On Friday, May 13, EMPAC artist-in-residence Tarek Atoui and Rensselaer Distinguished Research Professor of Music Pauline Oliveros will present WITHIN, the culmination of a year-long collaboration with Rensselaer students to develop new musical instruments for the hearing impaired. At 8 p.m., audiences will be encouraged to explore the public spaces of EMPAC, where a number of the group’s creations will be on display for performance and interaction.

A sound artist from Lebanon, currently living in Paris, Atoui says the project began with a simple question: “What really is listening?”

It’s a question that is near and dear to Oliveros, who has spent much of her esteemed career developing techniques of “deep listening,” which go beyond the basic function of the ear to incorporate the whole body through the honing of awareness to one’s full sensory field.


EMPAC director Johannes Goebel created the SubBassProtoTon, a large walk-in organ pipe that audience members can experience.

Atoui first encountered the question in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, where he was asked to present a sound program for the 2011 Sharjah Biennial. In the lead up, he spent a good deal of time working with students at a local school for the deaf, trying to learn what listening might mean to someone with a hearing impairment. With the help of these students, he began to reconsider some of the fundamental assumptions about how music is composed and performed. This initial work was just the beginning of an ongoing course of inquiry that has led Atoui through residencies in Bergen, Norway; Karlsruhe, Germany; at UC Berkeley; and last fall at EMPAC, where curator Victoria Brooks connected Atoui with Oliveros and her “New Instrumentation for Performance” seminar.

Throughout the semester, the class attempted to establish a musical context that could be mutually appreciated by the hearing impaired and enabled. By meeting with experts and researching concepts like DeafSpace—which imagines architectural spaces that are optimized for the hearing impaired—the students worked toward the invention and development of new musical instruments.

I try to make listening a process not just for ears, but for skin and sensation.”—Pauline Oliveros

As Atoui says, the project has been about “creating common ground between the deaf and those with hearing.” Oliveros explains that this is possible by making listening an all-encompassing activity. “I try to make listening a process not just for ears, but for skin and sensation,” she says.

Many of the instruments the group has developed do just this, commanding vibrations that are not just heard through the ear but felt in the body, seen in space, and resonated within the architecture. For Friday’s performance, each instrument will be placed in an optimal part of the EMPAC building. Among these instruments is the Zero Point Nine, a system of vibrating platforms developed at UC Berkeley in conjunction with Meyer Sound. EMPAC director Johannes Goebel’s creation, the SubBassProtoTon—a large walk-in organ pipe—will also be constructed for audience members to experience.

Rensselaer alumna Julia Alsarraf ’12, who took part in the seminar, will contribute the Sit-thesizer, which she describes as a square-wave synthesizer hooked up to a subwoofer that the performer sits on. Different tones are generated when the performer touches a series of panels on the side of the instrument, completing a circuit with his or her body, and experiencing the vibration of each pitch through the subwoofer.

Alsarraf says the process of putting herself in the place of a deaf person was very humbling and she admits that she can never truly know what that experience would be like. But it’s helped her come to a better understanding of her own hearing abilities, something that should be accessible to anyone who interacts with the instruments at WITHIN.

Atoui and Oliveros agree that this is the true purpose of the project, to learn from the deaf experience in order to expand our understanding of listening as a whole. Atoui says the act of inventing new instruments isn’t just about creating new artifacts, but about expanding the language of music and performance.