STANDING ON THE THRESHOLD OF THE OUTSIDE WORLD
a solo-opera for soprano and electronics in four acts
Carlos Alberto Augusto
This libretto is based on the these books and other writings:
• “Wired for Sound: a journey into hearing” by Beverly Biderman •“Miss Leavitt’s stars” by George Johnson
•Fragments by Empedocles (various translations)
• Excerpts of the poem “Evolução” by Antero de Quental •Writings by the author
My special thanks to Beverly Biderman and George Johnson for graciously allowing me to use their writings to produce this libretto and to Siegfried Zielinsky for the inspirational book Deep Time of Media which was the cue for my work.
I shall tell a double tale. For at one time they grew to be one
alone from many, and at another, again, they grew apart to be many
from one. And there is a double coming to be of mortals and a
double waning;for the coming together of them all gives birth to
and destroys the one, while the other, as they again grow apart,
was nurtured and flew away. And these things never cease from
constantly alternating, at one time all coming together by love
Imagine yourself in a room with just a few close friends you love,
talking and laughing. The conversation is quick and animated. It
is too swift for you to follow on their lips, too difficult for
you to understand - because you are deaf.
You sit in their midst with a frozen smile on your face, your
cheeks aching, afraid to break the warm mood by telling them you
are unable to understand. Your heart tightens and aches too. You
feel angry, shut out, angry at yourself for being deaf, and at the
world for expecting you not to be.
Then, imagine another day, when you have a device implanted deep
within your ear to help you to hear.
Imagine that with it, you hear words and phrases in the air
without looking for them on people’s lips. You understand not
everything, but enough to feel a part of the group. You hear birds
that were once silent, music that was once noise. Your heart opens
up. Your anger melts, and you feel a sense of grace.
The device within my ear is a cochlear implant.
Imagine me sitting at a table before a wooden viewing frame that
supports a large glass plate-one of those black-on-white reversals
of the night sky. At the base of the frame is a mirror, reflecting
light in from a nearby window to illuminate the image from behind.
Around me sit others, similarly occupied.
Imagine me in a late-nineteenth-century decor in a long frilled
dress buttoned to the neck, my dark hair pulled tightly into a
To understand the experience of hearing with a cochlear implant,
you need also to understand the experience of deafness.
I count stars. I was twenty-five when I arrived at the
observatory. My goal was to learn astronomy.
First, hear of the four roots of all things,
gleaming Zeus and life-bringing Hera and Aidoneus
and Nestis, who moistens with tears the spring of mortals.
My hearing loss became profound during my youth. I needed to at
least appear to be like everyone else.
I was then able to forgive myself for my deafness, and forgive
others for not understanding what even I had not understood.
I am deaf, although not from birth. In my second year at Oberlin I
enrolled as a student in its conservatory of music. For my new
calling, eyes were more important than ears, and perhaps deafness
was an occupational advantage in a job requiring such intense
powers of concentration.
Deafness seemed to cause the neural pathways in the central
auditory system of the brain to fail. To develop properly, to
degenerate, and to reorganize around the information getting
through from the ear.
My neural pathways became sparse.
The spiral ganglion cells in the inner ear that relay signals from
the inner ear to the brain decrease in number after a period of
The salt grew solid, smit by beams of sun.
It can be emotionally devastating to be unable to understand what
people are saying. It is lonely to be in a crowd and not
understand what's going on, not understand why people have grown
somber or have burst into laughter.
I would get angry at myself for being deaf, and at others for not
understanding my unspoken communication needs.
Come! I will name the like-primeval Four,
Whence rose to sight all things we now behold
Earth, many-billowed Sea, and the moist Air,
And Aether, the Titan who binds the globe about.
Computers. We were called computers.
We would measure and calculate, recording our observations in a
Our job was to record the magnitude of stars. Stellar photometry.
Brighter stars leave larger spots on a photographic plate,
chemically darkening more grains in the emulsion. Size therefore
is an indicator of brightness.
By the time I was in my forties, I was ready for any improvement I
could get in my hearing.
Even an ability to better hear environmental sounds and lipread
with more ease would be wonderful.
A bell... a fleshy twig.
July 8th... time to listen.
The most anxiously awaited day of my life arrives. Six weeks after
surgery, it is "turn on" day.
The incision behind my ear has healed, and I am ready to get my
external equipment connected and turned on at the clinic.
The turn on will be a private moment that I just cannot
contemplate sharing, so laden is it with a lifetime of hopes and
No wise man dreams such folly in his heart,
That only whilst we live what men call life
We have our being and take our good and ill,
And ere as mortals we compacted be,
And when as mortals we be loosed apart,
We are as nothing.
I meet with my audiologist, for my turn on.
The cochlea is like a piano.
My surgeon has strung electrodes. So that when they’re activated,
they depress different keys on my "piano."
The result is that I can distinguish the pitch getting higher as
we go up the string, testing each electrode in turn.
A gray processor. The size of a cigarette pack.
A microphone. I would wear it over my ear.
A thin beige cable. I would wear it under my clothing.
A wheel-shaped transmitter. It would sit behind my ear.
Inside the processor, the sounds would be quickly converted into
These coded signals would pass back up the cable to the small
The signals would cross my skin as radio frequency, be decoded by
the receiver, and then travel to the electrode array in my inner
ear to stimulate the appropriate electrodes.
This whole cycle was rapid.
Knowing that all things have their emanations.
Wired for sound...
I can hear the sh, s, t, f and p sounds when I am not looking at my audiologist.
My friends' voices are starting to sound more and more natural. I think I am starting to understand them better.
Learning to hear...
The Sphere on every side the boundless same,
Exultant in surrounding solitude.
There views one not the swift limbs of the Sun,
Nor there the strength of shaggy Earth, nor Sea;
But in the strong recess of Harmony,
Established firm abides the rounded Sphere,
Exultant in surrounding solitude.
I am having some trouble with my hearing, worrying, a little
oddly, that stargazing might make it worse. My hearing is not
nearly as good when absorbed in astronomical work. Cold weather
seems to aggravate my condition. It is evident that I cannot teach
astronomy in any school or college where I should have to be out
with classes on cold winter nights.
My aurist forbids any such exposure.
I hear a soft sighing noise. The sound of the wind in the trees, a
sound that I can't remember hearing before.
I keep hearing a strange whistling sound at the end of everyone's
words. I realize these words are often plural. I am hearing the
I find I need to listen to these sounds in order to understand
Early on I was asked to look for “variables".
Stars that waxed and waned in brightness like slow-motion beacons.
A few of the more interesting were to be found in a constellation
that might be considered my namesake, Cygnus, the Swan.
Some of the variables completed a cycle every few days, others
took weeks or months.
My job was not to speculate why.
The rhythms were imperceptibly slow and subtle.
Measuring stars at various intervals.
Detect the variations.
Photography made it possible.
Dense swarms of stars on every plate.
Impossible to check each one.
Two plates of the same region, exposed at different times. Line
Align them. They cancel each other except for the stars that had
changed in brightness.
They look subtly different.
A star has brightened.
Plate by late, the computers measure a dot as it swelled and
receded, writing tiny numbers on the glass in india ink.
I would make sure that I was literally immersed in sound all my
Environmental sound hunts with a hearing person.
Once I understand what a sound is, I can put it in the background
and ignore it just as hearing people do. The next time I will not
be distracted by it.
Inside the pet shop.
I'm unable to hear the birds. Too much Muzak and noise.
Trying to make sense of what I am hearing.
I sense that I'm like an infant peering intently at faces, trying
to understand what their noises and jabbering mean.
One day, with my cochlear implant off and my hearing aid on, I
heard a very different high-pitched spiraling sound.
And Pausanias, son of wise Anchites, you listen!
I spent day after day doing this painstaking work, absorbing
myself in the data. With "an almost religious zeal."
I wrote up a draft of my findings, then sailed for Europe .
Traveled for two years.
I didn't forget about astronomy.
I left for Beloit, Wisconsin. I remained there more than two
I’d hoped I would resume my projects in astronomy from Wisconsin.
The greater sense of connectedness and security I feel with my
implant turned on is one of the reasons why, after the first few
days, I took such a deep pleasure in my hearing with it.
For ‘tis through Earth that Earth we do behold,
Through Ether, divine Ether luminous,
Through water, Water, through Fire, devouring Fire,
And Love through Love, and hate through doleful Hate.
Do you think it likely that I could find employment either in the
observatory or in a school where there is a mild winter climate?
“I do not know of any observatory in a warm climate, where you
could be employed on similar work. It would be difficult to
furnish you with a large amount of work that you could carry on
elsewhere. In any case, I should doubt if Astronomy had anything
to do with the condition of your hearing, unless you have been
assured that this is the case by a good aurist."
A new full-time job.
"For this would be willing to pay thirty cents an hour in view of
the quality of your work, although our usual price, in such cases,
is twenty five cents an hour.
If it was not possible for you to relocate, I would pay your fare
for a short visit to Cambridge. You could get your work in order
to take home to Beloit."
I accepted Pickering’s proposal for a working visit to Observatory
"My dear Prof. Pickering, it has proved possible for me to arrange
my affairs here so that I can go to Cambridge next month and
remain until the work is completed. Your very liberal offer of
thirty cents an hour will enable me to do this."
Finally, on August 25, I arrive.
It has been a disappointment to me that I have had to defer the
beginning of my work for so long.
A lot of things moved me to tears in the months following my turn
I realized I was responding to the emotional content of sounds,
and finding there emotion everywhere.
Upon my return I was charged with nothing more than examining the
plates for variable stars.
Paradoxically my cochlear implant moved me into a closer
relationship with my deafness.
I never realized how deaf I was until I became more hearing.
I was turned on the world through sound.
Each time I spotted a variable star, determine its coordinates on
the photographic plate, and carefully compute its change in
magnitude by comparing it with other stars.
To really hear I needed to undo years of adaptation, tuning out
sounds and listen.
I needed to lessen my visual orientation to the world.
And to trust.
Day after day, I quantified the specks of pulsing starlight,
filling in column after column of numbers.
There is a primitive level on which our hearing operates.
Sounds tell us we are in a world alive around us.
The star with Harvard Number 1354 was the southern star of a close
pair, in a group of five." Number 1391 was "the southern star in a
line of three." Number 1509 appears to be at the centre of an
extremely small, faint cluster.”
I was amazed at how I had managed for most of my life with so
A remarkable relation between the brightness of the variables and
the length of their periods will be noticed. The brighter the star
the slower it blinked.
The monochrome sounds I had heard before were now rich with color,
some beautiful and some not.
The variables with this remarkable property are called Cepheids.
The Cepheid yardstick, a way to measure through great stretches of
I was having an enormous amount of difficulty breaking away from
my visual orientation.
Thus by the will of chance all things think.
My Cepheids revealed only relative distances. Ratios. The next
step would be to calibrate it.
Understand speech without seeing a person's face. The senses do
seem to go together.
Is the universe 13.9 billion light years in radius or just 13.8?
How can anyone know for sure?
For some time I had felt starved for music.
I would plot the periods of some of the dimmer variables in the
Small Magellanic Cloud. Fainter than the faintest already studied.
As far as mortals change by day, so far
By night their thinking changes...
We are in a state of readiness to react to sounds that may signifY
danger or that require action.
When that connection is cut off, we may feel the deadness many
deafened people describe as coming over them.
And perhaps I would see if my discovery on the Cepheids also held
for those in the Large Magellanic Cloud. "Does the period-
luminosity law apply there?"
Our environment has become dead. We may also to some extent think
that we too have become dead.
With my implant off, I feel like I am soundlessly walking down
stairs and pass through rooms like a ghost.
To measure the universe, riding along with the sun, closer stars
will move faster than farther ones, while the most remote stars
will not seem to move at all.
Although the parts of Earth were sometimes less,
Sometimes a little more than theirs. From these
There came our blood and all the shapes of flesh.
Carefully note the position of the Cepheid, then measure it again
years later. Calculate, triangulate, calibrate the yardstick and
then measure the rest.
Now that I have more hearing with my cochlear implant, loud
pounding music does not bother me nearly as much.
Roughing out the shape and size of the galaxy...
I try to push my limits and stop only when the sound is
The North Polar Sequence.
We shall never understand it until we find a way to send up a net and fetch the thing down!
I see at my feet a multiform staircase
Descending in spirals from immensity.
I question infinity and sometimes weep.
I fall into a deep sleep only to be awakened in the night by loud
head noise: tinnitus.
Huge strain trying to make sense of speech.
Growth and Decay, and Sleep and Roused-from-sleep
Action and Rest, and Glory many-crowned,
And Filth, and Silence and prevailing Voice.
We were beseiged by the worst ice storm.
And thus got all things share of breath and smells.
For unto men their thrift of reason grows
According to the body's thrift and state.
For as of these commingled all things are,
Even so through these men think, rejoice, or grieve.
Dark day, very sad...
I seemed to manage with my profound hearing loss with tricks and
strategies. There were consequences, however. Deafness causes
changes in the brain. But there is substantial plasticity even in
the auditory systems of adults.
A man wise in his thoughts would not divine such things.
I became more critical of the sounds that I heard. Adjusting and
fine-tuning. There was a point where there seemed to be no more
fine-tuning tricks left. I had to simply work with what I had.
That while they live what they call life for so long they are, and
have good and evil things.
It was difficult for me to move ahead in learning to hear while I
was feeling negatively about the sounds I was hearing. Things
seemed to fall apart. I was in despair. I did not realize then,
after my turn on, that understanding only came much later. I
needed to accept the sounds I was hearing and find joy in them.
But before they are formed as mortals and when they are dissolved,
they are nothing.
I don’t hear like you.
We still know little about the mystery of hearing. But we know we
hear with our brains.
My turn on produced a “trick of the mind”.
With this life became a little more easeful. I found that with
hearing, the world became a less hostile place, there is a greater
connectedness with the environment and a greater sense of security
Ye friends, who in the mighty city dwell.
All hail, O friends! But unto ye I walk
As god immortal now, mortal no more,
When with my throngs of men and women I come
To thriving cities, I am sought by prayers,
And thousands follow me that they may ask
The path to weal and vantage, craving some
For oracles, whilst others seek to hear
A healing word against many a foul disease
That all too long hath pierced with grievous pains.