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Wired for Sound

Composer Robin Fox joined the Bionic Ear Institute to create a series of new works for music lovers with hearing loss

The Interior Design Project

Two concert-goers. Both are similar ages, are in good health and both love music.

But while one hears every nuance of the composer's intent and passion, the other thinks the music sounds muddled and confused, creating a frustrating and ultimately isolating experience that they would much rather just switch off.

For music enthusiasts with cochlear implants, switching off is a common experience. They would rather turn off their implants and sit in silence than have to experience this unique kind of musical torture.

Hamish Innes-Brown, who works at the Bionic Ear Institute (BEI), says the main problem for people using a cochlear implant is the perception of pitch and timbre.

"Obviously this has a huge impact on listening to most music which is mainly based on following melodies and following lines of melodies played by different instruments at the same time."

Rehearsing for 'Interior Design'

Creating meaningful music for someone with hearing loss

Composer Robin Fox worked with Innes-Brown to create the project with funding from the Australian Network for Art and Technology (ANAT), Arts Victoria and the Australia Council for the Arts. For three months Fox lived with and learnt exactly how people with implants perceive sound and has used that knowledge to create music designed especially for them.

A diverse group of composers to work on the Interior Design Project:

  • Natasha Anderson, who has a strong history in the performance of medieval and baroque music;
  • James Rushford, virtuoso pianist and co-founder of the radical Golden Fur ensemble;
  • Rohan Drape, whose work takes in computer music, instrumental composition and installation;
  • Eugene Ughetti, percussion specialist; and
  • Australian composer Ben Harper, whose interest in microtonal tuning systems made him an ideal candidate for a project.

Challenges for the Interior Design Project

Despite their impressive expertise, the project presented each composer with unique challenges.

As well as technical issues, such as the narrow range of sounds the composers have to work with, there's also the concept of taste.

"Each recipient has developed a different way of adjusting to listening life with the implant. These differences can greatly influence their listening experiences generally. So there are no hard and fast rules," says Fox.

"When composing for the cochlear implant, almost every decision is based on a supposition. We have some tools to let us know how the electrodes are behaving and some limited chances to meet with implant users to discuss responses to sounds we have made."

The project also involved BEI staff including:

  • Jeremy Marozeau, who leads the Music and Pitch team;
  • Prof Peter Blamey, who invented ADRO, one of the most successful hearing aid sound-processing schemes; and
  • Prof Hugh McDermot, who invented the most widely-used cochlear implant sound-processing scheme.

Wired for Sound group rehearsal

The Bionic Ear Institute performance results include:

Combining music with vibration, light, colour and movement, the resulting performance - Interior Design: Music for the Bionic Ear features six new works and will be performed to a mixed audience of people with cochlear implants and their hearing family and friends at the Arts Centre Melbourne.

There are approximately 1,500 people with cochlear implants in Victoria and the BEI plans to invite every one.

At the heart of the performance is the crucial test: instead of switching off, have Robin and his team created something that will make these listeners start to switch on?

Musician at the BEI, Wired for sound.