Composer-Curator: Isabel Jones and Duncan Chapman

Feature by Lauren Strain | 30 Mar 2016

As part of new music charity Sound and Music's Composer-Curator programme, Isabel Jones and Duncan Chapman are touring White Cane – an exploration of the sounds of public spaces, developed in collaboration with blind and visually impaired performers – around the UK. The Skinny talks to the two artists about the idea of 'sonic vision'. 

We are accustomed to seeing people using a white cane. But have we ever really thought about the 'sound' it makes?

For the last two years, artists Isabel Jones and Duncan Chapman – co-directors of socially engaged performance collective Salamanda Tandem – have been presenting White Cane, a site-specific performance involving blind and visually impaired (VIP) performers, around the UK.

Wearing wireless headphones, listeners are immersed in a sound world comprised of field recordings, musical performance, an audio description sung by Jones and – crucially – the sound of a white cane as it rolls along the surfaces of the local environment. All these inputs are mixed live, enabling participants to hear what the VIP performers are experiencing in real-time.

It is a project with a strong principle of accessibility behind it; as Chapman says, “We were trying to create something that was like an insight into a different world.”

Originally created for the 2014 Ludus Festival in Leeds, the most recent phase of White Cane is supported by Composer-Curator, an annual programme operated by the national charity for new music, Sound and Music, which offers funding and guidance (including marketing and audience development support) to a number of artists curating their own events.

As Chapman explains, the support from Sound and Music has enabled the White Cane project to develop at a pace that allows the performers – Jones, Chapman and two long cane performers, violist Takashi Kikuchi and dancer Mickel Smithen – to explore their relationship, as well as “the time and space to look at the ideas, not just churn out work.” As each performance of White Cane involves a great deal of time researching the site where it will take place, gathering recordings and considering what to include in the pre-recorded music, each performance as a result “has a different feel to it entirely.” And while some of the performance is prepared ahead of time, much of the final experience is down to what's happening in the moment – for example, it is quite possible to participate unwittingly, as a passer-by who wanders into the field of play and finds they have become a part of it.

“That's one of the very strong things about it; that you can discover that you're inside it, that you become part of the sung audio description,” Chapman says. “Some of that [description] is information that the blind or visually impaired performers need – they need to know that, say, there's a small child skateboarding across the way who they might bump into. But then that becomes part of [the work].”

[Listen: A clip of White Cane in live performance, including sung audio description by Isabel Jones]

This creative approach to audio description – here conceived of as a mixture of practical information and unusual observations sung by Jones rather than simply an aid – is something the pair have been developing for many years.

“If you ever go to a performance and put on headphones to listen to the audio description, most of the time it's hideous, it's rubbish, it's really pedestrian,” Chapman says. “For a dance performance, say, it goes 'There's a man. He's walking. He falls over. He jumps in the air...' – and it tells you something, but it doesn't necessarily tell you anything interesting or imaginative. So what we're trying to do is make that process of experiencing through someone else's sense more imaginative, and more compelling to listen to.”

It has roots in Jones' experience as a child with her father, who lost his sight completely at age 7 and became deaf-blind at age 32. “From the moment I could speak I was, in essence, audio-describing,” she explains. “I remember the feeling of saying something like 'aeroplane' and then realising that he couldn't see the aeroplane, he couldn't see me pointing. And I quickly switched; when I picked up an object, let's say we were at the beach, I would take it to his hands and say 'stone'. And then we would be able to share it. I think it became wired in me from a very early age – if I was looking at and experiencing something, I would want to make that part of his world and his world part of mine.”

The audio description does not just consist of words, but also wordless vocalisations, drawing on Jones' many years of artistic practice using only “pre-verbal sounds.” As she explains, “one has to be careful with text because immediately you make it referential,” so sometimes something more “textural” is needed; “stones, cobble, brick, air, temperature, dampness or heat... these are not always easy to describe in words.”

[Video: Isabel Jones explains how White Cane works and recalls the first performance in Leeds]

Though each performance of White Cane by its nature cannot be repeated, it's what the audience member takes away from it – hopefully, a deeper appreciation for an otherwise hidden sonic world – that is lasting. “There's that realisation when you see people using a white cane: 'Oh, they're getting all this information,'” Chapman says. “There's a whole world of stuff, this sort of tactile, sonic experience... It's a sound that nobody hears, [yet it's] going on all the time.”

For Jones, there is a strong political current to the project. Where a sighted audience member is often in a position of power in relation to a blind or visually impaired performer – they can see the performer, while the performer cannot see the audience – in White Cane, the performer is given power through audio description; the power to 'see' the audience “and react instantly if they want to.” It is also about altering perception of the white cane; a tool we are so used to seeing, but perhaps more as a signal of “deficit or disability” than – as Jones and her father saw it – “'a magic stick.'” 

“[My father might have been seen as] disabled by society, but from his perspective and my perspective, he had this inner world of imagination and creativity that was totally beyond your average human being,” Jones says, “and totally awe-inspiring.”

“The idea of that juxtaposition between this symbol, you might say, of deficit, viewed by people who don't know anything about the inner world of a visually impaired person, and on the other hand, what I knew, gave me a passion and a fire to see what piece of work I could make.”

White Cane is at Spitalfields Festival, London (11 Jun, 2pm), and Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, Firesite Gallery, Colchester and West Bridgeford Park, Nottingham, (dates tbc).

This project has been developed as part of Sound and Music’s Composer-Curator programme, which is supported by the Arts Council, PRS for Music Foundation and Help Musicians UK.

We'll be interviewing each of the Composer-Curators over the coming months here at The Skinny; be sure to come back for more. You can find our first interview, with Composer-Curator Emma Welton, here.

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