Unlearning to Hear in an Abandoned Swimming Pool

Meet Tarek Atoui, the artist questioning why we need our ears to listen to music.

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Sep 14 2016, 2:05pm

Tarek Atoui / WITHIN I. Sentralbadet. Performance, Bergen Assembly 2016 Photo: Thor Brødreski

In the deep end of a derelict swimming pool in Bergen, the musicians are about to play: striding on stage to their subterranean seats, they’re surrounded by a hushed audience peering into the basin from the tiled sidelines. All eyes are on the conductor as he begins to direct the musicians, with their unfamiliar instruments featuring microphones in unlikely places, through a highly experimental performance, all  high-pitched elastic wobbles and percussive purring. His eyes meet each performer with absolute precision, controlling the ebbs and flows of the sound performance, and if you close your eyes, there’s nothing to suggest his profound deafness.

WITHIN, created by sound art director Tarek Atoui, showing over the next few months as part of the Bergen Assembly on the rainy west coast of Norway, is a collection of instruments created by the artist in cooperation with a variety of internationally acclaimed musicians (such as electronic music pioneer Pauline Oliveros) as well as deaf students from a local school.

“I said, ‘Draw me four percussion instruments that would address both hearing and deaf people,'” Atoui explains, discussing the instrument 4 Iterations On Drums, designed by French sound artist Thierry Madiot. “I took his mockups to the school and then the students at the school executed the design in relation to their own perception of sound, and we would discuss how to draw patterns to reflect sound and how to work with the vibration and resonance of metal.”

Tarek Atoui / WITHIN I. Sentralbadet. Performance, Bergen Assembly 2016 Photo: Thor Brødreski

The instruments are fascinating to watch, as well as to listen to. The sounds they make vibrate, sing, and jangle their way into your ears—if you use them to hear. But if you don’t, you can also watch them wobble, expand, blink, and get stroked into being. In other words, these instruments are designed so that a deaf audience would be just as capable of understanding the sound that’s being made as a hearing person would be. “There is a visual understanding of sound. You watch your waveform on the cellphone recording this interview and you know it's working. You're not hearing it though, are you?”

He points out one instrument in particular, a tiled board with several different patterns etched into each section’s surface, which a stick attached to a microphone is dragged over to create textural thuds: “If you look at this grid, with these cuts in the wood, you imagine how those sounds would work. So there's a rhythm, or sonority, to a surface like this. If you touch something and feel its surface, you are already kind of listening to music with your hands.”

Compare it to the sense of taste: It’s now well accepted that our perception of taste involves sight and smell, and yet this analysis is much less common when it comes to hearing. Atoui calls this the “phonocentric” culture of sound perception, noting that endeavours to involve deaf people in music production have often focused on amplifying or modifying sound through technology, rather than considering other ways of creating sound that learn from tactile or visual perception. “It’s about learning from deaf people to unlearn and learn again. Lots of sound art I’ve seen were attempts to bring deaf people to the music realm, but not to bring the music realm to deaf people.”

Tarek Atoui / WITHIN I. Sentralbadet. Performance, Bergen Assembly 2016 Photo: Thor Brødreski

It’s not a simple challenge that Atoui has set himself. Having begun the project WITHIN at a long-term residency at the Sharjah Art Foundation in 2008, the artist has been working ever since to develop his ideas on composing and performing electro-acoustic music that looks at sound as more than what hearing people perceive with their ears. In addition to the performances and display of the instruments of WITHIN, Atoui has collected a group of “sonic therapy” practitioners, who demonstrate these ideas about sound in a more individual way. The Sound Massage, for example, involves using sonic manipulation with different textures and sonorities, as well as vibrations through a table, to expand an audience member’s capabilities in sound perception in a one-on-one session. “These were fundamental practices in terms of learning how to use the senses differently to perceive sound. Sound massage is about another totally different approach to sound.”

Tarek Atoui/ Sonic Therapy Sessions, Deep Listening with Pauline Oliveros and Ione. Documentation shot, Bergen Assembly 2016. Sentralbadet, Bergen. Photo: Thor Brødreskift

It’s only the beginning of this journey for Atoui, though. “I'm still in the process of unlearning and digesting the possibilities,” he says. “To learn how to not use your ears when you're trying to understand what a sound is, how to listen with the hand and listen with the body, this takes years. I’m unlearning, to learn again.”

Tarek Atoui, WITHIN, is showing at Sentralbadet throughout September as part of the Bergen Assembly

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