I want to compose music that makes tinnitus desirable rather than despised. I do not want to get used to my hearing damage—I want to use it.
My ears started ringing in 2008. I can’t hear music without hearing my tinnitus. Therefore, any musical situation that doesn’t incorporate the hearing damage as an operator is intrinsically out of tune. For me, being out of tune is not just about the tension of strings, but the consonance of ideas. I can’t stop my tinnitus, but I can tune myself to it. Listening to tinnitus is listening to the fundamental instability of one’s own listening. It comes in many forms, and is experienced only by its sufferer. My tinnitus isn’t actually sound, but a neurological hallucination—a result of my brain trying to activate damaged cilia. Ontologically, I can’t impose my tinnitus on anyone. Instead, I want to create a situation where tinnitus can have literal resonance.
In ordinary life, there is no cure, and I have habituated to my condition in order to survive: I avoid crowds, the subway, and if I am invited to an interesting concert, I deliberate and weigh my decision with utmost care, for an innocuous squall or cymbal crash could leave me hurting for weeks. However, when I compose, my symptom has the possibility to transform into something else. I have been asked whether my art functions as a kind of personal therapy. I feel good making what I want to make, but I don’t believe that this project is about healing. The promise of music and its aesthetic potential is sanitized when relegated to a therapeutic modality. The aesthetic realm is the only place where solutions can be found. Only through art could the lived experience of an uncontrollable sound become fertile territory for new experiences. As art, it becomes as dynamic as any melody.
All sounds produced live on the Lady's Harp, a feedback instrument/installation made from twenty-foot long piano wires activated by mixer feedback; I can sustain its tone infinitely, using guitar pickups and pressure transducers to coax the strings into vibration. I named it in tribute to Maryanne Amacher, Ellen Fullman, and the ancient Greek Aeolian harp, whose strings are played by the wind. I play the mixer faders, activating the amplifiers, which produces long, controlled feedback tones.
This particular installation was created with visual artist Oliver Jones in the summer of 2012. Oliver had built a large wooden room—the imagined interior of the barricaded house of Schaeffer Cox, an Alaskan 2nd amendment activist and convicted felon. In the middle of his process, Oliver invited me to join his installation, and our separate works became entwined, for I lined the walls with strings and transducers, and even created an "electric fence" out of piano wire. Though our works were conceived separately, our overlap was playful—Oliver helped me wind pickups from thousands of feet of magnet wire and modified his wooden stage to suit the Harp strings. I am greatly indebted to Oliver's thoughtful collaboration. More info on Oliver's work here: oliverjonesstudio.com/SCHAEFFER_COX.html
Masking Study features an band of players striking the strings, in combination with my feedback tones: Samuel Lang Budin, Anastasia Clarke, Matt Marble, and Oliver Jones. We rehearsed for weeks and performed many wild versions of a collaborative piece, but I always wondered if this music was Tinnitus Music. Though we recorded for hours, in the end I selected only these four minutes of ensemble sound. The rest was recorded solo by me, my fingers never once touching the harp strings. We performed a concert at Bushwick Open Studios 2012, and the string tension nearly ripped one of the plywood walls apart—it was hanging by a thread during this recording session.
I will continue this work as long as my ears ring.