The Resonance of Silence

by Katie Booth

The piece is an essay printed in the main book. The audio for this piece is already in the world. Tucked into the margins of this essay are instructions for how to harness it.

When the bomb drops there is no sound. It’s just Chisato Minamimura, cropped black hair, white dress, arms flailing. Her body, tinted with blue light, is stark against a black background as it thrashes in chaos. In front of her, a transparent screen captures the image of two giant hands, which cup either side of her body and then expand slowly away from her. These hands are the periphery, the bomb as it explodes in slow motion.

Minamimura’s body calms and the hands fade. Now her own hands take up the illustration. She traces the explosion’s shape: its slender waist, its mushrooming top, its quiet rise and fall.

It is only then that sound returns, little crackling whispers, as a black rain falls from the sky.

I was curled on my couch when I began watching this clip from Minamimura’s performance Scored in Silence, texted to me by a friend. I wasn’t expecting anything; I’d just clicked on a link. But by the end I was sitting upright, holding my breath. I resonated in the wake of the clip, as if my body were a bell that had just been struck. After Minamimura’s hands traced the shape of the mushroom cloud in the air, as the rain fell, it felt like something was vibrating within me.

I hadn’t registered the low, repetitive sounds playing from my phone before the bomb dropped, nor the whispery ones that came after. My experience of the piece was rooted in a different kind of sound—sound that felt visual rather than auditory, in a way I’ve never quite had the words to describe.

Minamimura, a deaf choreographer and performer, often explores sound in her work, but always a kind of sound that reflects her experiences as a deaf listener—sound for the eyes and for the body. In Scored in Silence, she uses these explorations to amplify the stories of deaf survivors of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The bomb drops early in Scored in Silence. It precedes almost everything, and echoes through the rest of the piece. When it drops, there is no sound, but it isn’t quiet either. It resonates. Sound is vibration; it is tactile; we can feel it and we can see it. But it’s more than that. Maybe much of what we see and feel can also become something like sound.

The hearing world is fixated on the idea that deaf people are trapped in a universe of silence. This notion is embedded deep in deaf history, found in nineteenth-century pleas for charity, to free deaf children who were “detained by indissoluble chains in the domain of silence.” Today we see it used largely to market cochlear implants: in New Zealand there’s a campaign called “the campaign to end silence”; the American Psychological Association posted an article on cochlear implants titled “Cochlear Implants: For Many an End to Silence.” From news stories to research papers, phrases like “breaking the silence” are headline fodder that never seem to get old. The hearing consistently behave as if sound were our domain, as if we were lords of this aural fiefdom.

I began to really question this assumption at a party I went to about four years ago, on the outskirts of Gallaudet University, in Washington, DC. I walked into the impeccable, stylish studio apartment, filled mostly with deaf people, everyone at some level or other of ASL proficiency. For once I was not the most remedial signer in the room, a small relief, but I was one of the only hearing people. For a moment, I was shocked at the quiet. Not that there wasn’t sound; there was. There was the sound of bodies—stomping and laughing and hands banging on tables—but there wasn’t the sound of language. This struck me for a moment, this thing that felt like quiet, but only for a moment. When I started to engage, to sign, to mingle, the quiet passed.

I forgot about it altogether until I went to the bathroom and noticed there was no din of chatter, just Adele playing in the background for the benefit of the hearies, accompanied by the occasional explosion of laughter or the slap of a hand on a thigh. Reentering the party, as language filled my sight again, the quiet vanished. And by the time I left, with everyone’s words still ringing in my mind, I was surprised it had ever felt quiet to begin with.

This experience stayed with me for a long time and was reinforced by other, similar experiences: signing with my friend in a library, my head full of the sounds of language, and then feeling shocked by some auditory sound, a book being dropped or a sneeze. The contrast in volumes made clear that we weren’t actually making much noise at all with our big, excited conversation. It was a reminder that when other people saw us, they probably thought we were quiet. But that’s not how it felt.It felt like my ears were lying to me.

This isn’t just my revelation—there are deaf people who have long pointed out that given the right situations, one can have plenty of access to sound even without auditory hearing. Minamimura, who built her career thinking about sound, is one of those people. She began as a visual artist, studying painting, but soon came up against the feeling that the medium wasn’t interactive; she wasn’t getting any response from the work. Then she got a letter inviting her to a dance workshop for deaf and disabled people. At first she thought: I can’t do this—dance is so closely tied to music, and I can’t hear. But since the workshop was specifically for deaf and disabled people, she decided to give it a shot.

“It became a form of three-dimensional art,” she says, “…  a beautiful experience.” And everything unfolded from there. When she started dancing, hearing people began to ask if she could hear the music; they said her body was so synchronized, it was hard to believe she was deaf.

A Primer on Seeing and Feeling Sound, by Cristina Hartmann and Katie Booth

As you read this essay, take some time to explore listening through your eyes and your body. The nonauditory sounds described in this essay are all around you, even if you’ve never noticed them before.

Primer Exercise #1: Look out the window. Observe what sounds you can see: maybe rustling leaves, children playing, a screen door blowing open and shut. What do you see that might not make any sound but has a sort of visual sound quality? Maybe telephone wires swaying in the wind, the slow stretch of a cloud.

In an interview, Minamimura compared the human sensory experience to a five-pointed star, each point representing one of the five senses. It’s not just that the shape of her own personal star is different because of her deafness; everyone’s is different. Some people might have a point of their star that is very strong—maybe hearing. But their sense of taste might be weak; they might not much notice the flavor of their food. Hearing people might think that Minamimura’s star is only four-pointed, but she doesn’t think it’s that simple. “In my case,” she says, “my sensory star has four obvious points—but the fifth point, my hearing, is there as well.” Once, in a conversation about deafness and hearing, a friend of mine, the architect and designer Jeffrey Yasuo Mansfield, pushed back on the famous 1988 I. King Jordan quote “The deaf can do anything except hear.” He said that while the quote was important in its historical moment, he believes deaf people do hear. They just hear differently. He is profoundly and culturally deaf, so I know he wasn’t talking about being hard of hearing, or using a hearing aid or cochlear implant—though certainly this is another serious complication of the whole idea that “deafness is silence.” What he was saying was something much bigger and more revolutionary. He was challenging the hearing world’s notion that the only way to receive sound is through typically functioning ears. He was suggesting that neither sound nor our brains nor our world is that simple.

When I heard this, I felt unsettled. It destabilized my most basic understanding of the senses. Of course, there are plenty of living beings that perceive in different ways than I do—dogs have a wider range of hearing, bats echolocate, and so on—but I don’t feel unsettled by that. There’s something else happening with this reframing of hearing: it reframes deafness too. It implies that the common definition of deafness—the inability to hear—is fundamentally flawed. In the face of Mansfield’s idea, deafness becomes truly a difference rather than a lack. I’ve long believed this, on some level, but I’ve also instinctually protected my own privilege, which rests on the assumption that deafness is an inferior way of being.

This is perhaps also due to a failure of imagination. Teresa Blankmeyer Burke, a philosopher who works in deaf studies, writes that “[hearing people] confuse what it is like to be a deaf person with what it would be like to becomedeaf. Yet these are different experiences. Becoming deaf, or the loss of hearing, is distinct from a lack of hearing, which is a privation, or absence.”

Primer Exercise #2: Put on headphones with the music turned up loud and go for a walk through a park or somewhere you can watch people interacting. What can you understand about their conversation by the way they hold themselves? By observing their faces, their bodies, their shoulders, or the lean of their torso, what can you determine about the energy between them? Try to decipher the tone of their conversation.

In other words, day-to-day deafness isn’t like waking up every day shocked at the absence of hearing; it is an existence, a state of being. To view it as a loss would be like saying humans are missing something because we can’t see infrared light. We may not have this ability, but it is not something we experience as a loss. It is merely a fact of our existence.

When Mansfield said he could hear, I knew he could see my discomfort, legible on my body. Partly this is because I’m a painfully easy read, but more than that it is because there are things my body does, which most hearing people wouldn’t catch, that communicate my discomfort. In this case, I imagine my discomfort looked like a contraction, which is the way it felt inside: a tensing of the tiny muscles in the face, a shallowness of breath, eyes darting away. It’s a thickening of some invisible boundary between me and the person I’m talking with.

I do believe that deafness isn’t a deficit, or a silence, but I also believe that in moments like this, hearing people like me make it into silence. Or, no, not that. Hearing people experience deafness as silence in large part because we don’t listen when deaf people speak. From afar, we gawk like eager voyeurs. But as soon as we are required to engage, we look at an interpreter or at another hearing person—everywhere but at deaf people themselves. So often, in one way or another, we shut ourselves off. It is what I did in that moment, steeling myself against information that challenged my worldview.

Even when our words indicate listening, our bodies, and most certainly our actions, do not. I’ve felt this inside me and I feel the wedge it drives. I feel the silence that follows.

As a kid growing up in a family of hereditary deafness, I often observed that my deaf grandparents and great aunts and uncles seemed privy to noises I believed only I could hear—a car rumbling into the driveway, a knock at the door. This prompted me to confirm again and again: “You can’t hear anything?” Of course, I understand now that my grandparents may have been deaf, but that didn’t mean they had no access to sound. The brain changes in response to deafness; it finds new ways to observe sound, to hear.

Some of this hearing is done through visual attention. “Sound has a way of bouncing off visual cues,” writes Benjamin Bahan, a scholar of deaf studies. He notes such occurrences as when a group of hearing people suddenly turn in one direction and the deaf person knows where to direct their gaze. “In other words,” he writes, “Deaf people can read sound… The idea of constantly being aware of one’s surroundings is constructed by a visual way of being, and Deaf people often can look at a bustling area of people and identify which ones are deaf simply by noticing how they use their eyes in the world.”

My grandparents’ home, for example, was full of pets, who served as visual cues to sound: cats whose ears perked up, a dog whose tail thumped the floor at the approach of a familiar person. Even without animals, sounds come from things. The whooshing of a tree blowing in the wind casts a chaotic shadow, a crash of dropped dishes sends ceramic shards skidding alarmingly across the floor. It’s not that deaf people alone receive this special information; it’s that their ability to notice and interpret it is more advanced. This skill is simply not as well developed in hearing people, not even those of us who sign, not even those of us who grew up signing.

Primer Exercise #3: Go someplace where people are likely to approach you from behind, maybe a sidewalk café table or a bench along a walking path. Notice the non-aural ways you can sense someone is approaching. Do they cast a shadow? Are there mirrors or polished metal objects you can keep in your awareness? Do other people or animals turn their gaze?

In fact, peripheral vision in deaf people seems to be so central to sound perception that it’s actually housed in the auditory cortex of the brain. In the absence of audio input, the functions of sound that can also be observed by sight—like peripheral attention, localization, and motion detection—are perceived by visual cues but processed auditorily in the mind.

Similarly, the only way to receive language isn’t to speak it and have it enter through the ear. Language can shift modality entirely, to be spoken with the body and heard with the eyes (or, as in the case of the DeafBlind language Protactile, spoken and heard through touch). And just as it is by visual stimuli, the auditory cortex of the brain is activated in the processing of sign languages. Maybe this is why at that party I observed the quiet in the deaf world come and go, even as the volume was consistent: conversing in ASL may actually have been stimulating the auditory cortex of my brain. As I entered the room, before I began to take in language, it was quiet. When I began to communicate, that quiet disappeared. This neural experience of sound had nothing to do with sonic stimulation and everything to do with language. In the bathroom there was no language and the quiet returned, even if little had changed sonically, even if the party continued at the same linguistic volume on the other side of that door. Without visual access, I could not hear it.

As a hearing person, my mind clogged up with sound-based information and pathways, I can experience only certain slivers of this hearing-with-the-eyes, but I can try and imagine how much more of the auditory world could be seen. Hearing people often maintain the “deafness is silence” model, but as far as the deaf mind is concerned, visual information is heard.

Minamimura plays with this convergence between auditory and visual sound through digital art, which she often uses to interface between the two. In SoundMoves, she hangs a camera from the ceiling of a room. When people move through the space, their image, captured from above, is projected onto the wall in colors that pulse to the rhythm of the sounds they make. Minamimura uses this technology to visualize the performances of beatboxers. As two beatboxers perform, their projected images light up with their rhythms. When only one beatboxer is making sound, the image of their bodies is bathed in red or green. When they come together, the projection of their bodies turns yellow. In this way, their sounds are made visual, both as individuals and also in concert.

As she observes this, Minamimura looks out to her audience and says: “Is this harmony, do you think?”

Just as sound can be seen, it also has an inherent tactile quality. And this vibrotactile information can be understood in that very same part of the brain as visual stimuli and sign language: the auditory cortex. (Interestingly, this is also true in the inverse: in people who use hand protheses, auditory feedback can trigger the feeling of touching something.) The sensations of sound and touch cannot be extricated from each other; sound is physical as much as it is auditory. In other words, sound can not only be seen—it can also be felt.

Primer Exercise #4: Spend some time noticing the vibrations that accompany everyday sounds. The way a cat’s purr travels up and down its body. The thud of a door closing. The rumble of a car engine. As a passenger, can you tell when a car is accelerating or slowing just by feel?

In the hearing world, we are so insistent on separating sound and touch that we tend to measure deafness by what one can and cannot hear—a jet engine, for example. Someone may be so deaf that they are said not to be able to hear a jet engine. But as Bahan points out, “Standing next to a jet engine, I would be shaken by the sound.” He may not have auditory access, but the vibrotactile stimulation cannot be divorced from the sound itself—and so of course he would experience the sound of the engine. He goes on: “Or if a gun went off next to me, I would unquestionably jump off the ground, because I can feel sound, especially in the 110–115 dB range. The construction of the ideology of hearing sound has undervalued the tactile feeling of sound.”

Primer Exercise #5: Compare and contrast the sound textures in your kitchen. Put your hand on the microwave as it buzzes, the coffeemaker as it bubbles, the dishwasher as it pulsates. Focus on the differences in the texture, tempo, and strength of the vibrations. What can you infer when the dishwasher stops rumbling and hisses hot air? When the popping sensations intensify on the lid of a pot of boiling water?

Early in her exploration of dance and sound, Minamimura was invited to take part in a concert specifically for deaf and hard of hearing people, called the “Listen Through the Body Concert,” a collaboration between the Pioneer Corporation and the Sapporo Symphony Orchestra in Hokkaido, Japan. Pioneer developed a chair that translated music into vibrations, sending them through the chair and onto the bodies of those seated in them. It was the first time Minamimura had seen—or felt—a live orchestra. “It was amazing,” she said. “I thought: Is this what hearing people experience? Is music like a massage for hearing people?”

Deaf people exploring music through vibration is nothing new. Bahan talks about Gallaudet University’s biannual Rock Festival, held in an enclosed receiving dock: “It becomes a ‘tactile party’ where music is felt throughout the body. The value given to the feeling of sound is evident in the choice of that location for the festival; it is a place that maximizes the feeling of sound.”

Primer Exercise #6: Blow up a balloon as big as you can. Play music from a speaker, hold the balloon near it with both hands, and close your eyes. Feel the rhythm and beats through the balloon’s membrane. Try different types of music—rock, jazz, classical—and note how the vibrations change. Take off your socks and, while still holding the balloon, place both your feet on the ground. Feel the music with your whole body, and dance!

Eventually, experiences like the vibrational chair seeped into Minamimura’s own choreography. As much as she loved hearing the orchestra vibrationally, something was missing. She watched the different instruments—the violins, the timpani—and she wanted to know which instrument was making which vibration. From her chair, she couldn’t tell. “Which quality of which vibration syncs to which instrument?” she asked herself. The chair, which flattened all sounds into one vibrational pattern, couldn’t distinguish between them.

And so in her own work, she started directing dancers to create sound by slapping their own thighs or stomping their feet on the floor. “I was able to access this; I could see it; I could see the sounds there.” Her dances didn’t employ traditional music—at least not music as hearing people would define it—but these bodily sounds created a rhythmic, sonic element. She began to compose so the sources of all the sounds in her performances were visible, so they remained connected to the objects making the sound. With this relationship intact, there was no missing information to a deaf audience member, or to Minamimura herself.

In Scored in Silence, Minamimura expands this technique to bring not just the visual but also the tactile experience of sound to her audience. She does this through the use of Woojer belts, which are worn around the shoulder or waist and amplify sound’s vibrations, with all the varying intensities and rhythms that correspond to the audio, placing those vibrations directly onto the body. During the performance, the audience could experience the sound in whatever ways were important to them. Anyone could use the Woojer belts, and hearing and hard of hearing people, as well as those with listening devices, could experience the auditory sound—either way, the performance’s visual elements synced with both the vibrational and the auditory score. In some ways, Minamimura created an experience like that of the orchestra chair, a sort of sound massage. But unlike that of the vibrating chair, the concept wasn’t to take something hearing people enjoyed, like a symphony, and translate it so deaf people could experience a simulacrum of it. Instead, this was a deaf creation from the start. The vibration wasn’t developed in response to the sound but was instead part of the concept all along—the score had to sound good not only to the ears but also to the body.

With the orchestra chair, there was a disconnect between what was seen and what was felt. What Minamimura did was something more like what she asks her dancers to do when she choreographs: to make sound that a deaf viewer can see and source and understand in full.

And so the auditory sounds in Scored in Silencecorrespond not to the sounds of things, like airplanes or rain. Instead they’re abstract, corresponding to the pacing of Minamimura’s movements—they don’t soundlike an airplane, for example, or not in a way hearing people might relate to, at least. Behind the projected outlines of an airplane’s spinning blades, Minamimura’s two index fingers begin to spin and then simply shake as the blades spin faster, and a crackling, staticky sound becomes louder. As the blades accelerate, Minamimura adds fingers: two fingers, three fingers, four fingers—the crackling intensifies—five fingers, and then takeoff. That crackling sound: it may not be the sound the spinning blades make, but maybe it’s what the spinning blades feellike.

Producer Tom Curteis, who is hearing, explains that “the Woojer belts give you a deep emotional connection to the story, and to Chisato as a performer.” The intensity of vibration changes over the course of the performance—sometimes it tremors, sometimes it rumbles. “And when you connect that as well to Chisato’s movement, facial expressions, the angle of the arms or the position of her body…. It’s a real sort of multisensory experience.”

At live performances, hearing people were blown away by the fact that they could feel music, and deaf audience members, according to Minamimura, had a sort of parallel experience. Minamimura summarizes their reaction: “I knew I could feel [sound], but now I can hear it, by the sense of touch.”

Beyond being inaccurate, the idea that deafness is silence carries consequences. It’s part of a larger hearing belief system: Deaf people are separate, vastly unlike us. And, unspoken: They are beneath us. They cannot hear our voices and therefore we cannot talk to them; we cannot listen. I have seen this again and again, sometimes from my fiercest, most socially conscious friends: a quiet, wide-eyed backing away. I saw it in the way doctors and nurses looked at my grandmother as she died—or the way they didn’t look at her. The way they looked past her, not even trying to engage.

We fall back on the space we believe separates us, this gaping chasm of silence. There’s nothing to be done about it, we seem to suggest with a cool shrug. Our social power depends on upholding this myth, which absolves hearing people of our responsibility to learn from deaf people. Minamimura is one of many deaf artists demanding something different.

After the bomb explodes, Minamimura stands in the center of darkness and then is gradually lit by a warm light. Her face is stern as she outlines the horror of the bombings. “Everyone is aware of the famous mushroom cloud,” she signs. “Some people, however, did not even realize what had happened to them. Those people”—she pauses for half a beat—“were deaf people.”

Then she introduces the first deaf survivor to appear, Katsumi Takabu, who was fourteen when the bomb dropped. The black-and-white video of him telling his story appears projected beside her, and she walks into the darkness as he begins to sign.

The morning of August 6, 1945, he was outside, petting a puppy he’d come across, when there was a huge blast. He was thrown against a wall; for a moment he thought he was dead. When he opened his eyes, everything was dark. As the darkness began to clear, he could see black rain falling in the distance.

More so than all the elements of visual and tactile sound, the most powerful act of Scored in Silence is its relationship to silence. Or rather, it’s the undoing of the myth of silence. In representing the experiences of deaf survivors, Minamimura is resurrecting the stories that have not been heard.

Minamimura traveled to Japan to interview survivors, and when she met the first of these survivors, she says, “I felt like I had an outline of myself, and she had an outline, like an aura. Like our auras became slightly blurred. We came together.”

Growing up in Japan, Minamimura knew the story of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the stories always focused on the experiences of hearing people. She was never able to envision what people like her had experienced. At one point in the performance, she asks, simply, “What did deaf people actually see?”

The fact that most of us don’t know the answer to this question is not because deaf people don’t have stories to share; it’s a fault of listening. We don’t know that deaf people were largely unaware of the services and support they were entitled to as survivors, their struggle to understand what had happened in the first place, their fight to rebuild their lives, to pay for medical services, or even to maintain control over their own bodies, which were systematically and forcibly sterilized during this era.

“When one thinks about the concept of silence,” the Quaker scientist and humanitarian Ursula Franklin writes, “one notices the fact that there has to be somebody there who listens before you can say there is silence.” There are many forms of this kind of silence. One is the silence of the listener, who, Franklin says, “courteously engage[s] so that I might be heard.” Silence, in this case, can be offered graciously. Too often, though, it’s imposed violently upon another: “In many cases the silence is not taken on voluntarily. This is the form of forced silence that I am afraid of. It is not only the silence of the padded cell, the silence of solitary confinement, but it is also the silencing that comes when there is the megaphone, the boombox, the PA system…” This is the silence imposed when those in power amplify only their own voices, effectively stifling all others.

The idea that deaf people are silent is a distraction, an excuse. It suggests there’s no way to listen. But without listening, there will be no healing, no restitution, and no justice. Instead, what if we in the hearing world let deaf people lead us? What if we destabilize what we think we know—about the senses, about deafness—and let deaf inquiries guide us as we grapple our way toward new definitions?

I love the question Minamimura poses as the two beatboxers come into sync and light up in a new color: “Is this harmony?” I love it for its openness, its curiosity, its invitation. And I can imagine Minamimura standing on a stage, performing Scored in Silence, her audience, hearing and deaf and everything in between, receiving the stories of these survivors through their eyes and through their bodies, through the auditory cortex, through the porousness of a mind open to something new. I can imagine asking: Is this harmony?

Continue your exploration of sound with these deaf and hard of hearing artists

Listen to percussionist Evelyn Glennie (and watch her TED Talk “How to Listen to Music with Your Whole Body”).

Listen to Warren “Wawa” Snipe, pioneer of “dip-hop,” or “hip-hop through deaf eyes” (and check out his interview with The Daily Moth before his 2021 Super Bowl performance of the National Anthem).

Watch dancer Antoine Hunter, founder and director of the Bay Area International Deaf Dance Festival (particularly the film Feel the Beat: Dancing While Deaf ).

Watch sound artist Christine Sun Kim (and her video “The Enchanting Music of Sign Language”).

Watch filmmaker Alison O’Daniel (especially excerpts from The Tuba Thieves and her talk about the film at the 2019 Creative Capital Artist Retreat).]

Katie Booth’s work has appeared in the Believer, Catapult, Vela, and Harper’s Magazine, and she has earned fellowships from the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Library of Congress. She is the author of The Invention of Miracles: Language, Power, and Alexander Graham Bell’s Quest to End Deafness and was raised in a mixed hearing/deaf family.

Cristina Hartmann is a writer living in Pittsburgh. Born profoundly deaf, she got a cochlear implant at six and is now DeafBlind. She received the June 2020 Deaf Artist Residency at the Anderson Center, and her work has appeared in Peatsmoke, Slate, and Vox.