Visionary multidisciplinary artist Nwando Ebizie discusses her experiences in designing multisensory performances and installations to expand accessibility to the arts and challenge audience perceptions of reality.
She outlines her upcoming world premiere composition Fall and then Rise on a Soft Winter’s Morning, created with and performed by the London Sinfonietta in November, which will put d/Deaf audience experiences on an equal footing with those of hearing audiences
As a neurodivergent artist, the ways that I take in stimuli around me are uniquely personal. I best experience music by lying down, and I have met people with disabilities who also find it easier to enjoy music this way. The traditional concert format and venue often does not accommodate these experiences – but that does not mean they are impossible.
A sense of space
In July this year, I presented the piece Extreme Unction Vol. 2, a guided multisensory experience incorporating neurodivergent and biophilic approaches to design, inspired by the works and life of Hildegard von Bingen. The project was created over two years in collaboration with architect and designer Bethany Wells and musician and instrument designer Tom Richards, to create a space that was embedded with audience care in mind and sustainable in its environmental practices.
The centrepiece of the experience was the “Celestial Tent”, a dome structure containing benches with a variety of tactile surfaces, where participants could sit, lie down or walk around a central reflecting pool. Bracketed by a 20-minute welcome session and a 20-minute reflection session, audience members were invited into the tent for a 30-minute immersive sound and light piece, during which they could observe the music and space how they sought fit. Each observer could take away from their environment what they alone were experiencing, at the same time as others around them. Grief, loss, ecstasy or exultation – all discovered by one’s own senses of intimacy, listening, stillness and communing with the inner and outer worlds through sound, touch, taste and awareness of the body in space.
Reactions to the piece varied. Some found the experience therapeutic and healing, others felt discomfort from the sounds, vulnerable and exposed; some focused deeply on their own emotions, while others felt more connected to the people in the shared space. These differing outcomes demonstrated a key element of the piece’s accessibility: its layout, which did not adhere to one format or sense, allowed the individual’s emotional and even spiritual experience of the art to be unique and personal.
Evolving classical traditions
It was an encounter with audience members during another music experience that brought the D/deaf experience of music more closely to my attention. The piece involved inviting members of the audience to interact with a balloon, talking or humming and feeling the vibrations on its surface through touch. After the performance, two people excitedly approached to explain that they were D/deaf and that the performance had a direct and personal resonance, as growing up they had been taught using balloons and vibrations to experience music and sound, which was a rare point of access in live performance venues.
This experience inspired me to pursue a new project elevating senses such as touch and sight as a means to observe music. The opportunity aligned with my selection for London Sinfonietta’s “Writing the Future” scheme, which also aims to challenge the status quo and platform communities and social issues while expanding the possibilities for new music ensembles. The project took shape around my poem, Fall and then Rise on a Soft Winter’s Morning, a piece about doomed love, nightmarish visions and ecstatic feelings. Working with disabled artist Nat Sharp as Art Director, we created a performance incorporating giant human-sized balloons, projection and vibrating platforms which can be felt by touching, sitting or even lying on top of them, while also allowing room for a dancer and musicians to perform.
One element of classical performances that dates back to the Renaissance and can certainly be adapted to augment accessibility are the visuals: staging, lighting and, in opera and ballet, costumes, people and movement to represent emotions and ideas of the music. I was keen to work with dancer Chisato Minamimura, who is Deaf, to consult and test that my ideas were feasible. Minamimura has a true musicality to her movements, which I think speaks to the innateness of music in humans
that we can experience in multiple ways beyond hearing. We learned from one another how she experiences music compared to how I experience it, which led to many creative discussions on representing the poem and music through movement and sign language, through which new interpretations of the piece emerged.
When it comes to inspiration for my work, one of my major research areas is around the ritual cultures of the Black Atlantic; as a black person of the Igbo nation from Nigeria, I am concerned with the destroyed histories and cultures of our people. The poem draws from Haitian Vodou iconography which requires more space than we have here to explain; the best place to start is that everything you think you know about it is wrong. Mythology is also a central focus, for which I draw a lot of theory from A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong. “We are myth-making creatures,” she says. We need myths to “help us realise the importance of compassion… to see beyond our immediate requirements… to venerate the earth as sacred once again, instead of merely using it as a ‘resource’.”
Armstrong’s words about the earth as a resource ring literally, particularly in the case of creating performances that can accommodate multisensory elements. Resources such as time, budget, workforce and venue can all be challenging elements for any artist and musical collective, particularly so when adapting traditional classical performance and concert formats to be multisensory and more accessible.
Many traditional concert halls and venues, for example, are not suitable for this event, which opens questions as to why and what can be done to create more opportunities for multisensory and increased accessibility performances. Popular music venues, on the other hand, are more suited to the project layout but classical musicians may be unfamiliar with performing in these spaces, while similarly the venues are unfamiliar with hosting or accommodating classical ensembles and practices. This project with London Sinfonietta has proven quite a steep learning curve for all the team and has necessitated extra time and budget lines.
However, the outcome is definitely worthy work when it offers entire communities of disabled people more opportunities to experience the joy of classical music and be immersed in the art world. The hardest part may be the initial learning and accommodation, but practice leads to better understanding for classical ensembles to incorporate these elements of design, movement and even new technologies into future events, even in their usual venues. For the traditional concert format, we hope to show that the upcoming performance at the Colour Factory in Hackney Wick is proof that evolution is very possible.
Nwando Ebizie: Writing the Future takes place at the Colour Factory in London on 15 November. It features her world premiere composition Fall and then Rise on a Soft Winter’s Morning, created with and performed by the London Sinfonietta. For further information, visit https://www.colourfactory.com/