Music can be enjoyable for many people, it creates a feeling of mood, energy and excitement, and gives an atmosphere and feeling to the sounds, rhythms and beats. Being deaf and growing up, I was surrounded by music in my home mostly played by my siblings and also by the Indian movies that we watched as a family. This is how I know about music of the 80’s and 90’s, but then I left home and by the year 2000 I had moved away from listening to music as I started to learn about the Deaf culture. I was overwhelmed with the energy and motivation from the deaf community, I felt that I had finally found people like me. I then realised that I missed listening to music and wondered why I had not listened to any for such a long time. I began to listen again, but noticed that now and then I’d get lost listening to the music and beat. As a result I struggled to enjoy it and hear it, as my digital hearing aids attempted to balance out the sounds.
Then I worked out that I had to re-learn to listen to music slowly, step-by-step as I could not just simply enjoy music in the way that I had before. So I began to listen with my children; to their nursery rhythms. I watched how they responded to the sounds and also joined their parties with their friends, attended Opera, theatre and live music events, and as time went by I noticed that live music was easier interpret as I could feel it, hear it and make sense of the rythms and beats with my hearing aids.
Recently I watched a deaf musician playing the flute, the sound was so deep and, high felt like you could almost reach out and catch the notes in the air. I could feel in my heart a desire to paint this, however, it was not the time or place. I observed how the music became visual to me, as if it was becoming a huge ‘live’ painting. In my mind I began seeing colours on canvases. At the time I did not want this feeling to stop, however, I was not able to capture this on canvas. Afterwards I was left with the feeling of my experience as the flautist played. without having had a chance of capturing it.
I was asked whether I would like to paint, future experiences and put my personal interpretations of listening to music on canvas. I was thrilled, and excited to be given such an opportunity. I was given just the titles of the pieces of music. I was not given any further information beforehand about the pieces of music, so as not to influence my thought patterns or create images in my mind, that would influence the outcome of my paintings. It was important that I had a clear head and could paint spontaneously on the day as I heard the piece of music.
I began to imagine how music could be interpreted on canvas having seen it being played. I started by creating an ideal size for the canvases I wanted to use, however, I started to feel anxious, nervous and worried. It was not like me to feel this way, as I am an experienced artist. Why was I feeling like this?! My unrest came as I could not feel the colours as I normally would before preparing to paint. I would normally be able to feel the colours and therefore, I’d know which ones to buy. In this instance, I was unable to request further information about the music to be painted and this affected me by preventing me from feeling the colours and energy that I needed and in turn, the mediums I would need to prepare. I therefore had to go with my gut feelings. This forced me to work in a different way. As a result I ordered primary colours as I felt these would be ‘safe’ to use. Basically I ordered a small tube of each colour which totalled 6 colours! I would normally order just 2 – 4 colours but in this case I felt I needed more as, I had no direction as to where this might be leading me.
I became uncertain at times, and doubted whether I was doing the right thing. Afterall, I had desired an opportunity like this for many years. I had done a number of pieces before where I had heard loud music at home, and it had entered my mind and heart and where the energy of the colours poured out onto the canvas and came alive! Somehow I had this experience filed away within me for the majority of my career. It is now coming back, however, but I felt I had to gain control over the process to enable me to create my painting.
I prepared the canvases. I decided to prepare 4, the bases were covered in a sheet of music drawn with black charcoal and some notes randomly copied from the web, some lava, glass beads, gel and pigments. In 2 of these canvas there weren’t any lava or glass beads. I knew the 2 pieces of music titles: 2 were called ‘Soundcape’ and the other 2 were called ‘Butterfly’.
These looked dull I thought and I was unsure and struggled to get a mark on the canvas but I finally covered it. At the same time I became overcome with an anxiety that almost took control of my body and I felt that I had to fight to get rid of my fears.
Next Ruth, the musician came in with her flute. With no information about which piece she would play we agreed to allow me to paint what I felt and heard and create a visual interpretation onto the canvases. I felt something heavy, so I picked the green base canvas to work on. I placed a border round the canvas, and painted with old paints. I used a warm green, followed by dabs of dark blue, red and then yellow. I could feel the pain and tensions during my mark making process. I wanted to fully cover the canvas and felt that I wanted to hide away as much as I could, but I did not know what I was trying to hide from. I normally work on 4 or more paintings at the same time, to facilitate a kind of balanced space in my work. In this case, though, I felt I didn’t need to do that. I wanted to keep going putting the brush on canvas, as the beats and notes kept flowing. I felt my hands became controlled by the sound and pace of the music, and the flute was more powerful than I thought possible. In the room it seemed very high pitch, almost too painful and powerful for my hearing aids yet it was enjoyable to hear all the same.
As I painted away I turned the canvas over. I was eager for more paint and I was running out of colour. As the music picked up, my pace matched it. I could feel which colours I needed and could feel where I had to go, in harmony with the music. I felt exhausted and surprised with the results of this piece. I think the piece was played a few times before I could stop painting it. There were signals when the music stopped but I knew I was not finished and so Ruth carried on. It felt like the studio has became a theatrical space, with the music filling the air.
Ruth then explained she played the ‘Butterfly’ piece, and to our surprise I we discovered that I had painted on the ‘Soundscape’ canvas. This illustrated that I’d selected a piece based on what I felt I would feel in the space. I never usually paint when someone else is in the room, and this created tensions which I internalised.
After discussing the music and the sounds, Ruth showed me her percussion instruments where I was able to gain an understanding and feel for the texture of the music and learnt how she went about making contemporary pieces of music more accessible for those who cannot hear. We then agreed to paint again and play the same piece. This time I felt I had to pick the yellow base as I felt lighter and smoother. We talked about the areas of white on the canvas and how it portrayed the differences of textures and from this conversation I painted another a piece. I started with white which I have not used for years. It felt smooth and light, and I was able to discover textures within the music, and I could really feel my work connect with the story that I had been told about this piece. I could feel that my technique and movements changed, as did my pace. I did not feel I needed to introduce another colour and carried on working with the white over and over again; turning the canvas round to allow the movement and energy to be transferred onto the canvas as I heard the music and story. I was overwhelmed with exhaustion by the end. I am usually relaxed and light after painting but in this case I felt that I was learning something new, I was hearing sounds as I painted which had not happened in my studio since I had been there in 1998.
I felt that this was a journey. I felt that I had started to paint out Ruth’s journey through music, and had discovered how music was a part of her being and also how much passion she had for the work she has developed with me. There is a need for me to follow her for a year perhaps, to allow me to draw and paint, what I see and hear and to record a visual journey of her musical talent. In turn this will enable me to translate, interpret or even convey what I am feeling, hearing and touching and thus provide a visual translation of sound that is heard through the eyes of a deaf artist.