Embracing the leg of a piano, relaxing in an armchair with speakers under the seat, touching a viola with your hand, or rapping in sign language while standing on a vibrating floor. People in the deaf community describe how they satisfy their hunger for music.
“My sister would come home from school and practise the piano until evening,” says Paweł Sosiński, a retired graphic designer with Volvo, describing his childhood and the beginnings of his love for music. “From the next room I couldn’t hear anything, but from up close, a little bit. She would sit at the piano, and I sat under it. I put my head up to the leg of the piano. I could feel the vibration and I heard the sound of the strings over me. I liked Beethoven the best. It was powerful. I didn’t understand what it was about, but I felt that it was something beautiful.”
“It’s certainly not the case that one kind of listening to music is worse and another is better,” composer Piotr Klimek explains. “When you listen to a Bach fugue, it may just be pretty for you. But when you’re a musician, you hear themes, counterpoints, movements. A music historian listens in yet another way. Works can be appreciated in many layers; most of us don’t have access to all of them.”
In 2010, in the north-western Polish city of Szczecin, Klimek started the five-year project ‘Signing to the Mic’ (Migiem na Majka), the goal of which was the musical education of deaf children, youth and adults.
“For half a year we stamped our feet,” he says. “First we learned eighth notes, then triplets, sixteenth notes, and so on. Then my colleague Rafał Krzanowski, who runs a samba troupe, said: ‘Listen, why stamp? I’ll bring you a surdo, and when somebody hits the surdo, we’ll all feel like we’re in a club with good sound.’”
A surdo is a large Brazilian drum.
“He schlepped over a whole set of samba instruments,” Klimek continues. “It was awful for the ears; in a small room, you’d have the feeling that your head was about to explode. We’d leave the rehearsals just shattered.”
“My father organized a hearing aid for me,” says Sosiński. “I learned the sounds that I hadn’t known earlier because they were too far away: birdsong, the barking of dogs. Or the burbling of water in a kettle. Now I could hear my sister from any room. But the Beatles arrived, with strong percussion beats, and my interests shifted. I’d come home from school, go to my room, close the door behind me and play the Stones, the Animals, the Kinks on my Grundig reel-to-reel. In 1965, my sister placed third in the Chopin piano competition and emigrated to Germany. In 1974, I left too. I knew that in Scandinavia they had good care for people with hearing impairments, so I chose Sweden. There I got great rehabilitation treatment, after which I didn’t have to look at a speaker’s lips. I even stopped stuttering. Unfortunately, as time went on my hearing got worse, until it was completely gone. The hearing aid didn’t help any more. The doctors suggested an implant, but I was terribly afraid of an operation. ‘Why do I need that at my age?’ I thought.”
“I lived in silence and felt worse and worse,” Sosiński continues. “I couldn’t even hear music, and I love it so much. I’d had it all of my life, and suddenly nothing! After four years I couldn’t take it. Whatever happens, happens – I had the operation. At the beginning it was horrible! Everything sounded like the rustling of a newspaper, psh psh psh. I got shivers down my spine. But the doctor calmed me down. He said: ‘That’s normal, your brain has to get used to the sounds.’ And in fact, over time it got better and better. I started to recognize instruments – that’s a guitar, that’s a violin; men’s voices, women’s. Finally I could hear melodies again!”
“We played samba batucada for three years,” Klimek says. “It’s made up only of rhythm, so deaf people are full participants in this genre. Then I thought about hip-hop, a combination of rhythm and words. But I wasn’t just interested in translating song lyrics into sign language; the signing had to be on point, to the rhythm. So that deaf people could feel the rhythm of the song, we built a special floor. We took the framing off a theatre platform, so the whole surface could vibrate, not stiffened by anything. We attached a bass amp (the most important one) and high- and mid-range ones. Suddenly this stage turned out to be a pretty good speaker! We heard the music, and the deaf people, sitting or lying on it, could receive all the frequencies.”
“When Klimek called me, I agreed right away: of course, why not do hip-hop workshops with deaf people?” says Michał ‘Jesz’ Pakuła, as we talk over coffee in a Starbucks in Szczecin. “It was only after a moment that I stopped and asked myself: ‘Wait, how? I mean, they can’t hear.’ And Klimek says ‘Well, exactly.’ The thing about hip-hop is that it’s the only musical genre so strongly associated with the person performing it. You feel it, it pours out of you. Of course, I couldn’t write down precisely what deaf people feel and think. It’s something I had no idea about before. For example, that the health service doesn’t guarantee contact in sign language. It’s crazy! We would talk, and I’d make notes. They told me: ‘You, the hearing, don’t look at each other; you avoid each other’s gaze.’ Because for them to have contact with the world, they have to be constantly looking, making eye contact. And because of that, they see more. Did you know that deaf people are fantastic drivers? They notice an ambulance in the rear-view mirror faster than you can hear it. I made the outlines of the lyrics and we worked on them. Darek Kosztowny translated them into sign language. He had to interpret the lyrics, because sign language and Polish are two different languages. I was trying to scale the heights of lyricism and formulate beautiful sentences, using interesting words. But often that turned out to be pointless, because there was no translation into sign language. The idea was to make up sentences from words that exist in their language. And sometimes it turned out that my whole sentence could be communicated in a single word, a single gesture.”
“We wrote nine songs,” Jesz says. “I wrote one song in the syntax that deaf people use. It’s a song about how you don’t have to hear to want to shout. It goes like this: ‘I want to scream, you won’t stop me from screaming. A shout, what more do you want. We want to go crazy, to shout, to scream.’ At a concert in the Szczecin Philharmonic, we did each song with three or four people. I rapped into the microphone, the rest signed on the vibrating stage. What was most interesting was the expression in their words, their mime, their whole bodies. When they signed ‘go crazy’ or ‘shout’ – I’ll never be able to shout like they did!”
“Then I stumbled on the idea of the armchair,” Klimek says. “I got some piece of junk from the eighties. A sort of round, upholstered chair, with a bamboo frame. The cushions stank of cat urine, so I changed the covering at an upholsterer. We mounted a bass speaker under the seat, because your bum is the best way to feel the low notes. We attached the highs and mids to the bamboo framing. Then we wired up the chair to a sound source and the deaf people took turns sitting on it. All of a sudden, they started noticing the differences in emotions, colours, historical periods. For example, I played them Chopin’s ‘Revolutionary Étude’, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and Vivaldi. They could feel that here there’s anger, the need for a fight; here’s something to do with death; and then Vivaldi is calm and relaxing.”
“They sat on the chair,” Klimek says, “closed their eyes, and tuned out. ‘Nah, they’ve turned it into a massage chair,’ I thought. But then this guy turns to me and says: ‘I like this piece and this piece, but not that one.’ And I thought ‘Damn, they’re not putting me on.’ It’s a different organ of perception, if you’ll forgive the expression, but preferences and needs are the same as for the hearing: the whole gamut. Some prefer a decisive rhythm, high dynamics, a trance-like pulsing. And others like the opposite: subtle strings that only give you delicate vibrations.
“You know, that chair is really a simple idea. At the Szczecin Academy of Art, in the furniture studio, the students are now working on making it better looking and technologically better. I suggested to them the shape of an ear. So you can snuggle into it and take in music in a half-lying position.”
“Music’s like this sweet,” says Piotr Baltyn, opening the wrapper and biting into a chocolate-covered plum. We’re speaking at the Polish Association of the Deaf in Warsaw’s Praga district, where Piotr is a rehabilitation specialist. “You can eat around the edge, meaning just the chocolate. But if you want to experience the flavour, you dive into the middle and you start to distinguish instruments, melodies. I used to listen only to techno, this kind of boom, boom. At that time, I had an analogue hearing aid. The more the technology progressed, the better I could experience music. In high school, I got my first digital hearing aid. I started to listen to classical music, Beethoven. His ‘Für Elise’ just blows you away. I also tried Bach and Mozart, but they didn’t do it for me so much.
“Hearing aids with vents appeared, which helps me to hear you better, because your speech takes on melody. But they also soften the basses. When I ride in a car with a hearing person, like my mum, she shouts at me to turn it down, because for her there’s this terrible rumble. And I don’t feel it, because the hearing aid makes its little calculations and lightens the basses for me. Unfortunately, there’s always a trade-off. Now I wear this small device on my neck, which connects to my phone by Bluetooth. I turn on Spotify on my iPhone, the device cancels out some of the surrounding noise and plays the music for me, and I can submerge myself in it.
“Last year I went to the Przystanek Woodstock music festival with my girlfriend. I had never been to a concert before. You know, it’s crazy loud there. And it turned out that my hearing aid couldn’t take it. Everything blurred into one, it wasn’t enjoyable. How can I explain it… If you listen to music, you have different tones, right? There, everything was monotone; I couldn’t distinguish instruments, melodies. I was just bombarded by a wall of sound. So I took off the hearing aid and listened with my body. I only enjoyed the bass notes, I couldn’t hear the high ones at all. Since then, we’ve been going to smaller concerts in Warsaw. I noticed that the extent to which I enjoy the music depends on the club’s sound system. For example, recently in the club Progresja, the sound was well balanced. Well, maybe a touch too loud. But I managed, by turning down my hearing aid. It was great, I could close my eyes and get into the music. These vibrations passed onto me.”
“Bass vibrations?” I ask.
“No, emotional ones. I still can’t figure how one song gives me goose-pimples and another one doesn’t. It’s a kind of stimulation.”
“Today we’re celebrating Women’s Day in the club,” says Agata Kosztowny, welcoming me at the door of the Szczecin branch of the Polish Association of the Deaf. Agata is 30 years old. She’s played samba with Klimek and signed rap songs with Jesz. The walls of the club are covered with a nut-brown veneer; older members of the Association sit at a long table, speaking in sign language. I’m handed a cup of tea and a slice of coffee-cream cake.
Kosztowny introduces me to Bronisław Stankiewicz, a retired worker from the Szczecin Shipyard and a mime actor from Teatr-3. In ‘Signing to the Mic’, he played samba on the drums. Tatiana Woźniak interprets our conversation.
“I never had anything to do with any instrument before this,” Stankiewicz says. “At the beginning it was tough, but the more I practised, the better it got. I liked it that we played together in a big group. For a deaf person that’s something new, interesting, so I wanted to try it.”
“And how was it to sit on the sound chair and listen to music?”
“Well, I couldn’t hear anything, because I have 100% hearing loss. But I felt the vibrations in my body. It was very pleasant. The violins were too soft for me, but I could feel the stronger sounds. The vibrations go over your body, they spread out from your head to your toes. In the club, there are Carnival parties and if the music is loud, I can feel it then too, from the floor. My wife and I like to dance. We have a big family, so we go to weddings often. If I can’t feel the music, I observe the people, whether they’re dancing fast or slow, and then I can lead my wife.”
Kosztowny joins us at our table, along with her husband Dariusz, who was making tea and serving cake to the guests earlier. Their 18-month-old son Natan is running around the room. Agata teaches courses in natural sign language; Dariusz is a cable installer and quality controller. He’s the one who translated Jesz’s lyrics into sign language.
“Some were easy to translate, but sometimes there weren’t enough words in sign language, so I had to look for them in Polish. Jesz and I talked a lot, explaining things. At our first meeting we told him what deaf culture is about. For example, that deaf people have their own sense of humour. They tell their jokes in a different way.”
“Can you two tell me about the sound chair?”
“Darek, maybe you can tell him?” says Agata. “I’m hearing impaired, I have a hearing aid and I can hear music. But Darek is deaf and has never heard music. He heard it for the first time.”
“It’s hard to describe,” Darek begins. After a while he begins to sign. Looking at him, I know what he means – he shows it with his whole body and face. He speaks slowly, delicately, but simultaneously with passion. “When I sat in the chair for the first time, I was looking for… I was catching these sounds. I closed my eyes and thought. Then it was different, I could feel the music better, but each time I was searching deeply. I felt calm, a breaking away from everything. As if I were alone, with nobody around me. I tuned out and focused only on the music. Everything else was unimportant. I liked metal the best. It was sharp, strong and enjoyable. I felt it, heard it well. It would be good for this experiment to continue; for me it was too short. If I could sit down and feel this music every day, I would know something more. Or if I had listened to music this way from childhood, it would be different. No, earlier I didn’t think I was missing anything. For the hearing, it’s hard to imagine, but since childhood I’ve lived in silence. It was only when I joined the project that I felt that I was missing this.”
“And now are you searching for music somewhere?”
“Tell her about Christmas Eve,” Agata suggests.
“When we had our Christmas Eve gathering...”
“My niece, Pola, plays carols on the viola every year,” Agata explains.
“I always sat there and didn’t feel anything,” continues Darek. “But this time I asked whether it would bother her if I put my hand on the viola. She played, and I felt that music.”
As we’re leaving the Association, it’s already completely dark. Agata and Darek live nearby; they walk me to the tram stop on the way. Natan is falling asleep in the pram.
“Do you have smog?” I ask.
“Only in the evening, before bedtime,” Agata says, slightly bewildered.
I look at Natan, who’s sucking on a pacifier – the word in Polish, smok, sounds identical to smog.
“Smog, not a pacifier!” I say, and I burst out laughing. Agata laughs too, and signs to Darek, explaining the misunderstanding. Darek also starts to laugh. After a while he speaks, and Agata interprets for me.
“It’s important for us that the hearing aren’t afraid of deaf people. That we break down this barrier.”
Translated from the Polish by Nathaniel Espino
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