On December 31, 1999, Amy and I were watching the millennium celebrations on television. We were surfing channels, watching the millennium roll in from country-to-country across different time zones. It was great. After a while we settled in to watch a choir singing at the National Cathedral in Washington. The camerawork was very elaborate: there were fade-ins, fade-outs, and close-ups of the choir members as they sang. After watching this for a while, Amy turned to me and said in sign language, “The world must look really silly without sound.”
Years later, I came back to this comment, especially how music, in particular, is a bit silly without sound. Silly without words. This realization led to the project, “Songs Without Words,” which consists of images from the New York Times of people performing music and singing. I’ve removed the captions because they seem too reductive. There’s a lot of emotion in photographs of musicians performing and I simply want to release the emotion from the burden of rational description.
It also occurred to me that part of my interest here is to convey in some sense the experience of being deaf. We can’t close our ears the way we can close our eyes. You can get some sense of this by turning off the sound on your TV. Watch the news without sound. Watch a concert without sound. Watch a sitcom without sound. Don’t do it for five minutes–do it for an hour. At first it seems contrived and awkward—and after a while, the contrivance and awkwardness start to get interesting—because these things remind us just how ambiguous the body is when it doesn’t have words to sustain it.
Joseph Grigely, August 18, 2020