We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Jay Alan Zimmerman would like to clear up a couple of misconceptions about deafness. First, it doesn’t necessarily render the world silent. Human speech is audible at frequencies between 300 and 3,000 cycles per second. The notes on a piano range from 27 cycles at the bottom to more than 4,000 at the high end. Because deafness can be selective about which frequencies it affects, a person who is unable to hear a conversation might find a good deal of the keyboard perfectly audible.
Second, hearing aids aren’t necessarily an option. “Most people with normal hearing equate hearing devices with glasses, but it’s totally different,” he says. “Glasses give you back your eyesight. Hearing devices give you an altered experience.” For Zimmerman, they “only made louder confusing sounds….Hearing aids are like sticking a tinny homemade radio in your ear.” For a composer, that’s not good enough. Although the 42-year-old Zimmerman has been progressively losing his hearing since his mid-20s, he’d rather alter his working methods than his senses. “I used to write very layered and textured music, or at least I tried to,” he says. “Now that kind of music is difficult for me to comprehend aurally.” Besides, he adds, “Why should I write music I can’t hear?”
Zimmerman conducts interviews mostly by IM, text messages, and e-mail. He has a basic understanding of American Sign Language, and he reads lips to communicate with those who don’t. He’s memorized the questions posed by the sandwich makers at the Subway downstairs from his studio on Manhattan’s 72nd Street, so he gets the lunch he wants. He maintains control over his singing voice by calibrating it to those notes he’s able to hear—currently frequencies below middle-C—and then extrapolating into the upper registers.
His new show, Jay Alan Zimmerman’s Incredibly Deaf Musical, debuts this week as part of the Capital Fringe Festival. Although there are sections featuring recorded music and videotaped actors, for 90 minutes Zimmerman is the sole live performer. The aim is to entertain a hearing audience while not alienating a deaf one—a task that might not be easy for a performer who thinks that hearing loss sucks, an idea that people who identify as culturally Deaf strongly resist.
“Maybe to other people, I’m not deaf enough,” Zimmerman says. “Most people I know are deaf with a small D. I’m curious to see what Deaf people think of the show.”
Once a “big fish in a small pond,” the composer, who currently divides his time between New York and Vienna, Va., grew up in the tiny town of Oskaloosa, Iowa. He was a star pianist and saxophone player who received a scholarship to the musical-theater program at Culver-Stockton College in Missouri. He did summer stock on Mississippi riverboats. After graduation, he headed to New York to try to make it on Broadway, carrying a Casio keyboard in a wooden case his father had built by hand.
There were some promising auditions, but his plans—to star in musicals, then to write musicals, then to become a pop singer—didn’t pan out. Instead, he pieced together a more modest career writing children’s music and film scores and doing voice-over work.
One scene in Jay Alan Zimmerman’s Incredibly Deaf Musical is set in a recording studio where Zimmerman is at work on a children’s song about dinosaurs. He yells at the engineer for more jungle sounds, demanding twittering birds that turn out to be on the tape after all—just at too high a frequency for him to hear. It’s an accurate depiction of his initial awareness of his deafness.
“At first, it was so slight that it didn’t bother me at all,” he says. “I still heard all the notes on the piano for a long, long time, [but] all the while, the hearing was getting less. I went from ‘Huh?’ to ‘Have you been talking?’ to ‘Please just write down the fucking punch line!’”
Zimmerman’s mother taught music theory at the college level, and his “whole family sang together like the von Trapps.” His earliest memories are of learning and playing music. Still, he remembers that he hated to practice and “changed the music a lot” when playing piano. “I’ve always treated music as something malleable,” he says. His habit of changing Mozart and Beethoven drove his mother to distraction.
At age 6, he assayed his first original composition—“basically it’s ‘Three Blind Mice’ with different words and a few changes,” he says. His first song makes an appearance in his musical, when his 6-year-old self offers him insight into why he can’t give up music. Another piece depicts a real-life encounter at Tavern on the Green in which Tin Pan Alley legend Lou Levy enticed him to sign a contract, giving him a silver Tiffany’s pen to commemorate the occasion.
All that, of course, was before his hearing “took a dive.” Zimmerman considers it a coincidence that it did so after 9/11, even though his apartment in Lower Manhattan was engulfed in the massive dust cloud created by the fallen Twin Towers. His doctors have offered no firm diagnosis—only that his hearing will continue to get worse.
Zimmerman and his wife, painter Lisa Ingram, decamped to his narrow Upper West Side studio, then to Ingram’s childhood home in Vienna. He addressed the dislocation he and his neighbors experienced after 9/11 in a dance score called Out of Place, which was performed at Brooklyn’s Williamsburg Art and Historical Center in September 2002. He also began to contemplate for the first time a life without music: Perhaps he would take advantage of the film degree he earned in 1995 from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts or become an architect. He even submitted designs for both the New York and New Jersey 9/11 memorials.
“I kept trying to leave music,” he says, “but when I’d get mad or sad, I’d write a song about it. I couldn’t stop writing music.”
There are, however, very few deaf musicians who make a living at making music. Percussionist Evelyn Glennie, subject of the recent documentary Touch the Sound, tops the short list of contemporary players. Though there are courses of study designed for deaf and hard-of-hearing students, most are enrichment programs not intended to prepare anyone for a career in music.
Christopher Parsons, a San Antonio, Texas, violist and private music teacher who offers advanced training to kids with autism, cystic fibrosis, and deafness, says there is “an automatic assumption” that deaf children can’t learn to play music at a high level. However, he’s discovered that the opposite is the case: Deafness “doesn’t mean you can stop loving music and needing to do something with it,” he says. “They are very motivated to do this.”
Through trial and error, Parsons has put together a methodology to teach his students to identify and remember the stimulation created by the vibrations of different strings—a memorization not dissimilar to the trick Zimmerman uses to keep his singing on-key. Issues of tempo have been more difficult to deal with. Parsons’ first strategy was to tap out the beat with a pencil directly on a student as he played. Eventually, he developed a wearable “tactile metronome.” He was astonished that such a device didn’t already exist and applied for a patent in 2004.
In other words, there is no textbook for what Zimmerman and his collaborators are attempting. His director, G. Beaudin, who works for New York arts incubator thedramaloft, admits that putting together Jay Alan Zimmerman’s Incredibly Deaf Musical has been a trying process. “It’s difficult to communicate,” he says. “Sometimes, as a hearing person, you overarticulate. It becomes confusing.” Eventually, he says, “I reached my own place with the direction—that we’re not trying to hide that he’s deaf. It’s amazing what he’s able to do.”
That includes playing keyboard, interacting with a video screen at the back of the stage, and even rapping, in a comedic number about the inappropriately sexual words that were among the first Zimmerman lip-read. He sometimes relies only on vibrations for cues, because some of the music is outside the range of his hearing or drowned out by a more common musician’s condition: tinnitus—what Zimmerman calls his “noisy deafness.”
The composer has taken pains to accentuate the piece’s low-frequency sounds so a deaf audience can experience its vibrations. (For hearing audiences, Zimmerman takes a different tack, intermittently using feedback to reproduce the sounds of tinnitus.) “It was a very big issue for Jay and the producers that no one who was hearing-impaired walk away without being able to enjoy the show, even if it is a musical,” says Beaudin. “They will be able to feel the music.”
For an autobiographical, one-person show about a musician tormented by hearing loss, Jay Alan Zimmerman’s Incredibly Deaf Musical turns out to be structurally not so different from a traditional backstage musical: It begins with its hero’s search for an opening number. At every turn, he’s taunted about his hearing loss by text flashed on the video screen. Cheekily, the finale is that elusive opening number.
Zimmerman jokes that his is the only musical ever written with Apple’s GarageBand. He’s worked actively on the project for the past nine months, browsing the software’s library of musical snippets for a guitar or drum loop that he wants to use. He identifies a likely selection not by listening, but by looking at its visual representation. “I’m so familiar with audio waveforms, notation, and MIDI graphic displays from years of doing this that I can pretty much tell by looking at it if it is good,” he says. An adjustment of a note here or there renders the snippet “theoretically correct.”
The process germinated as one of Zimmerman’s early ploys to hide his deafness from his collaborators. At NYU, he wound up taking commissions from his classmates to compose film scores. “When I scored film musicals,” he remembers, “I would read the lips of the performers and try to match up the audio waveforms.” Now, he’s using the technique on himself: To edit a promotional podcast for his Web site, he had to film himself speaking and read his own lips on the playback to make sure the narration was coherent.
With obstacles like this to frustrate his ambitions, it is no wonder that during the low ebb of the show, Zimmerman tears up pages of scores and shouts, “Fuck music!”
But he still hopes to keep making a living at it. After Fringe, he wants to take Jay Alan Zimmerman’s Incredibly Deaf Musical back to New York for a run up there, and then possibly to take it on tour. Once in a while, when he’s on an obsessive work jag to apply finishing touches to his production, he gets that old feeling that the world could be his. “I fool myself a lot,” he says. “Sometimes when playing, I think I actually heard things I didn’t.”
For the moment, though, he’s just grateful for the chance to put on a show. At a dry run of his musical in a basement room at the Martin Luther King Memorial Library a few days before the fest, he lingers to sign with a deaf couple—to get their impressions of the show and to invite them to see him perform in makeup and under the lights.
“If everything is Broadway or nothing, then you have nothing,” he says. “I had to change my mind-set and say the rules have changed for me. It is a success to make any music at all when you can’t hear it correctly.”CP
Zimmerman performs at 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 21, noon Saturday, July 22, 5:30 p.m. Sunday, July 23, 10 p.m. Wednesday, July 26, and 5 p.m. Thursday, July 27, at the Canadian Embassy, 501 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. For more information, call (866) 811-4111.