyed with just one word.

Rather, the rest of the meaning must be conveyed through the face, body, and movements, and it is in these ways that the body “speaks” and “sings”.

A picture of a believer is presented, with a final spot that has been cropped to 800×1062.

Kim explains the hand motions for all day and all night, which involve the dominant hand tracing the movement of the sun across the non-dominant arm, which is kept straight like the horizon. She describes this gesture as having a musical quality, though it is hard to define.

The pace of a word or sentence can be altered by speeding up or slowing down the motion. For example, she displays the sign for once upon a time by sweeping both arms above her and behind her back, which she deems the most musical of them all.

The sight of the words once upon a time transports me back to my youth, when I used to watch ASL videos of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” and “Little Red Riding Hood,” narrated by Linda Bove from Sesame Street.

There is a serene look on her face. Just as stories in English have a melodic quality, Sign Language also has a similar effect.

Bove’s signs are drawn out in certain places to create a rhythm; her facial expressions emphasize certain words; and her fingers move control and elegantly, making them easy to understand. I wonder if people who don’t know Sign Language can comprehend the music in all of this. I don’t know.

But I do know that certain signs like wolf, hood, and once upon a time will always be connected to Linda Bove in my mind, as she tells a story that is like a song. As stated in one of Ridloff’s captions, it is a “[gentle, warm, inaudible lullaby].”

ASL exercises both physical and mental muscles differently

. It is a popular belief that when a sense is lost, the others become heightened–such as a blind person having sharper hearing, or a deaf individual being able to detect what is going on behind them–but Sign does teach us to read body language more accurately.

To take in visual clues that those who do not know Sign miss, and even to appreciate music in brand new, unexpected ways. Rachel Kolb, a writer and Rhodes Scholar, wrote about her musical journey for The New York Times two years ago:

“I was captivated by the visual rhythms from the flow of water, clapping hands and the vibrant expression of Sign. However, within the hearing world, these encounters were not typically associated with music.”

Mansfield remembered with fondness his experience of attending The Nutcracker at the Boston Ballet in his childhood.

He was enchanted by the dancers’ costumes and the idea that “each crease and fold was specified by the choreographer”. This notion of visual listening captivated him, and it was a testament to the beauty of movement and dance.

In American Sign Language (ASL), two distinct ways of listening exist. At the ears, hearing is the traditional definition of the term.

However, the same hand shape located at the eyes is a separate concept that symbolizes listening by looking, particularly in regards to language and communication. This sign is distinct from the one for seeing or looking at and is not present in English.

Can we not broaden our understanding of music and how it can be experienced? Can we not perceive music in new and innovative ways, such as the rustling of leaves in the wind, the momentary connection of two strangers, or the steady rhythm of a friend’s footsteps?

When I started to ponder the actual extent of musicality, the globe began to open up in captivating ways. Certain sorts of movement, feelings of the breeze. Kim reminded me that observing telephone poles while inside a car is a musical journey.

As soon as she said it, I recalled a 2013 occurrence in Boston when Raymond Luczak recited a poem using the same representation, his arms embodying that exact melody:

“While driving back, take note of how rhythmic / telephone poles and corner signs are. / Pose the question why nobody ever imagines making music / only with their eyes.”

It can be understandable that some people may question whether these things should be considered music. Kim has proposed that a new term might be necessary.

Mansfield has also argued that music is a distinct sensation.

He believes that physical vibrations are essential to music and this concept was strengthened in 2014 when he and dancer/choreographer Noe Soulier developed a map showing how sound travels through the body based on volume, timbre, and pressure.

Mansfield believes that a full musical experience is found in the vibrations and where they are felt in the body. He adds that he does not sense a sign in his ribs, the balls of his feet, or his lower back, yet he can feel a song in his body.

Even though Sign is relatively new and this research into the nature of hearing and music is still ongoing, Mansfield concludes that musicality is an immersive experience that can lead to being lost in the sensory quality.

Sign language is capable of more than simply conveying messages; it can be used as an art form. This can take the form of highly descriptive language, or through the use of rhythmic repetition.

While there is no concept of rhyme in Sign, similar effects can be achieved by repeating certain hand shapes. An example of this is the ASL poem “Need”, by Peter Cook and Kenny Lerner, which begins with the index finger bent in a pulsing motion.

The poet then subtly changes the movement, shifting the location of the pulse and bending his arm at the elbow instead. This transformation of the sign’s meaning is what makes it an art form, by combining language, image, pacing, repetition, and intensity into something akin to music.

An image of a person with their hands raised in the air is seen in this particular picture. The individual appears to be in a state of belief and joy, as their arms are full of energy. This snapshot captures a moment of faith and elation.

It is not up to those who can hear to decide what music is or is not for those who are deaf. If we do, it is a way of hearing people dictating to the deaf what is and isn’t acceptable, which limits our collective experience of the world and stifles deaf creativity.

This lack of open-mindedness for the benefit of those who can hear ultimately impoverishes us all.

The way I look at music has undergone a transformation, even affecting my recollection of that day at the cabin. Mansfield and I were both sitting on the porch in our nightclothes, feeling the chill, when a guinea fowl approached us.

She was as big as a goose, but not graceful at all. We had noticed her since our arrival, when she had welcomed us. We cautiously moved closer to her, captivated, and formed a semicircle around her.

Over the next few days, she kept coming and going, making her presence known whenever someone noticed her.

We observed her movements in the morning, a comical stride with her plump backside swaying from side to side.

The black and white markings over her body changed shape as her feathers shifted. There seemed to be something melodic about her, a dance of sorts with her head bobbing and weaving in an unsteady, yet controlled rhythm.

We watched her movements intensely, captivated by the small tune her body created.

Other Options to Consider

The way in which something can be expressed in a different form without altering its meaning is known as paraphrasing. This involves restructuring the words and syntax of a sentence while preserving the original sentiment.

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