Daniel Fishkin’s Tinnital Sound Maker
In 2008, composer and sound artist Daniel Fishkin’s ears began ringing. He had developed tinnitus, a condition that affects the processing of acoustic signals in the brain. No longer able to compose and perform music in the same way, Fishkin redirected his energies towards studying circuity and building sound sculpture installations. During a residency at Elsewhere Museum in Greensboro, N.C. Fishkin built the Lady’s Harp, a twenty-foot long electro-acoustic harp. Fishkin realized that the Lady’s Harp’s self-sustaining feedback system modeled the workings of the inner ear and was an instrument by which he could explore the sounds of tinnitus.
Since then, Fishkin has composed several performances with the Lady’s Harp entitled Composing the Tinnitus Suites. Composing the Tinnitus Suites: 2016 is the fourth iteration, installed in the Rotunda Sanctuary this Fall. It is a four part concert series, premiering in the Fringe Festival and continuing through October.
“Tinnitus distorts and problematizes the listening experience,” explains Fishkin. Tinnitus is not an acoustic phenomenon, but a perceived phenomenon. Which is to say, the ringing he hears is a phantom sound with no spatial dimensions. “Tinnitus is an extra thing,” says Fishkin. “The question is do you ignore it? Does the excess corrupt the experience? Is it an intrusion?” Rather than brush the condition aside, Fishkin places it in the foreground of his work. His compositions respond to the need to create a situation where tinnitus is relevant. “What would a music be that is enhanced by tinnitus?” he speculates. “Does it exist?” He calls this possible music “tinnitus music.”
For Fishkin, composing begins with instrument building. This process requires “a different kind of attention” than playing, where he is “thinking but not hearing sound.” The Lady’s Harp is a generative system where the sounds are not created by players, but shaped. The strings of the harp are activated by a mixer feedback system using guitar pickups and a pressure transducer. Players rub and bend the strings of the harp with wooden tools, but do not pluck like when playing a slide guitar.
Fishkin’s sound mixing technique is slow and careful, allowing him to listen to “what’s happening in the long phrases” and to “talk to the tinnitus,” he says. The audience is part of the conversation; the sounds change with their movements as they explore the installation. His compositions situate the assemblage of audience, musicians, and installation in an unstable relationship to sound.
“To make ‘Tinnitus Music’ is not just to compose sounds, but also to compose situations that can break the isolation of its experience,” Fishkin stated on the Bowerbird website for the event. It’s about finding a way to talk to people without tinnitus about tinnitus.
Composing the Tinnitus Suites: 2016 is a collaboration between “allies across mediums,” explains Fishkin. Collaborators for the series include Philadelphia artists Philadelphia Hearing Damage, sound artist and instrument builder Ellen Fullman, musicians and performance artists Cleek Schrey and Ron Shalom, and the New York based collective ensemble mise-en. Fishkin suggests that the purpose of this collaboration is not primarily about healing or coping, but about taking “aesthetic action.” Fishkin is recognized as a Tinnitus Ambassador by the German Tinnitus Foundation Charite.
Fishkin calls this project a “lifework,” in homage to performance artist Tehching Hsieh. Like Hsieh, who is known for a series of year-long durational performances, Fishkin approaches his art as a commitment. Undergirding his art practice is the question of how to deal with the lifelong condition of hearing damage. He describes his work as “asserting an allegiance to the situation” and the very real problems caused by tinnitus.
The Rotunda Sanctuary
4014 Walnut Street
Admission is free for all events
Philadelphia Hearing Damage, Friday, Sept 23 at 8pm
Ellen Fullman with Daniel Fishkin, Friday, Sept 30 at 8pm
Daniel Fishkin, Cleek Schrey, Ron Shalom, Sunday, Oct 2 at 8pm
ensemble mise-en, Sunday, Oct 16 at 8pm