The orchestra gave a musical tour-de-force responding to the virtuoso’s composition, working its way straight into the hearts of the large and appreciative gathering that responded, at the end of it all, with a thunderous ovation. The venue was the Karntnertor theatre in Vienna on 7th May 1824 and the occasion was the grand premiere of the maestro’s ninth symphony. Yet Beethoven himself, by then almost stone deaf, was least aware that his performance generated such enthusiasm and tremendous acclaim until he turned around to take a look at the audience in state of high decibel raptures.
Sight and sound, without doubt, constitute the main pillars on which our perceptions of the world around are constructed. What if one of these faculties is suddenly waning, that it starts becoming a handicap and nagging constraint in the hurly-burly of day-to-day living? The subject at issue here is impaired hearing, which I have been experiencing since quite a few years but did not bother to check out till it exacerbated to a stage of becoming an embarrassment in official meetings and social fora, where I started cutting sorry figures by not being able to make out anything spoken in a low tone; for some time I was managing to cover my deficiency by looking at the speaker’s facial expressions, interpreting it and responding based on guesses, which in some cases worked out but misfired rather awkwardly in several other situations. Thereafter it was a prolonged debate within myself, as to whether I should go for a check up to get the problem sorted out or not.The apprehension being, what if the doctor prescribed a hearing aid, as, over the years, I had seen a few deficient folks with hearing aids sticking out behind their ear lobes like snails in eternal rest. I was, with all the grey hair on my pate, already looking more than my age, after having decided, some years ago, to relinquish the cosmetic effort involved in colouring it at regular monthly intervals to afford, whatever remained of my youthful looks, an extended lease of life. So here I was, faced with the daunting prospect of putting on one if the doctor so instructed. To be or not to be, with the contraption fitted on that impaired part of my anatomy discharging the auditory function, I soliloquised in the manner of a modern day prince of Denmark. My dilemma was allayed by my doctor sister and another relative, also of the medical fraternity, reassuring me of technology having advanced enough to offer minute and light hearing devices capable of being digitally configured, which could be fixed neatly concealed behind the ear lobes, without attracting anyone’s attention.
What followed was the mandatory visit to the ENT, who in turn referred me to the audiologist; there was a detailed examination lasting several hours during which I was briefed on the structure of human ear as consisting of outer, middle and inner portions and the purpose of each cumulatively accomplishing the function of sensing sound waves, which are actually changes in air pressure, and converting these changes into electrical signals that the brain can analyse and interpret. In my case, the outer and middle ear remained intact whereas the inner portions in both ears, consisting of extremely tiny sensory receptors called hair cells, that turn air pressure changes into neural signals for relaying to the brain, were non-functional. No restoration was possible as the thousands of hair cells in the inner ear constituted a highly intricate network into which medical research was still on. Damaged hair cells being a non-renewable resource, my only option was to go in for hearing aids. Based on the audiologist’s analysis, trial equipment was fitted in both ears enabling me to suddenly hear a variety of sounds in the surroundings which hitherto remained well beyond my audio range. In a flash, the difficulties I had been experiencing in sustaining a conversation with family members, my insistence on keeping the TV volume at high levels, awkwardness in the form of compulsion for louder repetitions of inaudible snatches of conversation of friends and relatives in social settings and staffers and colleagues in the office, the loud tone in which I used to hold forth with others, without perceiving the irritation I was causing, started dawning on me with realisation that the medical recourse I was into now could have been taken earlier. The session eventually got over upon my ordering the equipment costing little over rupees 152 K accompanied by warning from the doctor to use the device regularly, failing which my already impaired hearing would deteriorate further. Thus, like the spectacles, the hearing aid has now become integral part of my accessory.
Our lives are supported by many faculties which we often take for granted without even realising its value until we are on the verge of losing them. The legendary stories of Helen Keller, who was deaf-blind, the genius of Milton and Beethoven that virtually flowered, even after respective visual and audio challenged stages of their lives , shine forth as brilliant examples of resilience and determination of human spirit. Gradual deterioration or loss of a specific faculty is known to heighten the remaining senses to such ranges, as to not only compensate for but also enhance the creative flair in poets, musicians and artists. What readily comes to mind is the story of the talented but hearing impaired British solo percussionist and composer, of the last century, by name Evelyn Glennie, who could play captivating rhythms on a variety of percussion instruments. Beethoven and Glennie, making music they could not hear, inspire awe and wonder at the extent to which human faculties can stretch to overcome seemingly impossible limitations. In this connection, research has postulated that music can be ‘heard’ and ‘experienced’ much beyond the normal sense of hearing. A musical genius well versed in pitch and scale can indeed listen to and create great music even in the absence of the sense of physical hearing. He or she can hear music so clearly in the mind that there is hardly any difference between the physical sound and the goings on in the mind. For a talented musician, the internal listening to music transcends the common physical experience. Such individuals can literally read and write a score as most people would a novel, and experience music in their minds. There is the anecdote of a famous pianist who, while reading a musical score in the library, experienced it so intensely that he spontaneously broke into a loud applause upon completion of his perusal. Yet another example is that of a famous composer in contemporary Indian cinema, who composes by writing out the background musical score by just viewing the visuals in the studio without the aid of even a single instrument; the entire score is written and simply handed over to the orchestra for re-recording. For Beethoven, the benefit of his deafness was that it forced him inwards to tune in to his other stimuli. The quartets of Beethoven, composed during last few years of his life stand out for its style and complexity, which may not have occurred had he not been deaf, according to authoritative opinion, as they are not merely introspective but very complex, contrapuntal and clearly indicative of someone reflecting in his own mind about sound in all its nuances.
Impaired hearing is known to heighten the tactile sense whereby deaf people develop the faculty of feeling music from vibrations. It is reported that there are deaf people who can dance beautifully based on feeling musical sounds and rhythms from vibrations. It is evidenced in schools for the deaf in the USA, where dancers perform based on vibrations picked up from stereo speakers positioned down to the floor. A normal person walking in will never know that the dancers are deaf.
Scanning the fields of horticulture, science, astronomy and aero-space, we have several glorious examples of audio challenged people such as Raymond Atwood, who has made important contributions in vitamins and antibiotics, Thomas Meehan for his work in horticulture and who was an associate of Charles Darwin, Annie Jump Cannon who made her mark in astronomy by classifying over hundred thousand stars, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky through his contribution to rocket functioning and the concept of multi-stage rockets.
Wherever communities of deaf and dumb people exist, sign languages develop. Interestingly, these languages use space for grammar in a way that spoken languages do not. There is, however, no such thing as an international sign language, as it varies from country to country, save for few similarities. According to 2013 edition of Ethnologue, there are 137 sign languages extant worldwide.
The partial loss of hearing in my case, medically defined as presbycusis or hearing deterioration naturally occurring with age, can also be hastened due to elevated noise levels in the environment and hereditary factors. High levels of noise pose as much a general health risk to humans as it is a threat to marine and terrestrial eco systems.
To revert to the aspect of inner listening, creative articulation of the concept of internal listening to music or hearing an entire musical composition in the mind, without the option of physical sense of hearing, may be observed in Keats “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter”. A melody that is imagined and anticipated, is invariably in tune and played perfectly, as the scope for any error or an imperfect note can only be in its physical execution at the auditory level. Thus there is perfect fulfilment and contentment in imagining as compared to actual performance in the real world. Similar thinking probably had its precedence in Plato who believed that all material objects in worldly life are like shadows on the wall; just as shadows are caused by the flame behind true images, we and all objects around us are imperfect copies of a perfect world that can, as things stand, only exist in imagination of the cosmic mind. All scientific inventions, art, music and literature are more beautiful and enjoyable in the mind in its pristine conception and consummation than in its physical reality that is bound by constraints of human deficiencies and all conceivable resource limitations.
Sudden or gradual loss of faculties, therefore, needs to be seen in the grand perspective of precision and equilibrium of the universe with its ineffable beauty, like luminous stars in the darkest of nights or the diminution and augmentation in a musical score that makes for a pleasurable listening experience. Apparent loss or deficiency or misfortune in perceived reality lies more than perfectly compensated or even enhanced in the sum total of other positives; no one wants to know what finally befell on Keatsian Porphyro and Madeline, as the consummation of their love remains suspended in eternity, and to finish the story would be to defile an imaginatively perfect conclusion with the dry-as-dust reality that cannot possibly match the picture-perfection in our minds. The same goes for the nightingale and its song, and images of lovers and musicians embossed on the Grecian urn, enabling our escape on the “wings of poesy” from “the drowsy numbness” of the real world of imperfections, frailties and finity. So my imperfect physical hearing let it be, as long as life sustains a carefully cultured mind to experience the tonal delights of the forever perfect and eternally sweeter “unheard melodies”.