By Lloyd Coleman

The opportunity to do some ‘deep thinking’ and research as part of the Expanded Performance programme has come at exactly the right moment for me and for Paraorchestra, as the path back to live performance in theatres, concert halls and festival post-lockdown remains long and difficult, to say the least.

Hannah Williams Walton (Paraorchestra’s brilliant Executive Producer) and I chose to use these unexpectedly quiet summer months to think about ways in which we can further enhance the experience of live music making for D/deaf audiences, with the eventual aim of incorporating some of these new technologies into a new show we’re developing called BEETHOVEN-RENDERING.

As the world’s first fully integrated orchestra comprised of disabled and non-disabled musicians, Paraorchestra’s core mission is to make live music making accessible to as many people as possible – regardless of impairment. Over the years – in parallel to an adventurous artistic programme led by our pioneering Artistic Director Charles Hazlewood – we’ve trialled and tested a whole shedload of assistive technologies. These include a haptic baton prototype designed to enable blind musicians to follow a conductor’s beat in real-time, and cutting-edge electronic instruments such as the Headspace and Clarion are used regularly by the virtuoso players in our ranks.

Likewise, when our loyal and diverse audiences come to see our shows, they’ll often encounter technology placed within the space to enhance their experience – be it live audio description delivered through headsets or large video BSL interpretation projected onto side walls. When done well and handled with thought and care, these assistive aspects of a production cease to become ‘add-ons’ only for the benefit of disabled audience members.

Building on the immersive work we’ve done to date across shows like The Nature of Why and The Anatomy of the Orchestra, BEETHOVEN-RENDERING will have a thrilling live performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony at its core, with over fifty orchestral musicians spread across a very large, open space. This layout will allow audiences to wander freely amongst the performers, creating their own ‘sonic mix’ of the music as they go. Taking two steps towards an oboe, or a bass drum, or a violin, can completely transform one’s experience of the music.

When it comes to D/deaf or hearing-impaired audiences, we’ve set ourselves an interesting challenge. How can we heighten, or emphasise, the vibrations caused by the sound waves produced by any of these orchestral instruments?

A quick trawl on the internet revealed two trends in this area. First – many technologies and products already developed for deaf music fans are designed for pre-recorded, amplified music. Things like the SUBPAC and Woojer offer the user a plug-and-play device that transforms recorded sound into vibrations anywhere on the body, depending on where the user places the vest. The second existing trend we noticed was the use of differing kinds of material – particularly liquids – placed on top of speakers and other sound amplifiers. We spoke with Bristol-based composer Dan Pollard about a beautiful project he co-led called Liquid Noise that used cymatics in a playful and visually stimulating way to illustrate the levels of noise pollution in our seas. And large balloons have long been used in music therapy and outreach project with deaf and hearing-impaired children, as an easy and powerful way of transmitting soundwaves from an instrument in front of them.

However, unlike the SUBPAC or Woojer, which present a somewhat all-or-nothing experience, we want to give the the user autonomy to use a device in a way that suits and is preferred by them.

From our conversations with Jonny Cotsen and Chisato Minamura – two brilliant Deaf artists with different aesthetics and interests in their work – we were reminded that no person wants the same thing during their experience of a show. An obvious thing to say, perhaps, but it’s easy to forget the huge array of experiences in communities with shared impairments. These differences will be informed by aspects of that person’s life regardless of disability.

These are some of the considerations we’re taking into account as we culminate our Industry Fellowship on the Expanded Performance programme by designing a prototype of a hand-held device that could be used during a live performance of orchestral music. For this, we’re working with a brilliant designer and technologist called Steve Symons. On our first call with Steve, I sensed immediately he ‘got’ our aims and objectives immediately, and as a musician himself he understands the complexities of capturing and translating sonorities and vibrations across an entire orchestra!

It’ll be interesting to see what we learn from the process – and I sincerely hope this device (or subsequent version thereof) will be used in our shows in the years to come. Watch this space!