I find it embarrassing to admit my music tastes to anyone, but particularly to the man I love because, for a time in the early 2000s when it was viable to be a professional musician (or a writer for that matter), he played bass in a band.
I watched his face carefully as I confessed, ‘I love Vangelis.’
His expression didn’t reveal anything. He has schooled himself not to pass judgement on people’s aesthetic tastes—although once, to my delight, he slipped up when I mentioned my fondness for the Dixie Chicks.
Eventually, he asked, ‘Why?’
‘It’s something to do with the synthesiser—I can hear what each strand of music is doing. Whereas in classical music, it’s mushed together. I can hear what you hear when you listen to music.’
‘Synthesisers can produce pure tones, so maybe that’s why you can hear them better.’
‘What’s a pure tone?’
‘A tone that consists of a single frequency. Whereas physical instruments have many frequencies layered over the top of each other.’
‘I guess that makes sense.’
I was born into a noisy, extroverted family on a property in north-west New South Wales. My father and his two brothers, all of whom had grown up on the farm before leaving, marrying and returning with their wives, were of a musical bent. They sang in the bathroom, and around the barbecue, and acted in local productions of Gilbert and Sullivan in the dusty theatres of Boggabri and Gunnedah. My brother, sister and six cousins were much the same, delving into boxes of dress-ups at home or at my grandparents’, then posing and performing.
I wanted to perform with my brother and sister and cousins, our voices soaring and falling into a darkened audience.
At age four, I contracted bacterial meningitis, an infection of the fluid surrounding the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord. I lost half the hearing in my right ear, and all of it in my left: a diagnosis of severe-to-profound deafness. My parents were uncertain what to do. They could either raise me in the same way as my brother and sister, or they could send me to boarding school for deaf children in Sydney. I was too young to board, so they decided on the former.
My sister, three years older, had started piano lessons, and my mother enrolled me as well. At the piano, my music teacher sat at my right so that I could hear her with the ear that worked. She explained the keys to me, then asked, ‘Can you hear the difference between F and F sharp?’ She pressed a white key, then a black key.
I heard the tone rise, and nodded.
‘That’s a good start! Let’s find some pieces for you to learn. Something with melody in the treble.’
The antibiotics used to treat the meningitis damaged the hair cells of my cochlea, which transmit auditory information to my brain. Although I retained some hearing, it was largely in higher registers, so lower pitches are harder for me to hear.
As well as locating pieces that suited my hearing, my teacher contacted the Australian Music Examinations Board and arranged for me to be tested on extra sight reading (playing a piece of music after looking at it once) in place of singing in my annual exam. I was told that I couldn’t sing in tune.
When I watched my family on stage I yearned for something I could never have. I wanted to perform with my brother and sister and cousins, our voices soaring and falling into a darkened audience. I folded my desire into a tiny, clumpy square and resolved not to dwell on it. Besides, there were other ways to enjoy music.
After a day of working on the farm, my father painted watercolours in his studio, a wooden building shaped like a ship. My brother and I sat on the floor near his feet and drew on scraps of paper. The score from The War of the Worlds played on the stereo and vibrations travelled through the wooden planks into my crossed legs. I liked to turn the volume up to feel the vibrations buzzing through my body, but it was too loud for my father and he crossed the floor to turn it down.
When I moved to Sydney in my early twenties, I went out dancing on the weekends with friends. I rarely knew the band or song that played, and usually turned my hearing aid off because the sound was so loud it might have damaged what little hearing I had. Yet my sense of rhythm was impeccable. I snapped my hips to a beat, my feet finding the quavers in between. If the song had a bass line, I’d plant my feet on the floor to feel the vibrations travel up my body to my arms, raised above my head. Closing my eyes, swaying in a drunken haze, happy.
Once, around this time, a man I was keen on asked me, ‘What kind of music do you like?’
‘Songs from movies.’
He made a face.
‘What’s wrong with that?’
‘It’s derivative. There’s a whole world of music out there and you want to listen to something in a film?’
I didn’t like him so much after that.
If the song had a bass line, I’d plant my feet on the floor to feel the vibrations travel up my body to my arms, raised above my head. Closing my eyes, swaying in a drunken haze, happy.
I have heard friends say that listening to music as teens was a way of defining who they were, of sharing an identity. My partner, many of whose friends were musicians, used to jam with them, or put Rage on after a night out. I didn’t have any close friends until I was fifteen, and those friendships were with one or two other girls rather than a group, so we rarely mentioned music. The only way I could find songs was through movies or my family.
Some might see the relationship between my partner, a musician, and myself, a deaf woman, as a cliché. Yet such a cliché—used famously in films such as Mr Holland’s Opus, where the apparent contrast between deafness and sound creates tension between a music teacher and his deaf son—is based on the erroneous assumption that deafness means zero hearing, and all Deaf/hard-of-hearing people experience it in the same way. Likewise, Beethoven was considered to be a genius not only because of his flair as a composer, but because he lost his hearing and continued to write music. This popular conception belies the massive reserves of effort and concentration Beethoven drew upon to compose, as well as recent research that shows that, up until the year before his death, he had some hearing in his left ear.
Deafness is not necessarily absolute. Many of us can hear sound and most of us can feel it. Beethoven’s ground-breaking and expansive compositions remind us how much Deaf people can love music, whether through sound waves or vibrations.
It was disappointing, then, to see Andy Dexterity sign singing on The Voice recently. During the performance, his use of Auslan was rudimentary and incoherent, essentially a gimmick; though he has been performing for a while, he has not attempted to engage with the Deaf community. It is better to support Deaf sign signers such as Auslan choirs, or through people such as Tallula Bourne, who has a cochlear implant. Bourne recently created a Deaf choir and, during the COVID-19 lockdown, has been teaching New Zealand singer Lorde’s ‘Team’ to choir members online.
On my bucket list is a Deaf Rave—a night out clubbing for Deaf people. Founded by Troi Lee from Hackney in 2003, the raves crank up the bass for vibrations and feature sign singers, Deaf dancers and Deaf DJs. They also, importantly, create a space for Deaf people to socialise and share their culture without being marginalised.
In the mid noughties I studied in London. I walked to my part-time job beside the grungy canal along the Kingsland Towpath, listening to The Veronicas on a metallic blue Discman. I plugged the earbud firmly into my right ear and put the Discman into my backpack. I left my hearing aid in its box. Using earbuds was the only way I could listen to songs without straining. I never put on music for background listening; it’s distracting because all my attention is immediately drawn to decoding the input. I relax only when sound streams into my ears.
Music increasingly went digital, and CDs became something you strung up in orchards to frighten birds. I was living in a terrace house with my brother in London, and one day mentioned that I needed some more music for my walks to work.
We sat at the kitchen table and went through his list of songs.
‘Here, you’ll like this one, Jess. It’s by the Scissor Sisters.’
He pressed play on his laptop and started singing. ‘You ain’t seen tits on the radio (oh no), you ain’t seen tits on the radio…’
Deafness is not necessarily absolute. Many of us can hear sound and most of us can feel it.
I stared at him, bemused. As children we had hung over the tape deck, listening to Elaine Paige’s rendition of ‘Memory’ from Cats. No matter how many times I played the song, I couldn’t make out all the words, so I recruited my brother, gave him a pen and paper and asked him to write them down. He went through a lengthy process of pressing play, pause, rewind, play while I, listening intently, watched the lyrics form beneath his pencil.
This time I pulled the laptop towards me and searched for the lyrics on the internet to make sense of the tits on the radio. Meanwhile, my brother copied across Beth Orton, Bjork, Imogen Heap, the Dixie Chicks, and Goldfrapp, a playlist that accompanied me back to Australia.
After ten years of living in Brisbane, my hearing aid started making whistling noises (it, too, was ten years old). I made an appointment with my audiologist and we picked out a new hearing aid. ‘It has Bluetooth,’ he explained, ‘so you can connect it to your phone and use it to listen to music.’
He set it up for me via my mobile and within seconds music streamed into my hearing aid. I was startled: the quality of sound was incredible. I went home, downloaded my ageing playlist onto my phone, connected it with Bluetooth and headed out for a walk along the Brisbane River. As the sun fell below the high rises and the river sparkled with gold, I heard sounds in the songs that I’d never heard before. My step quickened to meet the beat, and my spine softened, music pouring into my body.