Learning to Listen from Deaf Communities (Casting Light #6)

Casting Light” is a 10-part series that explores the often invisible inequities in contemporary arts spaces. Commissioned by ACF and I CARE IF YOU LISTEN, the goal of the series is to highlight the conversations that we need to be having more openly and transparently in order to build diverse, inclusive, and equitable artistic communities. Building on our commitment to anti-racism, a culminating collection of these articles and other resources will be shared for continued learning and dialogue. 

By Jasmin Kent Rodgman and Vilma Jackson

In late 2019, or 1BC (before coronavirus) as I like to call it, the United Strings of Europe got in touch to commission a piece from me (Jasmin Kent Rodgman) for their 2020 concert series, which was to include — like many others — a celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday anniversary. Whilst I admire Beethoven’s music and enjoy it greatly, there were small alarm bells ringing about joining in the celebrations, mostly due to the symbolism of Beethoven and its relationship with the conservative Eurocentric face of classical music that I find problematic. Julian Azkoul (the ensemble’s director) and I discussed much of this at length and in the end, decided that I would create a work that investigated Beethoven’s hearing loss — and that the work should include and centre a collaborator and artist that identifies as Deaf.

There is an obvious synergy between music-making and sign language: each a set of codified gestures used to communicate an idea, emotion, or concept. As musicians, we often focus on our ears, but what if we were to approach listening as a multi-faceted experience on both practical and philosophical terms? By better understanding sign language, along with the experience of Deaf communities, it is possible to reframe our understanding of what ‘listening’ really is.

After various stop/starts, we eventually managed to come together in late 2020 to create send back the echo, a music-film featuring an adapted screenplay using Beethoven’s memoirs and letters, translated into British Sign Language and performed by Vilma Jackson and the United Strings of Europe to my score.

Throughout its creation, the project presented important questions around intersectionality, ableism, race, and gender, but also offered up different ways in which we can ‘listen.’ Not relying on the ears alone or at all (depending on an individual’s level of deafness), Deaf artists and audiences listen through their skin, their bones, with their eyes — their whole body listens to music. Technology has helped in this regard, for example, with the invention of haptic devices that send vibrations to the body that match the music.

Working with Vilma on the translation of the screenplay, the beauty of sign language became evident to the hearing members of the creative team, as well as the highly intuitive, visual nature of sign and the universality of body language, body movement. There is a directness, an immediacy and presence to sign language that, for me, is akin to dance and improvisation. Next to the movement of the musicians, the choreography between Vilma and the music was a given, inescapable.

Vilma describes the sensations of listening that Deaf communities experience

Vilma describes the performance and physicality of sign language

Vilma’s intuitive response to the musicians and music during filming reminded me of processes encountered during improvisation, in both music and dance, and of an article ‘Thinking in Movement’ by Professor Maxine Sheets-Johnstone. In it, she likens dance improvisation to jazz jam sessions:

“…to create a dance improvisation is thus not to create an artistic product…it is to create an ongoing present from the world of possibilities at any given moment…[it is] the incarnation of creativity as process, and as such, its future is open.”

I believe if we incorporated this philosophy into our music-making, alongside artists from the Deaf community, the results would be groundbreaking; remembering music-making as collaboration, as process, as interaction, as language, as movement.

In my collaboration with Vilma, it struck me that if we channeled half of the passion we hold for Romance languages within classical music into the understanding of sign as both a language and a mode of listening, our world could broaden exponentially; further decolonising language, communication, and music-making.

Vilma suggests how hearing and Deaf communities could learn from one another

Singular focus on traditional presentations of classical music — and the ways in which we analyse it — are stifling our industry, often leaving it lacking the contemporary relevance and innovation that artists are ready to share. As artists, both Vilma and I create as well as produce, collaborating across the arts to discover new forms and ways of making, participating in, and experiencing our work. A driving factor behind this decision is to be in control of not just what we are creating, but where and how it is seen and heard. Context is as important as the music itself.

This context is a key component of decolonial theory, which focuses on untangling Eurocentrism and oppressive hegemony surrounding race. But decolonial theory also demonstrates how colonialism, consumerism, and capitalism fuel discrimination due to gender, physical ability, and neurodivergence — and the intersectionality between all these factors.

Vilma explains the motivation behind her recent film project, “Triple Oppression”

Whilst our industry recovers from the aftermath of the pandemic in terms of live performance and programming, there have been some incredible discoveries borne from music-making in isolation and the need to access audiences remotely. Presenting music performance in digital form cannot replace live performance, but it offers something different: a new kind of intimacy, a new way of looking, a new way of listening, a more democratic way of sharing new music.

Filming send back the echo presented the opportunity for audiences to stand face-to-face with Vilma and witness the synergy between sign and music in a way that could never be presented within the concert hall, where audience and performers are held at a distance. But beyond the intimacy of filmmaking, our work on send back the echo revealed new possibilities for reframing classical music in a way that resonates more with contemporary society. Our project allows for Beethoven’s words to be expressed in a language he may have himself spoken, had he lived in a society that was more understanding and accepting of hearing loss. It has allowed him to be identified with a modern community he belongs to, but is rarely associated with. It allows us to recontextualise how we see Beethoven, not as a myth or legend, but as an artist, a person with a profound love of nature and music…who also happens to be deaf.

Vilma explains performing with different musical genres

Beethoven’s deafness is often mentioned as a tokenistic offering, a ‘fun fact.’ I often wonder why his experience has not shaped the way we interact with both Deaf artists and audiences more? Vilma explains that not only would Beethoven have worked tirelessly to hide or deny his hearing loss, but that those around him would have also either shamed or shunned the matter, preferring to continue referring only to his ‘mad genius’ rather than accept the plurality of the situation: that a deaf man was also an exceptional musician and artist.

The legacy of Beethoven and the shadow that is still cast over our industry remains one of the tortured genius. This image and pedestal we place composers on is problematic in many ways; often ignoring the real and human conditions they face in preference of revering only the output and its public reception, with ‘excellence’ defined by a rather small subsection of our society.

Vilma describes the challenges Beethoven might have faced in his time and her hopes for the future

Reframing ‘listening’ and music-making via deafness and sign language has been a life changing experience. If we retraced Beethoven’s musical journey, this time viewing the composition process as simultaneously kinetic, visual, and technical, could we not learn to improve our contemporary access points of music and music performance, as well as our creative processes and ability to think innovatively? If we looked past the facade of ‘genius’ and ‘excellence,’ took into account the lived experience of any composer, and investigated the context of the music as much as the music itself, we might learn how to better support today’s artists, exhibit their work, and ensure our industry remains a welcoming and inclusive one. And no doubt some of these lessons could help heal the fractures the pandemic has brought about, as artists and audiences learn how to reconnect following such intense periods of isolation from one another.

The many ways in which we can listen have never been more important.


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF. 

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British-Malaysian composer Jasmin Kent Rodgman (she/her) brings together contemporary classical, electronica and sound design to create powerful soundscapes and musical identities.
Vilma Jackson (she/her) is an award-winning deaf performance artist working across art forms including film, stage, television, music video and theatre.