Music written for cochlear implantees and the hearing impaired - a concert success

Daniela Andrews was there when musical research for cochlear implant recipients moved another step forward as The Bionic Ear Institute hosted their ‘Interior design: music for the bionic ear’ concert.

What we were about to hear might not be conventional, he warned us with a grin. But we should ‘keep an open mind and, er …’.Robin Fox paused and smiled at the ground, cheekily, before looking up at us and chuckling. ‘We’ll see you on the other side’.

There was barely an empty seat inside the Fairfax Studio at the Arts Centre in Melbourne. We would shortly experience the amazing acoustics inside this venue. Eleven speakers lined the studio ceiling in a circular formation, representing the 22 electrodes in a cochlear implant. Later on, we’d also feel the vibrations of a 12th speaker, a sub-woofer, below the seating.

The information session held between concerts had covered the main reasons why music can be troublesome for many cochlear implant recipients. Dr Jeremy Marozeau and Hamish Innes-Brown of the Bionic Ear Institute explained, first and foremost, that there are only 22 electrodes trying to do the work of 30,000 auditory nerves of a healthy ear. There can be issues with pitch perception, for example, with lots of notes sounding identical and thus making melody recognition impossible. (This was demonstrated with a most memorable slide of someone trying to play the piano with boxing gloves!)

Timbre can also be problematic, making it easy for CI recipients to confuse a flute with a clarinet … or a flute with a piano. The composers tried to work around these issues in the lead-up to the concert. The outcome? I settled into my seat, ready for the first performance.

Rohan Drape’s ‘Another in another dark’ featured sets of variations played with a cello, violin and clarinet. Though the melody was seemingly repetitive, there were slight shifts in volume, duration and order in which the tones were played, thus achieving the composer’s aim of exploring the shape of sound.

The lights were switched on for a few minutes after each piece, so attendees could complete a brief survey on how the piece made us feel (happy, calm, confused), whether we liked the performance, could distinguish between instruments, identify the direction of the sounds, and any comments.

Natasha Anderson’s piece followed. This one incorporated a variety of different sounds: a shaker, four drums, piano, an analogue synthesizer, vibraphone, electronic sine tones and the cello. The introduction of the piece had me happily tapping along to the fast-paced beat of the drums, though there was a dramatic shift to a haunting tone once the drum beats finished.

Ben Harper’s piece, ‘This is all I need’ demanded we lose all visual stimulation and listen purely to electronic sounds instead. An eerie glow was cast over the stage as we listened to a piece that used sixteen distinctive notes overlapped with broken phrases of speech that one might encounter in a language lesson at school.

James Rushford followed with ‘Tussilage’, consisting of a viola and cello on stage played together with pre-recorded sounds of the same instruments. The result was a series of overlapping sounds, weaving through each other at times, overshadowing at others.

No live performers for the next piece, pre-recorded by Robin Fox. The coloured stripes on screen were shifting in length, pattern and speed in accordance with the electronic pulses of the song. The middle part of the piece explored rhythm and pattern – stripes on screen were replaced by a symbol denoting the changing wave shapes. The electronic music was reminiscent of the soundtracks accompanying those original video games from the 80s, giving at least one person in the audience (ahem ... my husband) the urge to go home immediately and find a Commodore 64. The final part of the piece introduced tones from different channels to slowly fill the room with a resonant chord.

Robin’s piece made full use of the speaker array, sending tones both clockwise and anti-clockwise around the room. For this bilateral cochlear implant recipient, experiencing that stereo sound inside my brain was delightful and made me feel more connected to the music. (No doubt Robin, who had openly confessed to us in the public lecture that he had a ‘megalomaniacal obsession with sending voltage to people’s brains’ would be most pleased to hear this feedback!)

The final piece, ‘Syncretism A’ by Eugene Ughetti, was a feast for the eyes as well as the ears. Heavily percussion-based, it featured a combination of rapid sounds from both familiar and unfamiliar instruments to create short and sharp rhythms. It was fascinating for me to watch the speed and the precision of the timing, while happily tapping along to the steady drumbeat. With so many different levels of hearing ability from attendees, the concert feedback was always going to be varied. A particular performance could be equally loved by one, and hated by another. It was fascinating to delve into the reasons why.

Some people were confused by ‘missing’ instruments on stage, for example, in pieces where additional tones were overlaid via a recording. Some found it tricky to distinguish the tones produced by similar instruments. Some couldn’t understand the speech behind the music. And there was no doubt that the composers were deliberately challenging our conventional notions of what constitutes ‘music’. But I’m yet to come across someone who couldn’t hear the concert at all.

In fact, some reported that though they may not have necessarily enjoyed the music, they were still thrilled that they were able to hear the different sounds. The composers had managed to find a way to create pieces of music that evoked responses from their listeners. Pieces of music that could be interpreted by cochlear implant recipients. Pieces of music that, days later, are still being passionately discussed by concert attendees. Pieces of music that allowed hearing and hearing-impaired listeners to connect and share the same social experience.

I believe that renders the concert a success!