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Jacob Kirkegaard: Labyrinthitis makes you Hear your Ear

img  Tobias
Kirkegaard was already familiar with the basic concept of the ear’s inner resonance, when the Medical Museion of Copenhagen approached him with the commission for a work which was to be premiered at the “Art & Biomedicine” conference in September of last year. The idea of listening to his own ears in action seemed a perfect paradox to him and he gladly accepted. Only a short while later, tiny microphones were inserted into his own ears at the DTU in Denmark, recording discreet frequencies and working on “Labyrinthitis”, a composition which combined psychoacoustic effects with artistic inventiveness.

Even though the concept of “Labyrinthitis” seems revolutionary, Kirkegaard made use of basic discoveries and theories formulated centuries ago. Italian composer and musicologist Giuseppe Tartini was officially the first to stumble upon otoacoustic emissions. Tartini was also a famed Violinist and Teacher and while tuning his instrument, he discovered that by playing two strings in a certain ratio, a third tone would magically manifest itself. “To this day, Tartini’s application of this acoustical phenomenon is useful for players of string instruments”, he explains, “since the tuning as well as the intonation of double-stops can best be judged by careful listening to the so-called difference tone.”

A similar process can be observed in our ears. When two tones enter the cochlea, they cause its hairs to vibrate, resulting in the perception of these tones in our mind. In particular instances these vibrations will also lead to movement of the connected basilar membranes. Subsequently, the ear starts producing and emitting sounds itself (in turn called “distortion product otoacoustic emission” or DPOAE’s) – not just as a byproduct of the brain, but as “real”, physical waves. Whenever this happens, our ear is not only hearing, but “singing” as well and its “music” can be picked up by microphones, ampflified and played back to others. This, then, is the concept at the heart of “Labyrinthitis”.

“A little tube with two speakers and a microphone was inserted into my left ear. It sent in two tones of a ratio of 1 - 1.2. This frequency combination made the hair cells inside my cochlea generate a tone in response. That tone was recorded by the microphone and the two tones generating it was filtered away”, Jacob Kirkegaard tells me about the recording process for the basic source material of the piece, “For the composition I used the same principle but now only using the tones generated by my own ears. I tuned them into the ratio of 1 - 1.2 and played them out of the speakers and into the listeners ears. In that way the tones of my ears generate tones in those of the listener.”

“Labyrinthitis” is marked by an interlocking architecture: Opening with his own DPOAE’s, he sends his frequencies into the audience, allowing their ears to react with these frequencies and producing various inner-ear events on a subjective level. This is then followed by the public reproduction of the third frequency in his own ear, which again causes new sonic phenomena. Like a landslide, the 38-minute track picks up pace and eventually causes the entire body to vibrate – in my case resulting in a hypnotic transfixation, a slightly stiff neck and a tingling sensation in my back, which slowly moved towards my belly and back again. Meanwhile, the room and the objects inside of it seemed to oscillate as well. Just like a Sunn O)) performance, it is an intense experience evoking both exciting and rather frightening feelings.

Experience from public performances confirm the immediate and undeniable impact of Kirkegaard’s piece. “The audience have often been very talkative afterwards”, he agrees, “Many people have expressed experiences in new ways of hearing, hearing themselves hearing, hearing different things in the left and right ear, sounds passing through the head, that they could move between the tones, that their skull resonated or that their 'ears were at work'.” For some, as he remembers, the drastic nature of the composition was actually its main benefit: “An old man with only 10% hearing told me that he heard my tones clearer than he had heard anything for many years.”

Subjective and objective – these are important terms with regards to “Labyrinthitis”. So, as a final question, has Kirkegaard become more tolerant of other people’s perceptions of music after going through the compositional process? “Not necessarily. I think that sound art and conventional music often are being listened to in different ways. When people come to my shows, I often present it and afterwards we discuss about the concept. Before playing Labyrinthitis I ask people to 'listen' to their own ears. This makes them more open just to 'listen' to the sounds I created. And of course less focussed on whether they like it, as they like the music they listen to as music.”

“Labyrinthitis” is out now on Touch

Homepage: Jacob Kirkegaard
Homepage: Touch

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