Romantik Blog

Music is more than just sound waves

How did you come up with the idea of bringing music closer to deaf people in this way?
Laura M. Schwengber: Seven years ago, NDR asked me to interpret music videos for an internet project on the occasion of the Day of the Deaf. At first I was sceptical whether something like that could work, but the films were actually clicked on incredibly often. It was a huge success! This led to the idea of trying it out live on stage.

You can still imagine translating song lyrics into sign language. But how do you translate a melody?
Laura M. Schwengber: It has a lot to do with emotions. With my signs, I also pass on what the music triggers in me. In addition, I can show with my hands whether a tone is high or low, and I can describe the rhythm of the music. Because music is more than just sound waves. That means you can experience music in other ways than by hearing.

Can you give an example?
Laura M. Schwengber: Let's take "The Moldau" by Friedrich Smetana. The music describes the course of the river from the little brook to the stream that flows into the sea. I can represent this, for example, with the gesture for "wave", a flat hand making a wave motion. Of course, I can also vary this into many small or large, powerful waves. Basically, I use gestures to transport images that Smetana used onomatopoeically in his music into a sensual experience.

Is that comparable to a "real" listening experience?
Laura M. Schwengber: It's hard to say. It is a musical experience. As a hearing person, you can't imagine that so easily. After all, we all listen in completely different ways.

You once translated a Peter Maffay concert where about half of the audience was deaf. After a while, everyone danced together.
Laura M. Schwengber: I could hardly believe it myself. And something else happened: I had observed that in front of the stage some fans were talking in sign language. That annoyed me at first. I thought: Hey, you're at a concert here! Afterwards I found out what was really going on. The people had sung along with the songs in sign language.

"I pass on with my gestures what the music triggers in me."

Sign language

What feedback do you get from deaf people?
Laura M. Schwengber: Very different. It also depends on whether someone is deaf from birth or only lost their hearing later. The latter often say that the sign translation evoked feelings in them that they used to have when listening to the play. People who have been deaf since birth sometimes say, now you can imagine how someone feels when they hear music. But there are also people who can't do anything with it and find it kind of ridiculous. It always depends a bit on whether someone has an antenna for the whole thing.

Could you actually translate sensual experiences of other kinds into sign language, such as tastes or smells?
Laura M. Schwengber: In principle, something like that is attempted in TV advertising for perfume. A smell is translated into visual language, for example with the help of colours. But how do you translate the taste of a steak into sign language (laughs)? I believe that a lot can be conveyed with sign language.

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