Hearing Loss / Cold Atlantic

VIVO (Video In Video Out), Vancouver, 2007
Gazelli Art House at Rochelle School Gallery, London, 2011
Justina M Barnicke Gallery, Toronto, 2013
Frise Kunstlerhaus, Hamburg, 2013

John Wynne

Changing the emphasis from hearing to loss in the original title of this piece results in an interesting shift from a medical or factual orientation to an emotional or philosophical one. Hearing loss is a routine, progressive physical disability; hearing loss is something altogether more nebulous and poetic. 

My father died in 2006, leaving behind three pairs of hearing aids and a typically extensive supply of batteries. Hearing aids, like false teeth, are very personal objects which are not only used daily but are actually inserted into bodily orifices. One of the first things that struck me when I began to work with them is that they are made in the shape of my father’s ear canals, giving a positive shape to a negative, internal and intimate space that no longer exists. It was literally through these objects that he heard the world during the final years of his life.

Hearing Loss

Hearing Loss and Cold Atlantic, a later development of the piece, make use of the minute but complex feedback field produced by what are essentially six tiny microphones and six tiny speakers in close proximity. The feedback produced is relatively quiet but piercing and difficult to localize.

Play sound
Sound clip 1

Cold Atlantic
In some of my other work, I have sought to draw attention to an abstract beauty in alarm sounds which is usually ignored because of their overwhelming annoyance factor and their association with danger. Likewise, feedback is most often seen as a nuisance and a potential danger to hearing or to electronic equipment rather than as legitimate material for music or art.  There is a significant interest in feedback amongst the experimental music community, but the general perception of feedback is overwhelmingly negative.  In a recent survey, it took second place only to vomiting in a list of the sounds people found most upsetting.

Left: Cold Atlantic (data projector, animated digital image, 12 hearing aids)
Right: Hearing Loss (slide projector, 6 hearing aids)

The pitch and timbre of the feedback produced by these devices change in ways that are interesting and difficult to predict depending on their proximity to each other and the direction in which they face, the size and shape of the space which contains them and the presence and movement of the viewer’s hands or body. The sound also changes due to electronic circuitry inside each device designed to fight feedback.

Hearing Loss and Cold Atlantic address the absence of the person for whom these devices were made, and for this purpose, few sound sources could be more suitable than feedback, which Nic Collins has referred to as “the Zen-like infinite amplification of silence”. Feedback’s “tautological elegance” and musical potential contradict its status as problem or systemic fault:  in this piece, its antagonistic relationship to hearing aids is harnessed to explore the presence of loss.

Sound clip 2

The image is a slide taken by my father somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic. We were on the Homeric, on our way to the port of Quebec City from Europe: I would have been about two and a half years old and this was my first trip to Canada, where I was to grow up. It was uncharacteristic of him to take such a picture, and even more so to give it the arguably poetic title "Cold Atlantic". I was looking through the family slides in my mother's basement while working on the installation when I came across this image and knew immediately that it was perfect for the piece. Its emptiness speaks of absence or loss in a manner similar to the way that the only sound in the piece is the amplification of 'silence'. And it is a record of the world seen through my father's eyes.

The above text was commissioned for
Leonardo Music Journal Vol 17

and is also published on eContact!