Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Music of the Deaf

When I was a student at UCSD in the early 2000’s, I took a linguistics course on "Sign Language and Its Culture." This was an introductory linguistics course, which I was taking only to fulfill a credit. I had no real expectations for the class, but the course title alone contained an idea new to me. For whatever reason, I had never before then even considered that there could be such a thing as a distinct culture of sign language.

I could only imagine how great a loss it would have felt to me personally, if ever I were to lose my own sense of hearing, and that would lead me to thinking how unfortunate it must be to be deaf. Unenlightened as I was, I pictured a hypothetical deaf person being basically like myself (an American male, let's say, with whom I might have many other things in common), only they would be "missing" that one sense, consequently rendering them an "incomplete" version of me. I never quite articulated it in those terms, but that was, if only subconsciously, nevertheless how I perceived things, even gifted as I was with my full five traditional senses.

In my ignorance, it never occurred to me that this attitude of mine was shallow, insensitive, perhaps even offensive. The professor of that class, David Perlmutter, didn't hold it against me, nor against, indeed, the majority of students, who simply didn't know any better. That was why he was here, after all—to educate us.

Perlmutter's most memorable lesson for us was an anecdote out of his conversations with the deaf community. Suppose there were a magic pill that could instantly make a deaf person able to hear. As Perlmutter recounted, when asked if they would take such a pill, one deaf individual, rather than answering, turned the question around and asked, "Would you, as a hearing person, ever take a pill that would make you deaf?" And he continued: "Or, as an American, would you ever take a pill that would make you French?"

Their position was clear enough: they did not regard their deafness as a condition in need of a cure, any more than being French could be considered an affliction. Being deaf did not make them less able, in most every way that counted. If there were certain things they could not do that some hearing people could, well, there are a great many things that I can't do that some hearing people can, or, for that matter, that some deaf people can—compose a symphony, for example, or compete in the Olympics. Deaf people are no less able to enjoy community or to produce culture and art. And if the culture particular to the deaf community ever seems unconventional to outsiders, is it any less the case that, say, French cuisine might seem strange and foreign to someone from Kansas?

Not everyone was entirely convinced by Perlmutter's lesson, as there was some audible scoffing coming from the back of the lecture hall. I should mention again that this was an introductory course; the material, easy and intended for general consumption, leaned toward politically correct feel-good answers over relentless challenging inquiry. Although I say I came out of that class more enlightened than I went in, and certainly more knowledgeable, still there were many fair questions raised and not answered.

Setting aside the magic pills, some saw a flaw in the reasoning put forward by that proud member of the deaf community. Was their culture truly "deaf culture"? Or was it rather, as even the title of the course suggested, "the culture of sign language"? If it was the latter, then the deaf person would indeed seem to be at a disadvantage. A determined hearing person could eventually become fluent in sign language, and thereby assimilate its culture, but a deaf person could never appreciate sounds in the same way that a hearing person could.

Professor Perlmutter himself seemed to be the case in point, a hearing person who was the resident expert on the culture of sign language. He had studied sign language, engaged with the deaf community, and developed an appreciation for their art. Perlmutter did take a step back to remind us that he was not deaf, and that he in no way fancied himself qualified to represent the deaf community. Still, he was the one here gushing to us about how beautiful was “the music of the deaf." What could he know of it, without being deaf himself? And if he, a hearing person, could appreciate it well enough to find it beautiful, didn't that only undermine the deaf person's position that there might be something to lose in becoming hearing?

For me personally, there was no concept in that class more difficult to grasp than this idea of “the music of the deaf.” Beyond mentioning that it existed and insisting that it was beautiful, Perlmutter did not oblige us with a demonstration or even a video. I suppose it was somewhat outside the scope of that linguistics course.

I thought of Beethoven, of course, although he was never mentioned in the class, and truthfully probably was not relevant to a course on the culture of sign language. Beethoven began to lose his hearing as an adult, only becoming mostly deaf toward the end of his life, after he was already an accomplished composer. He continued to produce brilliant works during that later period, but I don’t think this was the “music of the deaf” that Perlmutter was talking about. Beethoven knew what it was to hear music. I imagined he could still use his knowledge and memory as a reference for his later compositions. He would be able to “hear” a note in his mind, even if his ears no longer served.

I wondered, what was it like for someone who was born deaf? They might still be able to appreciate music, maybe even be able to compose. They could experience the vibrational variations of the sound, and perhaps they could process the math in their minds to produce… something unknowable to me. I did not think I could ever know what a deaf composer’s music “sounded” like to them, nor could they know what their compositions sounded like to me. (To be fair, I don’t think I could ever know what a hearing composer’s music really sounds like to them, either, only what it sounds like to me.)

But I think what Perlmutter was really talking about was song—not deaf composers writing “hearing people’s music,” but deaf musicians singing lyrics through sign language, perhaps unaccompanied by any sound at all, primarily for the appreciation of deaf audiences. This was a vastly more difficult concept for me to grasp, because, to me, music could not be separated from sound. You could sign the lyrics to a song, but, without the music, it was just words, poetry. Hearing people had poetry too, but a poem was not a song. I just didn’t get it.

A few weeks back, however, I was attending an OK Go concert (House of Blues San Diego, May 1, 2015), and I noticed there was a woman, not on the stage but next to it, who appeared to be interpreting the show into sign language. She was standing on a small platform off to the side, in front of a party of concertgoers, who, I observed, were conversing with one another through sign language. Transfixed, I watched her for a couple songs, and thought at last that I understood this “music of the deaf.”

It’s not just signed lyrics, not just words; there’s a musicality to her every movement. You can contrast her performance of the song against the middle portion of the video, where she’s interpreting the band’s non-musical banter with the crowd. When she is interpreting speech, her signing is still expressive, of course, but there is not the same rhythm, not the "melody," that accompanies her interpretation of the music.

So, there we have it?

Honestly, I still have no idea. This was not an original deaf composition but an interpretation of a hearing song, so I don’t know if it counts as an example of deaf music. Also, I was fully capable of hearing the live band, so I was not appreciating the sign language performance on its own. I also don’t know if the interpreter herself was deaf, though I’m guessing not. She actually switched off every few songs with another lady, who I’m sure was hearing, because I saw her speaking with the venue staff. The woman in the video? I just can’t say for certain. In any case, I’m obviously not qualified to assess her fluency. I don’t even know if it matters.

Maybe I’m just not capable of appreciating deaf music. Maybe that’s something I’ll just have to resign myself to missing out on because I’m not deaf.

One final observation: the group that the interpreter was performing for was cheering and dancing and drinking, and overall seemed to enjoy the show just like any other concertgoers. In the middle of one song, however, two ladies started signing to one another, and it became a rather drawn-out conversation. It was clear that they were not paying attention to the performance, until finally another of their companions seemed to call them out for being rude. Seeing them conversing, I was actually a little envious, because I can’t usually even hear myself speak under the loudness of the music at these shows. Of course, I guess I’m not supposed to be talking anyway, because the whole point is to hear the music, not myself. It also made me think, maybe these distracted ladies just weren’t that into the performance. So maybe it wasn’t that great an example of deaf music.

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