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Judith Hamann, Sam Dunscombe, James Rushford, Golden Fur Judith Hamann, Sam Dunscombe, James Rushford, Golden Fur
courtesy the aritsts
THE COCHLEAR IMPLANT CONSISTS OF 22 ELECTRODES CONNECTED DIRECTLY TO THE AUDITORY NERVE. A MICROPHONE TRANSMITS AN AUDIO SIGNAL TO THESE ELECTRODES, ALLOWING THE WEARER TO BECOME AWARE OF THE SOUNDS AROUND THEM. GIVEN THE DIFFICULTY FOR COCHLEAR IMPLANT WEARERS TO DISTINGUISH TIMBRE AND PITCH, MUSIC IS A CHALLENGING AND SOMETIMES UNPLEASANT EXPERIENCE. THE INTERIOR DESIGN: MUSIC FOR THE BIONIC EAR PROJECT, CULMINATING IN A PERFORMANCE OF SIX NEWLY COMMISSIONED WORKS, AIMED TO ADDRESS THIS ISSUE.

In the concert, performed by Golden Fur and Speak Percussion, 11 loudspeakers were designed to mimic the 22 electrodes in a cochlear implant for an audience listening with and without implants. Composers and scientists have worked with wearers to investigate which sounds can be effectively perceived.

As well as the practical objective of producing music that can be appreciated by cochlear implant wearers, this project also raises questions about the nature of musical engagement. How does one go about composing music for someone with an entirely different experience of sound from one’s own?

A similar dilemma is faced by audiences who do not use implants. At times it was difficult to know how certain sounds were intended to be perceived, given that a number of the compositions used sounds specifically chosen for the way they would be experienced through an implant. For example, Ben Harper’s This is All I Need employs a tuning system based on the frequency spectrum of the electrodes in the cochlear implant. Rohan Drape’s Another in Another Dark uses extreme limitation as a means of focusing a listener’s perception. Instruments play various combinations of one or two note fragments at a slow tempo, with slight variations in duration. The result is something analogous to a suspended mobile, in that the experience of the work does not change over time, although the gradual shift of parts creates an illusion of changing perspectives.

Natasha Anderson’s Study for the Bionic Ear #1 moves between radically different sound worlds. The work begins with a stark and dry pallet of shaker, bongos and congas played with mallets. This is transformed with the introduction of piano samples—single note, contrasting rhythmic patterns sent through various speaker channels. In stark contrast to this highly rhythmic and energetic language, the final section uses bowed vibraphone, vibraphone tremolos, sine tones and samples of cello harmonics to create a highly spacious and atmospheric sound world.

Eugene Ughetti’s Syncretism A engages through a sense of theatricality and playfulness. Three percussionists with expanded drum kit set-ups play with speech, dynamic level and obscured stylistic references. The work is a pastiche of contrasting styles and techniques. Hand-held microphones are used to diffuse the sound of certain instruments into various parts of the theatre.

In a brief statement preceding the concert, artistic director Robin Fox drew attention to the fact that the works of these composers are rooted in an experimental aesthetic, concerned with challenging the parameters through which we engage with music. It follows logically that composers with this kind of approach, generally speaking, would be the obvious choice for such a project. However there were instances in the program where the conceptual agenda weighed the music down for the hearing audience.

It is a supreme challenge to compose music that will be perceived in an entirely different acoustic reality. Fox’s 3 Studies for the Bionic Ear achieved this most convincingly. In this work, sound was diffused through speakers in various patterns, an integral component in the language. These sonic patterns were accompanied by visual material that was highly integrated with sound, brilliantly drawing attention to subtle sonic shifts which may not otherwise have been noticed. What was most exciting was that the strength and clarity of the gestures produced by sound and visuals made it seem entirely feasible that this work would be just as engaging through a radically different mode of perceiving sound.

James Rushford’s Tusilage was also a standout work, due purely to the strength of its musical material. Performed by Rushford on viola, Judith Hamann on cello and accompanied by tape play-back, there was an eloquence and depth in its form, created through a sophisticated layering of material. Variations in the complexity and density of timbre were created through an exploration of the sonic potential of the bowed instruments and planes of pre-recorded sounds, allowing Tusilage to traverse vastly different states of energy and movement.


Interior Design: Music for the Bionic Ear, artistic director Robin Fox, composers Robin Fox, Natasha Anderson, Rohan Drape, Eugene Ughetti, Ben Harper, James Rushford, performers Golden Fur, Speak Percussion, Fairfax Theatre, Arts Centre, Melbourne, Feb 13

RealTime issue #102 April-May 2011 pg. 39

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