Crowd Surfing [a self-portrait of Sophie Woolley]

Infinite Ear: Portraits is a collection of stories of individuals who were confronted with a transformation in their perception of sound and relationship to hearing. A number of authors accepted the challenge of translating these experiences through writing. Authors, readers, and the portraits’ subjects are confronted with the main questions behind Infinite Ear’s research: how can we understand and feel perceptions of sound radically different from our own?

Sophie Woolley is a writer and performer living in London. She went progressively deaf from her teens until she decided to have a cochlear implant at the age of 39.

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I’m on the way home from an acting audition in central London. For the first time in 12 years, I did not use a sign language interpreter. The day before, I realized that my hearing rehabilitation had progressed so rapidly that I no longer needed to. I walked into the casting meeting on my own and relied on my cochlear implant to hear the director’s questions and instructions.

I feel unexpectedly liberated as the import of this sinks in. A weight is being lifted from my shoulders, sucked up into the sky where it vanishes forever. A car drives by me in a blaze of science fiction bleeps and theremin fairy sound effects. This is normal in the parallel universe in which I temporarily exist.

It has not been long since my bionic ear was “switched on.” Only two weeks since I became a cyborg. When I went deaf I thought I would never hear again, and so I adapted. But now, the dormant, hearing part of me has suddenly been refurbished and rebooted. I am a retrofit. I feel and speak as I did twenty years ago, even though at two weeks old, my cyborg sense of hearing is still a work in progress.

After years of nothing, the digitally-rendered world seems very loud, unreal, hallucinatory, and science fictional. As I enter the London underground station, I don’t physically feel the electrical signals strobing around my cochlear in my inner ear and stimulating my auditory nerve. There is no vibration. I am simply hearing an environmental hyper-reality, as if by magic.

I lift the magnetized radio transmitter from the side of my head and the sound cuts out and there is nothing. I’m immediately, hermetically sealed from the commuter racket.

I drop the headpiece back onto my magnetized skull and the avant-garde rush hour symphony cuts in again at full volume.

On, off, on, off. My power stuns and pleases me. Sound is no longer an adversary or a stick used to beat me. I control it.

What I don’t control is the way environmental sound now seduces me and transports me.

Look at me a moment. I’m at the top of an escalator on the London underground, my face resplendent with joy, pupils dilated in rhapsodic pleasure, gazing around me in wonder, stood on the edge of the steel step as though I’m ready to tip forward and fall through the descending and ascending commuters, buoyed up by strangers, like a crowd surfer at a rock concert. We are making accidentally incredible music with our combined footsteps: a music that engulfs me, becomes part of me. This unintentional music has brought me to a transcendental state of consciousness. It is overwhelming.

My brain is unable to order the information conveyed by the electrical stimulation of my auditory nerve. In the first weeks after switch on, it does not know how to filter. It does not care to. My auditory sense experiences everything all at once, at one and the same time. This is much better than hearing. This is more than hearing. I am hearing everything that is usually hidden from us.

Before I was switched on as a cyborg, I expected hearing rehabilitation would entail a lot of time-consuming effort. I did not expect it to be like this: effortless, hedonistic, and transcendental. I did not expect it to open the doors of perception wider than I’d ever known.

My brain is hallucinating and riffing off the environmental sounds of humans on the escalator at rush hour. It is auditory anarchy. And it is sound dissection. My mind is taking a magnifying glass to every sound and showing it and all the other magnified sounds to me all at once, as a massive spectacular. I hear the separate component parts of each sound, rather than its redacted sum. I remember what an underground station sounds like and it was not like this, not as good as this.

The soundscape reminds me of a Steve Reich composition, Piano Phase, with added theremins, mountain cow bells, streams, and waterfalls; thousands of them, looping and building until it whips you into a state of nirvana.

I’m glad to be able to hear well again, but also frantic that the sonic other-worldliness is rapidly wearing off as my brain teaches itself to work with the cochlear implant. These strange and euphoric days of acute transformation are fleeting. I feel nostalgic for every second even before it ends.

I want to spend more time with these moments, observing transport and rush hour transport terminus hallucinations. It is hugely empowering to understand speech without using an interpreter, but I’m struck by my relative disinterest in people’s actual voices. As a younger hearing person, I was in thrall to so many people’s voices, so easily seduced by them. As a cyborg, the feeling I once had for voices is now evoked instead, by environmental sounds.

Four years after switch on, my transformation leaves me haunted by the righteous deaf self that still runs through me, even when, especially when, I “pass” as a hearing person, but it also leaves my perception altered by the beauty of the way the world sounded in the first few weeks of hearing rehabilitation. Sometimes I still stop and gorge on the clanking and drilling sounds of London construction sites. I still sit on a train and fall in love with the sound of its locomotion and bask in the way its musical clatter and brake operatics flood my mind with pleasure, but it is never as profound and transcendent as the early days. Never as good as the first few weeks.

My right ear is not implanted, although it is also totally deafened. One day I might implant that side or use some other, new technique to make it hear. I don’t need to hear more than I already can, but I do want to re-experience the sounds and the intensity of that period of transformation. It was worth going deaf and losing my identity in order to hear what it is like to go hearing again.

TEXT BY

  • Sophie Woolley


    The portraits, designed by Goda Budvytytė, are printed on the occasion of the exhibition Infinite Ear at Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow, taking place from June 8 to September 2, 2018.

image: London underground, courtesy the author