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Synaesthesia: Blind Musicians See The Music

Reportage: NZ blind musicians festival 2000

By Tom Rodwell

"This is what it's like in the blind community – get used to it!" says a smiling emcee at the Royal New Zealand Foundation for the Blind's festival of blind musicians. People sing, bands jive, the odd lager or whisky is carefully dispatched, and laughter warms the ears.

Most ears here on Saturday night (2nd December) in the Auckland suburb of Parnell, listen with an intensity that the sighted don't always appreciate.

Journos are used to skirting around the perimeter of popular events; observing, scribbling, greasing up to contacts. Here in the midst of a 130-something crowd, one was introduced to people with a palpably intense appreciation for music as music, not just as a background to social interaction. Indeed, one well-experienced performer, a partially sighted muso who later told me of 'beer and skittles and bonking' on cruise ships, had to ask his ultra-attentive audience to make some noise. "Please, start talking, it's very off-putting!"

Minute audible detail, which those of us who are fully sighted explain away and ignore as 'background noise', is clearly important to those whose ears are hyper-aware. It becomes the texture, the comfortingly familiar wallpaper of one's location.

Another performer, taking a break from her polyrhythmic jazz, told the crowd she was glad that more people were coming in the room, but not so pleased to notice others were murmuring loudly. I confess I heard neither on that still evening.

What I did hear was great music. The variety and breadth was self-evident, (there were live acts from 2pm 'till 11pm) but more so was the intensity of the performances. As a muso myself, it was a genuine treat to hear live music (a rarity in this over-grown monster of a suburb) and to hear it performed with flair and devotion.

Highlights included the angular, swinging jazz pianisms of Jann Rutherford, an award-winner based in Sydney, whose last disc made the top five in the Australian CD of the Year back in 1998; the smooth sounds of both cocktail piano players Stephen Bennett and Shaun Johnson; plus the traditional songs of Celtic singer Kylee Maloney.

Ms Maloney, singing mostly acappella, weaves disparate Celtic influences together, producing a strong clear tone that is as musically accurate as it is moving.

Prefacing one windswept old English tune she remarked that audiences either loved it or they felt slightly frightened by its tone. "That's due to the darkness of the key it's in," she said. "And I'm pleased to be able to sing for an audience who know what I mean by that!"

She was describing in a nutshell the phenomenon of 'synaesthesia', which refers to the production of mental 'sense impressions' by the stimulation of other, apparently unrelated senses.

The 'condition' –for want of a better word- is mildly present among us all, though it is more commonly exhibited amongst those who have some disability in a specific sensory area. It can be manifest in the perception of sounds as having definite colours, or colours perceived as having certain textures or tastes.

The Royal New Zealand Foundation for the Blind's adaptive support manager Mary Schnackenberg was one of the drivers behind the evening. She explained that the event grew from a reunion of past pupils of the blind school.

The old boarding school featured brass bands and choirs, a tradition now lost for today's blind children who are integrated into mainstream schools. The communal spirit so present that night was born in those old traditions, and Ms Schnakenberg was encouraged by the contributions and from young blind musicians at the festival. "Music is really, really, really important in the lives of blind and partially-sighted people, and not just at school" she says.

Before leaving I ask long-standing Wellington cocktail pianist Shaun Johnson whether blindness necessarily makes for better musicianship. Do the blind have better ears? "Oh no, no!" he says with a laugh. "But, since the experts say 80% of information is picked up visually, perhaps we have better trained ears. We have to!"

It was an evening that serves to show the potency of simple, sensory experience, both to people with a lifetime of learning about the world through their ears, and also to the privileged sighted guests.

The readiness and friendliness in which these folk burst into "Danny Boy" was a tribute to their pride. How many sighted people, without the aid of the 'singing sauce', would be so quick to harmonise?

ENDS


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