Making Music Visible: Singing in Sign
One afternoon in a brightly-lit Brooklyn studio, Mervin Primeaux-O’Bryant and Brandon Kazen-Maddox were making a music video. They recorded a cover of “Midnight Train to Georgia,” but the voices that filled the room were those of Gladys Knight and the Pips who made the song a hit in the 1970s. And yet the two men also sang in the studio – with their hands.
Primeaux-O’Bryant is a deaf actor and dancer. Kazen-Maddox is a hearing dancer and choreographer who is a native speaker of American Sign Language thanks to seven deaf family members. Her version of “Midnight Train to Georgia” is part of a 10-song series of American Sign Language covers featuring groundbreaking works by black artists that Kazen-Maddox is producing for Broadstream, an art streaming platform.
Music connects communities around the world by telling basic stories, teaching emotional intelligence, and cementing a sense of belonging. Many Americans are familiar with signed singing from moments like the Super Bowl when a sign language interpreter – if hardly – performs the national anthem next to a pop star.
As sign language music videos proliferate on YouTube, triggering comments from deaf and hearing viewers, the richness of American Sign Language (ASL) has reached a broader stage.
“Music is a multitude of different things to different people,” Alexandria Wailes, a deaf actress and dancer, told me in a video interview with an interpreter. Wailes played “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the 2018 Super Bowl and drew thousands of visitors on YouTube last year with her contribution in sign language to “Sing Gently,” a choral work by Eric Whitacre.
“I understand,” she added, “that when you hear, not hearing seems to separate us. But what is your relationship to music, dance, beauty? What do you see that I can learn from? These are conversations that people have to get used to. “
Good ASL performance prioritizes dynamics, phrasing, and flow. The parameters of sign language – hand shape, movement, position, palm orientation, and facial expression – can be combined with elements of visual slang, a body of codified gestures that allow an experienced ASL speaker to immerse themselves in the type of sound painting that composers use Enrich text.
During the most recent video shoot, Gladys Knight’s voice boomed from a large loudspeaker, while a much smaller one was tucked into Primeaux-O’Bryant’s clothes so that he could “feel the music,” he said in an interview with Kazen-Maddox Interpreting. Out of sight of the camera, an interpreter was on hand to translate all of the crew’s instructions, all of which were heard while a laptop displayed the lyrics.
In the song, the backup singers – played here by Kazen-Maddox – encourage Knight to join their lover, who has returned to Georgia. In the original recording, the pips repeat the sentence “Everyone on board”. But when Kazen-Maddox signed it, those words became signs reminiscent of the movement of the train and its corridors. A playful pull on an invisible whistle corresponded to the woo-woo of the band’s horns. Primeaux-O’Bryant signed the lead vocals with movements that gently expanded the words, just like in the song: on the drawn out “Oh” from “Not so long ago – oh-oh” his hands fluttered into his lap. The two men also put in signs from Black ASL
“The hands have their own feelings,” said Primeaux-O’Bryant. “They have their own minds.”
Deaf singers prepare for their interpretations by experiencing a song with all means at their disposal. Many people speak of their increased sensitivity to sound vibrations that they experience through their body. As a ballet trained dancer, Primeaux-O’Bryant said he was particularly attuned to the vibrations of a piano transmitted through a wooden floor.
Primeaux-O’Bryant was a student at Model Secondary School for the Deaf in Washington in the early 1990s when a teacher asked him to sign a Michael Jackson song during Black History Month. His first reaction was to refuse.
But the teacher “pulled it out of him,” he said, and he was brought into the spotlight in front of a large audience. Then Primeaux-O’Bryant said, “The lights came on and my cue happened and I exploded and signed the work and it felt good.” Then the audience burst into applause: “I fell in love with the performance on stage.”
Signing choirs have long been common around the world. But the pandemic has created new visibility for signing and music, aided in part by the video-focused technology that all musicians have relied on to make art together. As part of the celebration of the “Global Ode to Joy” for Beethoven’s 250th birthday last year, the artist Dalia Ihab Younis wrote a new text for the final choir of the Ninth Symphony, which was taught in elementary terms by an Egyptian a cappella choir Arabic sign language.
Last spring, the pandemic forced a sudden halt to live singing as choirs were viewed as potential spreaders of the coronavirus. In response, the Dutch Radio Choir and the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra turned to the Dutch Signing Choir to work together on the signed elegy “My heart sings on”, in which the sharp voice of a music saw mingled with the lyrical gestures of Ewa Harmsen . Who is deaf She was joined by members of the radio choir who had learned a few signs on the occasion.
“It matters more when I sing with my hands,” said Harmsen in a video interview, speaking and signing in Dutch with an interpreter present. “I also love singing with my voice, but it’s not that pretty. My children say to me: don’t sing, mother! Not with your voice. ‘”
The challenges of signing music are multiplied in polyphonic works such as Bach’s Passion Oratorios with their complex tapestries of orchestral and vocal counterpoints and declamatory recitatives. At the beginning of April Sing and Sign, an ensemble founded by the soprano Susanne Haupt in Leipzig, launched a new production of part of the “St. John Passion “is the first fruit of an ongoing business.
Haupt worked with deaf people and a choreographer to develop a performance that not only reflects the sung words of the oratorio, but also the character of the music. For example, the gurgling sixteenth notes that run through the strings are expressed with the sign for “flowing”.
“We didn’t just want to translate text,” said Haupt. “We wanted to make music visible.”
Only those who should be entrusted with this process of making music visible can be a controversial question. Speaking between takes on filming in Brooklyn, Primeaux-O’Bryant said that some music videos made by listening to ASL speakers are not expressive and do little more than the words and basic rhythm.
“Sometimes interpreters don’t show the emotions that are associated with the music,” he said. “And deaf people say, ‘What is this?'”
Both men spoke about the impact of ballet training on the quality of their signature. Kazen-Maddox said when he took ballet lessons daily in his 20s, his signature became more graceful.
“There’s a port de bras that you only learn from ballet that I’ve really engraved on my body,” he said. “And I’ve seen my sign language, which has been with me all my life, become more compatible with music.”
Wailes also attributes her musicality to her dance training. “I’m a bit more attuned to the general sensitivity to spatial awareness in my body,” she said. And she added, “Not everyone is a good singer, are they? I think you should make this analogy for signatories too. “