After One Ear
Suffering a severe ear infection and terrified that his livelihood as a teacher, composer, and performer might come to an end, Chris began fretting over the seemingly small losses. “I adapted neither brilliantly nor heroically. Retreating, I made no music.”
Oozing out as clots and drops, there should not have been so much blood, yet the dribble of coal-colored fluid wouldn’t stop. How did my ear get infected? Was it a byproduct of that nasty yet passing flu? Dunking my head under water the third time I ever sat in a hot tub? Galactic ear cooties?
I tried to laugh it off and failed. After two days, the pressure in my left ear swelled like a cork pounded into my head. My right ear was fine; in my left, I heard only my footsteps, swallowing, and the bassy hum of my voice.
Terrified that my livelihood as a teacher, composer, and performer might come to an end, I began fretting over the seemingly small losses: delving into Webern’s chamber music on my should-have-died-in-1999 portable CD player; savoring the bellicose cardinal who drowns out the other birds in my neighborhood’s dawn chorus; and the indescribable, almost-sublime sound of faint wind across my ears as I walk in the woods.
Everything I heard was either close or far with nothing in between and without perspective, depth, or life. I acutely missed my sense of sonic distance. Our two ears enable us to localize sound, determining (or guessing) the location and trajectory of what we hear. With only one, I felt profoundly disoriented.
Oh, My Aching H(ear)t
After two days, my worrying changed from “How can I listen?” to “How will I live?”.
Dragged to urgent care by my wife, who refused to brook my near-prayerful excuse (“No my dear, it will clear up tomorrow, I’m sure”), I went home and dutifully began a regimen of eardrops which did nothing except to dilute the ooze into a semi-regular dribbling leak.
Neither Beethoven Nor the Beach Boys
I also laughed at myself, remembering my advice a decade ago to a hearing-impaired student who wanted to make electronic music. Excitedly, I urged him to try it and sign up for my class. I suggested that his so-called hearing deficiencies might teach us new things about sound and listening. Artist Christine Sun Kim has done just that, detailing her arresting work in a TED talk.
With just one ear, I dreamt of listening and composing with a new kind of depth and determination. Brian Wilson never heard Pet Sounds in Capitol’s phony Duophonic Stereo or the more recent and well-done stereo re-mixes. Beethoven continued to compose using his inner ear despite encroaching deafness: “O how harshly was I repulsed by the doubly sad experience of my bad hearing…”
I adapted neither brilliantly nor heroically. Retreating, I made no music. While hemispherically half-deaf, I was either testy or verging on despair. I spent too much time mourning what I was missing and wondering who might loan me a Dyson vacuum cleaner to suck the effluent corked in my ear. I felt guilty critiquing student work and, fearful of pity and diminished job prospects, kept my condition to myself.
Many miserable days later, I returned to urgent care; my randomly assigned doctor turned out to be a former flight surgeon in the Air Force who recognized the severity of my condition and prescribed fierce antibiotics. Within a week, my hearing returned. Each audible milestone—such as discerning speech clearly and chirping birds—was marked by a quick burbling in my ear canal, a release of pressure similar to peeling off the lid of a yogurt container.
Once the birds returned to my ears, I began composing again.
The Usual Lessons, and…
You can guess the dumbly obvious lessons I learned. I should take better care of my hearing; go to the doctor at the first sign of ear trouble.
After living with one ear, I listen with newfound gratitude for sound in space. As Albert Bregman explains in Auditory Scene Analysis, “Sounds go around corners. Low-frequency sound bends around an obstruction while higher frequency sound bounces around it.” During my evening walk, distant train toots are not just “over there” but reverberate, surging and ebbing between houses and trees. Some sounds are less dangerous. Again, I can locate oncoming traffic without constantly turning my head to look back and forth. A more crucial question: why had I lost all interest in composing during those weeks? I discovered that I’m no Prometheus. I make and find sound first for myself: to teach myself something about an idea, a feeling, a sense of (imagined) place, and—grandly—the world. Then, I try to hear what I make with amnesia and empathy, listening not as a maker but as someone who has never heard the work.
Unable to listen like “most people,” how could I ethically communicate what I neither knew nor believed? Without my ears, all two of them, I was not only a different person, but who I was began to shift somewhere else. I hope to meet that person on my deathbed, or never.
The last thing I learned? Cold eardrops hurt like hell. (I would rather lose a fingernail.) Never again!