I am at The Young KL Singers’ 2015 choir concert. The room is dim, the floor scattered with beanbags and blankets. The choir sings behind a black curtain surrounding the audience, hidden from sight. From my seat at the back, I watch the audience members from the Malaysian Association for the Blind. Amidst the ebb and flow of voices, heads are bowed in attentive silence. Hands are clasped neatly in their laps; I see their walking canes have been folded and tucked safely under their chairs. Some sway and nod. Others sit completely still, save for the tap of the finger. This scene, I thought, was either very ironic or very apt; the intention of the concert was for the audience to experience music in the dark, and yet, here were people who truly couldn’t see. I gaze at their faces, trying to read into their blank expressions, wondering what they were feeling. Rapturous? Unmoved? Sleepy? I am unable to tell…until Shirley, the lady closest to me, raises her hand to her cheek and wipes away a tear.

Music is a funny kind of magic. When we hear or remember tunes, regardless of whether we’re glued to our computer screens or loading the laundry or drifting off to sleep, we instantly conjure in our mind’s eye vast rolling hills, feel happy or sad, unexpectedly recall our childhood. The wonder of it all is that it only takes a split second – a bass drop, three quick orchestral notes or a strum of the A minor chord, and off we go, transported into another world.  In 1903, Virginia Woolf said that “Dance music…stirs some barbaric instinct…you forget centuries of civilisation in a second, and yield to that strange passion which sends you madly whirling round the room”. Virginia Woolf was really referring to the strains of barrel organ and violin from a waltz at a faraway ball. Yet, a hundred years later, every single one of the millions of people that dance the night away to Rihanna and Calvin Harris would know exactly what Virginia meant.

Stewie Griffin, in my all-time favourite Family Guy clip, strikes the right note when he croons that the G chord is “…like a cosy house where you live…”, but with an A minor, “it’s getting a little cloudy out here…”. This association happens because we are bombarded with music our entire lives. Even in the womb, we’re already listening to the steady rhythm of our mother’s heartbeat. As we begin to understand the world, we might see our parents slow-dancing in the living room to Rod Stewart’s “Have I Told You Lately?”. We might then empathise with Belle’s wistfulness as she sings about longing for “adventure in the great wide somewhere” as the backing orchestral music rises and swells in “Beauty and the Beast”. Some years later, Ju-On might be on the television, where there are plenty of sustained, violin-like sounds. We wait, heart beating, palms sweating….and boom! The ghost strikes. Multiply these instances by infinity, combine them with the supercomputer powers of our brain. Before we know it, we’re grown-up, escaping into Tchaikovsky’s symphonies on a quiet Sunday night, thinking how absolutely wonderful it is that music envelopes us in such a strange tumble of feelings.

The popular idea that the blind and music have some sort of special bond is understandable. In the first place, there is already evidence and reports that sighted people experience stronger emotional reactions to music when they listen with their eyes closed. It’s definitely a stretch to say that simply taking away a sighted person’s visual stimulation for a few minutes is comparable to a blind person’s worldview of many years, but even so, studies on the brain have shown that for a blind person, the part of the brain that is usually responsible for sight, the visual cortex, is reallocated to the bits that deal with other senses – especially hearing and touch. As a result, a blind person would have a stronger sense of hearing or touch than that of a sighted person. They are more sensitive to pitch, respond to auditory emotional cues more quickly than the sighted, and are more interested in music. Jacques Lusseyran, French resistance leader and Nazi concentration camp survivor, who so happened to be a blind cellist, wrote, “For a blind person, music is nourishment…Music was made for blind people.” Eugene Hng, a friend, also explained to me: “Music is important to the blind because our options are limited when it comes to things we can do for fun. We can’t watch movies. We can’t play badminton.”

I first met Eugene Hng when a few friends and I joined a sing-along with the Malaysian Association for the Blind one Saturday afternoon at their headquarters at Brickfields. He was born partially blind; nowadays he can see light and shadow, but is unable to discern the features of objects. Eugene loves soothing classical music. Mozart and Beethoven are his particular favourites. “Sometimes I imagine myself in a beautiful garden. I imagine the flowers, the trees, the birds chirping…” He plays the guitar, piano or ukulele in the church band and can play piano directly from hearing.  “I don’t use music scores. Somehow I can translate the tunes to my fingers on the piano.” With Eugene, however, it is not one of those stories where so-and-so picked up the guitar one day and miraculously composed impromptu ballads. Despite having been “forced”, as he jokingly put it, into music lessons when he was ten years old, Eugene’s interest sparked later in life. After leaving Penang for secondary school in Kuala Lumpur, he met friends who loved music. It was there that he borrowed his friend’s guitar and tried his hand at it for the first time. He was already very fond of meeting people; music, he discovered, was an enjoyable social activity. So he kept going. One exploration led to another, and now Eugene is where he is – a self-taught multi-instrumentalist whom his friends see as one of the musically-inclined types.

Everybody loves the idea of the blind musical savant. Every so often, we see a blind busker and instantly feel a bittersweet pang – a funny mixture of sympathy and gladness. Paraphrasing Oliver Sacks, perhaps we feel that, with all they miss out in sight, at least they have the wonderful gift of music. Real life, however, is often startlingly ordinary. With every Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles or Andrea Bocelli, there are many, many others to whom music is just one out of a myriad of interests. To Eunice Lee, as much as she loves music, her dream had always been to study medicine. “I wanted to get into the science stream in secondary school,” she said. “But my father and my teachers said biology was for people with good eyesight.”  And so Eunice turns to singing pop songs and listening to rap as a way of venting her frustrations. Eminem’s music, I was told, has some great life lessons, like the ones that “tell you not to give a damn about what other people think of you”. Eugene, too, does not see himself as an expert musician in any way. “People are kind – they try to be encouraging to us because we’re blind. Oh, I admire you. You’re so good at this. You’re so good at that. But I know I’m not great at music. A few years ago, I tried to compose a song…and I got stuck. It’s better if people were honest!”

The headquarters of the Malaysian Association for the Blind at Brickfields take up a two-storey, sprawling beige building overlooking the Klang River. It looks like a typical Malaysian official building – functional, angular and plain, reminiscent of primary school. “We the blind really love music!” declares KK Goh very enthusiastically to us when we arrive for the sing-along. Eager faces swiftly arrive at the door in lines of twos or threes, each person’s hand placed on the shoulder of the person in front. In a room where having full vision puts one in the tiny minority, one gets an odd sense of adjusted normality; how do I introduce myself to everyone if I can’t make eye contact and smile? Eventually, after a cacophony of chaotic, lively long-time-no-sees, the Braille song sheets are whipped out. Godfrey, the guitarist, announces a starting chord of G from his corner on the piano chair. Eugene, on the opposite corner, responds in kind on his ukulele. Off they go, facial expressions rapturous, voices soaring, and, best of all – completely, charmingly, out of tune.

Who enjoyed the music more: the blind? The partially blind? The sighted? The young? The old? Did it matter?

After The Young KL Singers’ concert, I hastened to ask Shirley and the rest what they thought of the music. “It was beautiful,” Shirley said.

“It was beautiful,” countless others – sighted, blind – also said.

And that was that.

_____________________

This post was written for the final writing assignment at the Unrepresented KL workshop. Thank you everybody who was there – who taught and shared and added  meaning to that special corner in my head, where I squirrel away moments like exactly these to be excavated and reexamined with new clarity in unexpected life revelations to come.

Book sources:

Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks
This Is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin
and a little bit of
How Music Works by David Byrne
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