TMIE

STANDING ON THE THRESHOLD OF THE OUTSIDE WORLD

a solo-opera for soprano and electronics in four acts

by

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.

 

Dramatis personae

Mesedjer

Selena

Coryphaeus

 

 

Act I

 

Coryphaeus

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

into one.

 

Mesedjer

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.

 

Selena

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

bun.

 

Mesedjer

To understand the experience of hearing with a cochlear implant,

you need also to understand the experience of deafness.

 

Selena

I count stars. I was twenty-five when I arrived at the

observatory. My goal was to learn astronomy.

 

Coryphaeus

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.

 

Mesedjer

My hearing loss became profound during my youth. I needed to at

least appear to be like everyone else.

Act normal.

I was then able to forgive myself for my deafness, and forgive

others for not understanding what even I had not understood.

 

Selena

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.

 

Mesedjer

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

deafness.

 

Coryphaeus

The salt grew solid, smit by beams of sun.

 

Mesedjer

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.

 

Coryphaeus

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.

 

Selena

Computers. We were called computers.

We would measure and calculate, recording our observations in a

ledger book.

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.

 

Mesedjer

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.

 

Coryphaeus

A bell... a fleshy twig.

 

Mesedjer

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

dreams.

 

Coryphaeus

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.

 

Mesedjer

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

electrical codes.

These coded signals would pass back up the cable to the small

wheel-shaped transmitter.

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.

 

Coryphaeus

Knowing that all things have their emanations.

 

Mesedjer

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...

 

Coryphaeus

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.

 

Selena

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.

 

Mesedjer

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

sibilant s.

I find I need to listen to these sounds in order to understand

speech.

 

Selena

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

them up.

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.

 

Mesedjer

I would make sure that I was literally immersed in sound all my

waking hours.

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.

 

Coryphaeus

And Pausanias, son of wise Anchites, you listen!

 

Selena

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

years.

I’d hoped I would resume my projects in astronomy from Wisconsin.

 

Mesedjer

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.

Coryphaeus

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.

 

Act III

 

Selena

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?

 

Pickering

“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."

 

Selena

A new full-time job.

 

Pickering

"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."

 

Selena

I accepted Pickering’s proposal for a working visit to Observatory

Hill.

 

Selena

"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."

 

Selena

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.

 

Mesedjer

A lot of things moved me to tears in the months following my turn

on.

I realized I was responding to the emotional content of sounds,

and finding there emotion everywhere.

 

Selena

Upon my return I was charged with nothing more than examining the

plates for variable stars.

 

Mesedjer

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.

 

Selena

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.

 

Mesedjer

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.

 

Selena

Day after day, I quantified the specks of pulsing starlight,

filling in column after column of numbers.

 

Mesedjer

There is a primitive level on which our hearing operates.

Sounds tell us we are in a world alive around us.

 

Selena

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.”

 

Mesedjer

I was amazed at how I had managed for most of my life with so

little sound.

 

Selena

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.

 

Mesedjer

The monochrome sounds I had heard before were now rich with color,

some beautiful and some not.

 

Selena

The variables with this remarkable property are called Cepheids.

The Cepheid yardstick, a way to measure through great stretches of

space.

 

Mesedjer

I was having an enormous amount of difficulty breaking away from

my visual orientation.

 

Coryphaeus

Thus by the will of chance all things think.

 

Selena

My Cepheids revealed only relative distances. Ratios. The next

step would be to calibrate it.

 

Mesedjer

Understand speech without seeing a person's face. The senses do

seem to go together.

 

Selena

Is the universe 13.9 billion light years in radius or just 13.8?

How can anyone know for sure?

 

Mesedjer

For some time I had felt starved for music.

 

Selena

I would plot the periods of some of the dimmer variables in the

Small Magellanic Cloud. Fainter than the faintest already studied.

 

Coryphaeus

As far as mortals change by day, so far

By night their thinking changes...

 

Mesedjer

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.

 

Selena

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?"

 

Mesedjer

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.

 

Selena

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.

 

Coryphaeus

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.

 

Selena

Carefully note the position of the Cepheid, then measure it again

years later. Calculate, triangulate, calibrate the yardstick and

then measure the rest.

 

Mesedjer

Now that I have more hearing with my cochlear implant, loud

pounding music does not bother me nearly as much.

 

Selena

Roughing out the shape and size of the galaxy...

 

Mesedjer

I try to push my limits and stop only when the sound is

unbearable.

 

Selena

The North Polar Sequence.

Beta Lyrae.

We shall never understand it until we find a way to send up a net and fetch the thing down!

 

 

Act III

 

Coryphaeus

I see at my feet a multiform staircase

Descending in spirals from immensity.

I question infinity and sometimes weep.

 

 

Act IV

 

Mesedjer

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.

 

Coryphaeus

Growth and Decay, and Sleep and Roused-from-sleep

Action and Rest, and Glory many-crowned,

And Filth, and Silence and prevailing Voice.

 

Selena

We were beseiged by the worst ice storm.

 

Coryphaeus

And thus got all things share of breath and smells.

 

Selena

Sad...

 

Coryphaeus

For unto men their thrift of reason grows

According to the body's thrift and state.

 

Selena

December 12...

 

Coryphaeus

For as of these commingled all things are,

Even so through these men think, rejoice, or grieve.

 

Selena

Dark day, very sad...

 

Mesedjer

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.

 

Coryphaeus

A man wise in his thoughts would not divine such things.

 

Mesedjer

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.

 

Coryphaeus

That while they live what they call life for so long they are, and

have good and evil things.

 

Mesedjer

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.

 

Coryphaeus

But before they are formed as mortals and when they are dissolved,

they are nothing.

 

Mesedjer

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

and peace.

 

Coryphaeus

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.

 

END