Los Angeles-based filmmaker Austin Chapman got his first pair of hearing aids when he was 11 months old. Diagnosed with profound hearing loss, Austin has spent much of the past 24 years in silence. A world completely without music.
Last year Chapman, 25, tried new hearing aids, the Phonak Naida S IX UP. It had only been four years since his last pair. He didn’t expect much, but sound started to flood in. It was overwhelming at first, but he quickly shot down a musical wormhole.
Just back from the village of Leveque in Haiti where he was making a short documentary about the deaf community that formed there after the earthquake, we talked to Chapman about the moment he first heard music, what he’s listened to since, and who his favorite rapper is.
Tell us about the first time you heard music.
Up until I was 23 years old, I never enjoyed music. Everything was distorted and I could only pick up the lowest frequency. About a year ago, after leaving the audiologist’s office with the new hearing aids, I knew I was hearing so much more than before, but didn’t listen to anything until that night. I told my friends to meet me. They asked what I wanted to demo first and I said either Mozart or Beethoven because I’ve learned so much about them in school. My friend said, “Go with Mozart. He’s a boss.” So we played Mozart’s “Lacrimosa.”
Hearing music for the first time with my new hearing aids is something impossible to explain.The top of my head went numb, I felt like I was hit by a train, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
Was that numbness more of a physical or emotional reaction?
It was similar to to my first kiss. I can’t separate the physical from the emotional because the emotional response was what was triggering the massive numbness. I felt chemicals washing across my brain. I’m sure you know the feeling when you experience something so wonderful for the first time ever.
Hearing music for the first time with my new hearing aids is something impossible to explain. The top of my head went numb, I felt like I was hit by a train.
The great irony of those moments is that they’re totally indescribable.
Exactly. I was paralyzed too. By the end of the song I was crying because of the beauty of it and the gravity of the realization. I tried to hide it but saw that there wasn’t a dry eye in the car.
How long did that first listening session go on for? What else did you hear?
We listened for almost two hours, then it was getting late so I went home to binge privately. Michael Jackson, Marley, Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra…
How soon after that did you ask Reddit for musical advice? (Chapman got over 15, 000 responses)
I think it was a week or so. My friend was urging me to, but it felt weird to share something that personal. In the end I was just too curious to see what suggestions would roll out.
Who are a couple of your favorite artists that you’ve discovered, and who have you been disappointed by?
Modern music in general has been pretty disappointing when compared to the beauty of classical, blues, and early rock and roll. But there are diamonds in the rough—they’re just harder to find in modern music. It’s like the difference between shooting on film and shooting digital. Older music just sounds more natural. My favorite modern artists are Explosions in the Sky, Radiohead, and Sigur Rós.
Is there anyone that stands out as a disappointment?
Michael Jackson is more polarizing than I thought. He has some really great songs, but I was surprised when I didn’t enjoy several of his tracks.
What about live music?
I love live music but didn’t realize what a difference the venue and quality of the sound system made. When there is a great system with the right kind of acoustic space, live music is orgasmic. On the other hand, if there’s too much background noise or it’s a bad venue I sometimes prefer to turn my aids off and listen to the band later via my Aux cable.
One of the biggest challenges for deaf people with their aids is that our minds have not learned how to control the volume of all the background noise, so the more layers the more garbled the original sounds are.
When there is a great system with the right kind of acoustic space, live music is orgasmic. On the other hand, if there’s too much background noise or it’s a bad venue I sometimes prefer to turn my aids off and listen to the band later.
Now that you’re a year down the road, have you found yourself drawn to finding new music on the internet?
Definitely, I’m loving my Spotify binges. Oddly enough, I’m exploring the classical period the most. I guess it might have to do with the way I’ve been listening, as my new aids allows me to plug in any Aux source, so when it’s connected to my phone or computer I can only hear what’s coming out of that device. All background sound vanishes. I love rock and roll when I use my Aux splitter and connect to a bass system as well. Hip-hop, dubstep… so much is lost without bass. My favorite part about being able to plug in like that is the purity, the clarity. A bomb could go off behind me but I would only hear Mozart. It’s truly the best noise-canceling headphone in the world and I love editing new shorts to music while connected.
How would you do soundtracks before these new hearing aids?
I’d hire a composer and then have my friends all give their opinion on his or her work. Also I would have my friends explain how the sound was. I’d ask, “Does it make you feel sad? Happy? What does it make you feel?”
I try to get the music to match the emotional state of the scene, but now that I can hear I’m finally able to input my own opinions. Also, my films were silent in my head I wrote them down before, now I can hear the soundtrack to the future picture before I write it.
Have your friends continued to influence your music taste since that first listening party?
Absolutely. It’s funny because they all have totally different music tastes, and personally I’ve found something amazing in every genre. Snoop Dogg is my favorite hip hop artist. Angel Haze is amazing. I also love “Blak San Pousan.”
What about dissonance? Have you encountered it in music?
I feel like most people’s perception of dissonance is pretty narrow. It’s not just for music but also for other art like editing.
How do you mean?
It’s the mystical property of harmony. Some people argue about mathematical purity and I think that’s part of it. Music is always evolving and pushing the limits of dissonance.
And you think something similar exists in filmmaking?
Yeah. Good editing has a beat to it, I try to edit my shots to this concept like A A B A A B. Repetition has a real beauty to it, and that’s what I’ve noticed in great songs. Harmony, dissonance, repetition, and beat are all coming from the same place.
So what’s up next?
We just got funding from a couple of investors for our first feature, Jester, and we’ll start shooting next year. Can’t wait to soundtrack that!
Best feeling in the world, besides maybe hearing music for the first time.
Both amazing, but one was a surprise, the other was a dream I’ve had since five years old.