When Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony premiered in 1824, it was met with celebratory praise, offset by ambivalence toward its stylistic breaks from the composer’s early work. Some of Beethoven’s critics attributed these anomalies to his inability to hear, or worse, to his diminished genius; some believed his talent declined after he became profoundly deaf 10 years earlier.
And so it remained until 1870, when German composer Richard Wagner published the essay Beethoven and rescued a great musical work from obscurity. Recognizing the elemental quality of Beethoven’s notes, Wagner insisted that Beethoven’s rejection of conventional tonal, rhythmic, and textural continuity in favor of short primordial bursts liberated music from the representational qualities of the outer world.
As the contemporary artist Louise Stern points out, the absence of representation also begets vulnerability. According to Stern, “Words are our protection against the world.” In using our voices, we represent ourselves to the world and establish the terms on which we are judged. Our voice creates a protective shell, projecting polished versions of ourselves.
Like Beethoven and Stern, I am profoundly deaf. Like Stern, I am prelingually deaf. I use a sign language interpreter to facilitate conversation. Without an interpreter, I am often excluded as others converse. When I can no longer suppress an accumulating panic, I spasmodically interject a request for someone to summarize. This is inevitably delayed or out of place, a short burst, not unlike those of Beethoven’s Ninth, where I communicate a desire to communicate. In these situations, I am exposed to the world, devoid of my protective shell.
Our bodies are transmitters of voices and also receivers of sound. Often the outermost layer of our body’s engagement with the world, audible sound acts as a sort of extended skin. In the absence of sound, as in profound deafness, this extended skin fails to engage with the auditory environment. Silence.
Yet silence is also liberation. Cut off from language and the information saturation of the auditory environment, we turn inward to our bodies, where each sense, including hearing, now amplifies a visceral, elemental, and intimate relationship with the world outside ourselves.
As a child taking in Boston Ballet’s The Nutcracker, unmoved by the orchestra, I marveled at how each dancer’s outfit folded or creased a certain way with each movement. In my innocence, I believed that each crease, each fold, was specified by the choreographer. What I experienced at the ballet was a heightened sense of the choreography between the body and the world.
Deafness can be an abscission from mainstream society, but it can also challenge traditional modes of communication, with interesting results. Alexander Graham Bell drew on his expertise as an elocutionist for deaf pupils to perfect the telephone. Thomas Edison’s deafness provided practical impetus for the light bulb and the phonograph. To communicate with his deaf wife, the computer scientist Vinton Cerf, himself hard of hearing, developed the TCP/IP, the protocols that helped launch the Internet.
In my work as an intern with the Portable Light Project, led by KVA Matx, we are challenging the conventional energy grid by introducing new micro-energy infrastructures to remote communities such as the Brazilian Amazon. Through portable solar textile kits outfitted with LED lighting and USB ports to charge cell phones and small appliances, this distributed infrastructure will give these communities a voice, enabling them to engage on their own terms.
The representational environment — including architectural representation, like construction drawings — is oversaturated with information and language. But when we step away from this construct, as in deafness or in an isolated Amazon community, we allow ourselves new ways of seeing the world. In deafness, as in architecture, the decision to forego representation in favor of silence is a political one.