The deaf experience of electronic music and Gabber Eleganza feature on this month's episode.
The Hour is RA's monthly blend of documentaries, interviews and discussion.
The short film A Sonic Pulse follows three people with varying levels of hearing impairment as they navigate making music and absorbing sound in a live environment. This month's episode begins with RA contributor Gabriel Szatan speaking with the film's creators Dorothy Allen-Pickard and Antoine Marinot to discuss the challenges of presenting deafness on screen and the wider trends of discrimination facing the deaf community.
Next, producer of The Hour Martha Pazienti Caidan speaks with Alberto Guerrini, the artist behind the Gabber Eleganza project. What started as a blog has since grown to encompass a research platform, live performance and even a book celebrating hardcore culture. Together they explore the importance of archiving, the aesthetic of hardcore and the construction of the Gabber Eleganza live show.
Martha Pazienti Caidan
A Sonic Pulse interview transcription /
Dorothy: I'm Dorothy and I'm a filmmaker. We made a short documentary called A Sonic Pulse, which looks at how deaf people experience electronic music.
Antoine: I'm Antoine. I'm a graphic designer originally and we've been working on this one for the first time as a director. I think for this film we wanted to sort of step away from the classic scene, music scene, or geographical scene of electronic music and try to focus on something which has a different standard, a different view on how people experience music in a more general view.
This originally came from, first, my deafness, which is obviously a sort of awareness towards these kinds of issues related to sound and perception of music. And second, this very nice exhibition that I saw once, an installation video at the V&A. It was about people experiencing sound in general after having the cochlear implant fitted or something. And one person was explaining her experience of going through a festival, which was Field Day, and having the failure in her equipment and experiencing music and the whole event without perceiving any music, and therefore focusing much more on visuals and the crowd and emotions, and I thought it was very fascinating.
Gabriel: It's interesting. I've actually had that experience a few times, which we can get onto in a minute, but we should really focus on you first.
Dorothy: I want to hear your experience.
Gabriel: They're varied and weird, but also kind of, quite like the film they end with a weird sense of understanding and knowing and like a self... What's the right way to express it. I'm quite at ease when it happens now that I've kind of gone through it once or twice, it puts me in a state of almost like, you've got to roll with the punches. If something's happened to my ears at a festival or if I'm on the job, I can't really rant about it and it's happened a few times. So I just have to see it as, "Well, it's going to be a half day where my senses are completely out of whack, so I might as well kind of go through the motions with it and enjoy it rather than being scattered." But we'll get onto that in a minute.
Antoine: What happened to your hearing?
Gabriel: Oh, I'd lost my entire high-end overnight when I was 19, so I have Lyrics, which are built-in hearing aids that I toggle with a magnet. This means I can deliberately turn my ears off at festivals, which is really fun to do sometimes, especially when people are a little gone throughout the day and everyone's chatting my ear. I literally just shut them out and focus on the musical sounds, which is why I'm doing this interview with you.
But you've got, firstly, a deep knowledge of electronic music and also an uncommon hearing problem. And I wondered a), if that was genetic from birth or developed later and b), how your taste in music might have changed as you kind of got into this second stage mode where your hearing was not as it was.
Antoine: So I had an accident when I was 21 and I almost completely lost the left ear. This actually doesn't really affect my experience of music that much. Before doing this documentary maybe I wasn't aware of it that much, but now maybe I'll focus more or try to be a bit more sensitive to what I'm actually feeling rather than just hearing. But I think I still have very normal functioning hearing on the other side, which means I've never focussed that much on this disability or this hearing loss that much.
Dorothy: Did you listen to electronic music before you were 21?
Antoine: Yes. Well, I actually I had an accident after going out to a club because I was definitely partying right before having this accident and losing my ear. So yeah, I was very into music before and I still am. What actually makes me think now is I'm definitely much more aware of the fragility of hearing and I value it more. And I guess I've got a better understanding of how to preserve my ear and make sure that I want to keep this gem for as long as I can.
Gabriel: When you two were conducting interviews for the film, how did that awareness of the fragility of hearing manifest and grow? Were you speaking to dozens of people? Or was it just the three protagonists that we see on screen? Were they the ones guiding you with what it meant to have a sensory experience rather than a hearing experience? Did you have to cast a wide net or just zone in on them?
Dorothy: So we just had the three, and we actually found them really randomly. And it's one of those things that you look back on and you're like, "That actually worked really, really well because they're very different experiences." So the three interviewees, Helen Oakley has a cochlea and started severely losing her hearing when she was 19, and quite soon after that she got a cochlear implant. And one of the first times she made music was she had the cochlear turned on, so suddenly your whole hearing kind of changes and you get it essentially updated. So then again you hear it, it's constantly changing where you hear.
She was in an attic loft room, heard a thunderstorm and it's like surround sound, all these different frequencies and it was really atmospheric. And she started making electronic music in response to that. You can kind of imagine why she was drawn to electronic music as a way of, in some way, mirroring it.
Then there's Troy Lee. I just put a thing out on Instagram or something saying we're doing this film. I think I was actually looking for crew. But then my friend's mum messaged me being like, "I just met this amazing woman, Helen, and found what she had to say fascinating. Speak with her." So that was Helen. And Helen was very open to having any conversation and I don't feel like she particularly tried to direct it in one way or another.
Troy, however, he's kind of like the core of the deaf rave community. He runs and organises this night Deaf Rave. It was actually really interesting because I was going to ask them all similar questions. And before we went to do the interview, he basically said, "This isn't going to be another interview about how is it that you hear music when you're deaf?" He gets asked these questions and does these quite generic interviews all the time.
Gabriel: Yeah, I can imagine that he's probably sick of that over 15-plus years of running it. It seems like a dinner party question that you should get out of the way. Or maybe just like, have the foresight not to ask a deaf person that.
Dorothy: Yeah. So I wasn't going to ask him that. He also said, "I don't want to talk about deaf politics," which I actually didn't know much about, but…
Antoine: Which you eventually did.
Dorothy: Yeah, which actually in the end he spoke loads about. Before we sat down for the interview I was like, "Okay, any obvious question that comes into my head, scrap that," and anything that feels too basic, and actually make it much more about his specific taste in music and how his experience of growing up in Hackney has made that so diverse. I centred on something very personal. But it was one of those things where I was like, "I really want this to be an interesting and kind of fruitful experience for him. And I hope he walks away with something, with something valuable. But he might not, this might just be a generic thing." And actually he's responded really, really positively to the film and loves it. And at the end of the day he was like, "That was wicked. Thanks guys."
Then there's Richard France. I could ask him, "How are you?" and he would come up with the most elaborate, bonkers, amazing, imaginative response. He's just like…
Gabriel: He's the older man?
Dorothy: He's the older guy, yeah.
Gabriel: He certainly seemed to be more, if not more articulate, his answers, as you say, were sprawling all across the map. Troy definitely looked by proxy as being something like a flag bearer for the deaf community. He has his set answers and then obviously because he has to represent people, it would fall on him if he was misrepresenting them. Whereas the other two definitely felt a little less scripted and maybe a bit more charismatic in that way they came across.
For those reading this or listening to the podcast who may not have watched the film, you can listen to it without subtitles and it is naturally subtitled, but the difference in speech is, there's a massive fall off, which is really interesting. I don't know whether that came up in your interviews, but articulation is something that people that are born deaf struggle with massively because they have no perception of what speech sounds like in the same way others do. And I found that interesting that you had two people who were rather articulate and then a third who's speaking was much more laboured.
Antoine: I think Troy was having two hours every single day, whether it be two hours of pronunciation work with his mum because she knew how important it was for him to be in both worlds, even though you are never part of both while at the same time but you can still be. And that's actually what we found out about Helen. The fact that she was hearing fully before means that she speaks quite perfectly, and therefore she never really felt the need to learn sign language. When she became deaf she wasn't able to communicate with the deaf community in general but was becoming a bit out of the box from the hearing community. So she ended up being a bit sort of halfway in between.
Gabriel: Yeah, I was wondering about that. This is something you two might not necessarily know because the politics of the deaf community is something that we're not privy to as people with either slightly damaged hearing or fine hearing. But I wonder if that's a tiered system in how deaf and hard of hearing people view themselves. Especially in the context of a rave, it's somehow more pure to be no speech ability, all sign language and no hearing. And whether that's seen as more of almost like a virtuous pursuit rather than being someone that has variable but okay hearing. I don't know if that meant that truly deaf people are considered somehow other than those with mild hard-of-hearing issues.
Maybe a way to explain it for people listening is there's a part in the film where they speak about not being let into a pub because they're using sign language in the queue, and that that denigration was felt more keenly and that kind of spurred Troy Lee, I think, to form something to serve the deaf community. And that might not be held by someone with only partially damaged hearing because they're not using sign language in the same way.
So I guess you say it's a matter of visibility and not like you're punching up or down depending on how deaf you are, but more that if you have a semblance of hearing it is completely different. You kind of walk the world halfway to a normal person's hearing, whereas if you're completely deaf, those challenges are so much more severe that you do have a kind of badge of honour.
Antoine: And the need to create space and community on your own to compensate for the fact that you are not a part of something else, I guess. So I guess your level of disability in that sense makes you more in need of actually being involved.
Dorothy: Yeah. And it's definitely about visibility I think, that thing of passing or not passing.
Gabriel: I found some of Troy Lee's experiences, and I was reading up on him, interesting because he speaks about walking around to his local town, listening to Public Enemy cassettes when he was 14, and speaks about that kind of Eureka moment of going to a rave and having the sliding doors in his life where after that nothing was the same, and that was the experience you want to hold on to.
Those kinds of things are familiar to millions. And it shows that his hearing is not an impediment to sharing those experience of having a life owed to rave. But he was lucky enough to have that. And I think when he saw more and more people of his kind shut out, he felt that spurred him to widen the access for them so that they wouldn't be denied what he was lucky enough to have as a child, which is quite a noble thing to do. Obviously it's his life's work but you do often need that one person to spur on the start of progress, otherwise people would just kind of get stuck in a rut.
Dorothy: And they will be architects. They will be club programmers and people who run spaces. Even in London, in any city, where they're not thinking about making that space accessible, they wouldn't even be on people's radars. How do we make a social space such as a club accessible for deaf people? Troy is doing an amazing job of raising awareness around the idea that you're only as disabled as your environment makes you, which is so crucial. And yeah, potentially there are lots of interesting ways in which you can actually change the architecture or the function of a club so that it is fully accessible for everyone and everyone can experience it.
Gabriel: I pulled up a statistic The Guardian had last year saying that the UK's live music census from February 2018 found that only 30% of surveyed venues had dedicated disabled access areas and only 7% had a policy to provide PA for people that are hearing impaired. Yet there's been a 70% rise in disabled access ticket sales in 2016 to 2017. So it feels like the two lines in the graph are overlapping slightly, and that obviously needs corrections so that they dovetail together and access is available for all.
Often I feel that a venue is only subject to pressure when they have to, when there's been a public outcry where there's been one case that has been really shameful and then they get their act into gear. Of course, it should really be them taking progressive approaches to make sure that no one's excluded in the same way.
Dorothy: The thing is it always falls to deaf people, or disabled people in general, to be talking about accessibility when actually it's something that we should all be aware of. Every time you meet someone or go somewhere you have to be like, "Have you thought of this, this, andthat? Do you tick these boxes?"
Antoine: I think for music in general, based on our research, there's been a lot of improvement as you said, of accessibility and giving access to people through different spectrums of equipment. Whether it's the jacket, the vibrational jacket, or lighting systems that actually make you feel the music or perceive the music differently than just by hearing it.
Gabriel Dorothy, when it comes to bringing these quite intangible and human concerns about sensory feelings of sound and vibrations, when it comes to portraying that on a screen, how'd you go about it? Because your work—especially The Mess, which for those of you who are listening to this, I encourage you to see—articulated bipolarity by way of someone's life falling down and then kind of raising back up. But this is something completely different because bipolarity is rooted in the emotions and perceptions. Whereas here we're in a sensory realm where people are often denied an entire sense. I don't know how you can get that across on a screen in six or seven minutes.
Dorothy: That's kind of why I love film though because you can break down all of the different senses. It's obviously visual and the visuals move. So it's a time-based medium. And then there's sound, which has dialogue, but also you break it down in sound design, and then also the score. So there are all these different elements to be deconstructed.
I guess if you break it down in terms of a human experience of sound or music, you think about all of the different senses. So feeling and the vibrational thing and the sound and how you might visualise that. I think it came to us straight away: the idea of using an obvious visualisation of sound, frequencies and beats through somatics. I thought it was particularly effective with water. It just looked really good.
Antoine: We spent four hours shooting sand in water as well.
Dorothy: We spent like 10 hours in our living room, which we turned into a little studio. Blocked out the windows, put some lights on so it got really hot and we just slightly lost the plot watching sand bounce and filming it digitally. We have something like five hours of that. But the somatics with water and with different sort of grains and different elements is just this amazing visualisation through patterns and frequencies. It was really fun to play with that. So we wanted the musical school to also relate to these visualisations we created.
Antoine: I think the sound was very important and actually listening to Richard France's music, too. It's really experimental and tweaks and distorts the sound environment. And I think listening to his music was very important and made us feel the need to connect his approach to music and his creation to more abstract visuals. Therefore we used very cinematic closeups and juggling between the two, or actually echoing the two together.
Gabriel: What I thought was interesting, I think it's in the first minute or maybe the second, is when you go to people with instruments and a sound speaker, and the first thing we hear is such a common phrase when a DJ is playing a mix of the galloping horse. And the fact that that was transmittable just through the air vibrations is incredible to me. I certainly had this conversation five or six times a week when out in a club and the fact that's transmittable through air shows that really there isn't that much difference between having full hearing and no hearing when you have the perceptiveness to reach those kind of analogies. It immediately broke down a barrier and she didn't need to hear that at all. She can feel it. It was a really nice way to bed into those people's worlds very quickly. So well done, I guess.
The other thing I really liked when we had the group shots is the closeup of people's fingers because so much of the film is rooted in sign language. You had a lot of hands moving in correlation with the speech and then close to people's fingertips touching instruments. That felt very tactile, intimate and personal.
Dorothy: Thank you. Yeah, the music workshop was also one way of breaking it down. So it's basically finding a group of deaf people who don't know that much about music and haven't created music before. So we're doing it in this very responsive and kind of open way and talking about their experience. That felt like a really good approach, rather than saying to a deaf person, "How do you experience music?" Getting them to experience music and learn about it and create it themselves. They don't have to explain it verbally or whatever, but we as an audience can kind of follow that learning process and what it is when you break down music and put it back up and really feel it.
Antoine: I think it's also a way to involve people who otherwise wouldn't feel very legitimate to talk about or be involved in music. Because the first question she asked during the workshop, which is not in there, is, "What's your experience of music?" And everybody's sort of almost awkward and embarrassed because no one has ever had an experience, whether it's creating music or listening to it. So I guess it was a very important thing as well to involve people who don't really relate to music in that sense.
Gabriel: It's something that I guess is a correlated effect of being lost in one of one's own head, especially if you have impaired or fully deaf hearing, that you are by proxy really isolated from the world outside, both in the macro and micro. You lack the ability to communicate in an unlabored way with someone in a shop, on the tube. It creates a a natural barrier. And I thought that the community aspects of raving was probably the most important takeaway I had from the short.
I've read another statistic about depression rates in deaf people being extremely high because of the isolating factor. And so as well as there being this kind of smile-inducing takeaway, you're seeing people experience music in a way other than our own or adding an extra sensory heft to it. You've got a sense that these community events are vital because they provide human interaction, which is often denied to people.
It's such a common trope when you talk about raving all together, blah, blah, blah, and that's something that we probably all take for granted, that you don't need a rave to hang out with friends or be in concert with other people with their bodies and their emotions. But a space that is swamped with sounds, swamped with vibrations to these people really is like the absolute best place that they can experience those connections, which should drive the government or civic bodies to create more of them, because you could break a lot of the depressive and even suicidal rates amongst deaf people simply by getting them all in one place and giving them a good time.
Antoine: And also breaking the boundaries between the two worlds. Troy was talking about building bridges between communities. I remember some footage with a subtitle, it's archival footage from Deaf Rave and the guy, I think, is saying, "We are whole partying together in here." And I think it's really important, those spaces and music is here as well to make that happen, building bridges between deaf world and hearing world.
Dorothy: It's interesting how the moment music has lyrics or even when we use dialogue, we think of that as the form of communication that brings us together. And actually it's not. Actually the common language that we all do speak, feel and know is actually a musical one and one that's, I guess, much more kind of... I want to avoid using the web pure, but just really basic and fundamental. The thing about particles and the way that we actually feel sounds and how music brings people together across boundaries of hearing and non-hearing.