Making Music Visible: Singing in Sign

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On a recent afternoon in a brightly lit studio in Brooklyn, Mervin Primeaux-O’Bryant and Brandon Kazen-Maddox were filming a music video. They were recording a cover version of “Midnight Train to Georgia,” but the voices that filled the room were those of Gladys Knight and the Pips, who made the song a hit in the 1970s. And yet the two men in the studio were also singing — with their hands.

Primeaux-O’Bryant is a deaf actor and dancer; Kazen-Maddox is a hearing dancer and choreographer who is, thanks to seven deaf family members, a native speaker of American Sign Language. Their version of “Midnight Train to Georgia” is part of a 10-song series of American Sign Language covers of seminal works by Black female artists that Kazen-Maddox is producing for Broadstream, an arts streaming platform.

Around the world, music knits together communities as it tells foundational stories, teaches emotional intelligence and cements a sense of belonging. Many Americans know about signed singing from moments like the Super Bowl, when a sign language interpreter can be seen — if barely — performing the national anthem alongside a pop star.

But as sign language music videos proliferate on YouTube, where they spark comments from deaf and hearing viewers, the richness of American Sign Language, or A.S.L., has gotten a broader stage.

“Music is many different things to different people,” Alexandria Wailes, a deaf actress and dancer told me in a video interview, using an interpreter. Wailes performed “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the 2018 Super Bowl, and last year drew thousands of views on YouTube with her sign language contribution to a choral work by Eric Whitacre.

“I realize,” she added, “that when you do hear, not hearing may seem to separate us. But what is your relationship to music, to dance, to beauty? What do you see that I may learn from? These are conversations people need to get accustomed to having.”

A good A.S.L. performance prioritizes dynamics, phrasing and flow. The parameters of sign language — hand shape, movement, location, palm orientation and facial expression — can be combined with elements of visual vernacular, a body of codified gestures, allowing a skilled A.S.L. speaker to engage in the kind of sound painting that composers use to enrich a text.

At the recent video shoot, Gladys Knight’s voice boomed out of a large speaker while a much smaller one was tucked inside Primeaux-O’Bryant’s clothes, so that he could “tangibly feel the music,” he said in an interview, with Kazen-Maddox interpreting. Out of sight of the camera, an interpreter stood ready to translate any instructions from the crew, all hearing, while a laptop displayed the song lyrics.

In the song, the backup singers — here personified by Kazen-Maddox — encourage Knight as she rallies herself to join her lover, who has returned home to Georgia. In the original recording the Pips repeat the phrase “all aboard.” But as Kazen-Maddox signed it, those words grew into signs evoking the movement of the train and its gears. A playful tug at an invisible whistle corresponded to the woo-woo of the band’s horns. Primeaux-O’Bryant signed the lead vocals with movements that gently extended the words, just as in the song: on the drawn-out “oh” of “not so long ago-oh-oh,” his hands fluttered into his lap. The two men also incorporated signs from Black A.S.L.

“The hands have their own emotions,” Primeaux-O’Bryant said. “They have their own mind.”

Deaf singers prepare for their interpretations by experiencing a song through any means available to them. Many people speak about their heightened receptivity to the vibrations of sound, which they experience through their body. As a dancer trained in ballet, Primeaux-O’Bryant said he was particularly attuned to the vibrations of a piano as transmitted through a wooden floor.

Primeaux-O’Bryant was a student at the Model Secondary School for the Deaf in Washington in the early 1990s when a teacher asked him to sign a Michael Jackson song during Black History Month. His first reaction was to refuse.

But the teacher “pulled it out” of him, he said, and he was thrust into the limelight in front of a large audience. Then, Primeaux-O’Bryant said, “the lights came on and my cue happened and I just exploded and signed the work and it felt good.” Afterward the audience erupted in applause: “I fell in love with performing onstage.”

Signing choirs have long been common around the world. But the pandemic has fostered new visibility for signing and music, aided in part by the video-focused technology that all musicians have relied on to make art together. As part of the “Global Ode to Joy” celebration of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth last year, the artist Dalia Ihab Younis wrote a new text for the final chorus of the Ninth Symphony which, performed by taught elementary signs in Arabic Sign Language.

Last spring, the pandemic forced an abrupt stop to live singing as choirs were particularly thought to be potential spreaders of the coronavirus. In response, the Netherlands Radio Choir and Radio Philharmonic Orchestra reached out to the Dutch Signing Choir to collaborate on a signed elegy, “ in which the keening voice of a musical saw blended with the lyrical gestures of Ewa Harmsen, who is deaf. She was joined by members of the Radio Choir, who had learned some signs for the occasion.

“It has more meaning when I sing with my hands,” Harmsen said in a video interview, speaking and signing in Dutch with an interpreter present. “I also love to sing with my voice, but it’s not that pretty. My children say to me, ‘Don’t sing, mother! Not with your voice.’”

The challenges of signing music multiply when it comes to polyphonic works like the Passion oratorios of Bach, with their complex tapestries of orchestral and vocal counterpoint and declamatory recitatives. Early in April, Sing and Sign, an ensemble founded in Leipzig, Germany, by the soprano Susanne Haupt, uploaded a new production of part of the “St. John Passion” that is the first fruit of an ongoing undertaking.

Haupt worked with deaf people and a choreographer to develop a performance that would render not only the sung words of the oratorio, but also the character of the music. For example, the gurgling 16th notes that run through the strings are expressed with the sign for “flowing.”

“We didn’t want to just translate text,” Haupt said. “We wanted to make music visible.”

Just who should be entrusted with that process of making music visible can be a contentious question. Speaking between takes at the shoot in Brooklyn, Primeaux-O’Bryant said that some music videos created by hearing A.S.L. speakers lack expressivity and render little more than the words and basic rhythm.

“Sometimes interpreters don’t show the emotions that are tied to the music,” he said. “And deaf people are like, ‘What is that?’”

Both men spoke of the impact ballet training had on the quality of their signing. Kazen-Maddox said that when he took daily ballet classes in his 20s, his signing became more graceful.

“There is a port de bras, which you only learn from ballet, which I was really engraving into my body,” he said. “And I watched my sign language, which had been with me my whole life, become more compatible with music.”

Wailes, too, traces her musicality to her training in dance. “I am a little more attuned with the overall sensitivity to spatial awareness in my body,” she said. And, she added, “not everyone is a good singer, right? So I think you’d have to make that analogy for signers as well.”

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