In “I Can Hear You But I Can’t Hear You,” electronic composer Nelly Kate’s collaborative installation with artist Madelaine Corbin, the pair challenges our relationship with vibrations all around us, some of which we translate as “sound.” For the exhibit, launched in February, Kate created a geometric notation for sounds and spelled out the installation’s titular phrase with those shapes. Then she deliberately and randomly fucked it all up.
“Every single time [before] I ran a print through a blueprint machine, I would shake those shapes in this pouch I’d made, and it would discombobulate [the text], so that each print had a different array of the very same text,” Kate says. Blueprints of these discombobulated phrases surrounded a chair created by the two women. “[The chair] had speakers built into it and it would vibrate. We were trying to make it so that when you moved your body, it would trigger these vibrations.”
This way, Kate and Corbin repurposed vibrations into healing.
Kate will marshal many of the same strategies for an electronic music set she’ll play before a screening of the documentary Sisters with Transistors scheduled for Jan. 5 at the Mint Museum Uptown. Filmmaker Lisa Rovner’s critically lauded film spotlights the unsung women pioneers of electronic music, composers who embraced the machines and technologies that have transformed music and how we listen to it today. Kate’s work draws on her experiences to build on the work of these pioneers and further expand our perception of vibration and sound.
It’s a far cry from the music Kate created earlier in her career. “Lost/Stolen” off her 2012 full-length album Ish Ish relies on moody beat poetry delivered by Kate’s powerful layered vocals. “Judging Diamonds,” from the 2015 demo Woodshedding, dives deeper into Kate’s ethereal vocals. It plays like a soundtrack for a mist-shrouded forest of bare black trees.
Kate will never make music like this again, even if she wanted to. She can’t. In 2015, after being a musician all her life and working as a sound artist for a decade, Kate was told she was suffering from hearing loss.
Kate, who prefers to discuss her condition as a change in hearing, says her current compositions are a good fit for Sisters with Transistors, a film about women embracing liberating technologies.
After all, she says, she’s turned to electronic music as “a means for exploring inaudible sounds, vibrations [and] visualization of sonic phenomena, to earnestly attempt to create more accessible installations of sound and video work for differently-abled audiences.”
A lifetime of music
Interested in music for as long as she can remember, Kate started playing piano in Portsmouth, Virginia, where she studied as a toddler under the Suzuki method, a discipline that creates an environment for learning music that parallels the linguistic environment of learning language.
After moving with her family to Charlotte at age 5, Kate continued her lessons with a teacher who insisted that Kate learn to sight-read music. Kate rebelled. She quit lessons but continued to play piano and also picked up guitar.
Then she acquired an old Casio keyboard. It marked a big shift for the budding musician.
“I realized there were these … sounds that I had always been interested in, and never knew how to create,” she says. “[The Casio] unlocked a whole new dimension for me where experimentation and electronic music could be textural.”
After attending Myers Park High School for two years and finishing her remaining two years in home-schooling, Kate attended James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, from 2002 to 2006, where she studied English, creative writing and kinesiology.
In 2007, she was approached by William Tate, founder of Umbau, a self-styled guerrilla studio and radical architecture and design school in Staunton, Virginia. Kate characterizes the institution as a cross between German art school Bauhaus and international entrepreneur school Kaospilot. She thrived at the school, which fosters thinking that embraces uncertainty. She learned graphic design, then began working as a designer.
“[Umbau was] where I started to feel an unlocking of myself as an artist,” Kate says.
After leaving Umbau, she embarked on a music career, playing with Richmond, Virginia, band Warren Hixson, which Kate describes as experimental surf rock. She also worked on solo compositions and recordings.
By 2015, Kate felt she was at a stable plateau in her career. She had crowdfunded Ish Ish, following that up by launching a solo art show structured around acoustic sounds. The show, titled Low Frequency Travel Agency and hosted by Richmond’s Black Iris Gallery, featured suitcases containing speakers. Patrons checked out the suitcases, then took a tour of the city.
The cases came equipped with a map, and when you arrived at certain points on the map and pushed a button on the case, the suitcase would play back pieces of music that had been written using sounds from that site.
As a singer-songwriter, Kate shared stages with bands and performers like Marah, Angel Olsen, The Blow, Soil & the Sun and more. In 2015, she received funding from a record label to record the demos collected on Woodshedding.
“I felt I was in a good place where my desire to work as a musician and the support I was seeing from my [musical] community were meeting in this sweet union,” Kate remembers.
Then, at a studio session, recording backup vocals with Warren Hixson, Kate noticed she was singing out of tune.
“All the work I had made up until that point was almost entirely vocal,” Kate says. “[It] leaned heavily on harmonies, and all of the sudden, something had changed in my way of hearing myself.”
Kate subsequently went on tour with her friend, performing artist Leslie Rogers. Kate performed some of her songs and ran live sound for Rogers’s show. Early in the tour, Rogers noticed that Kate’s hearing had changed, and encouraged her to get her hearing checked.
When Kate returned from tour, she visited an audiologist and learned that she was experiencing hearing loss. Kate says the condition is getting worse, and no one knows the cause. She posits it could be a combination of genetics, her history of ear infections, a few viruses she caught in the course of her life, a couple of concussions and exposure to loud music.
“It’s a mess of possibilities,” as she puts it.
In May 2015, Kate moved back to Charlotte to figure out her next move.
“I was crestfallen,” she recalls. Her hearing loss cut to her identity. “I’d been playing and making music ever since I was a kid, and I had started to have a real vision for how that could look for me in my career.”
In Charlotte, Kate worked in kitchens and as a nanny.
“I was so discouraged. I really felt like my life was over.”
Not damage but difference
Things began to look up for Nelly Kate after she joined local alternative indie band Julian Calendar. She felt a convergence between her personal work and the material that bandleaders Jeff Jackson and Jeremy Fisher were writing.
She began giving the band’s tunes electronic textures, crafting effects in much the way Brian Eno provided treatments to early Roxy Music compositions. Even doing something as improvised as that proved challenging for Kate. She lacked the confidence to play a melodic instrument because she couldn’t hear more than the rhythm in the music.
“Everybody in the band was super sweet to work with, but I could never figure out a way to listen and practice,” Kate says.
Still, Kate continued to work in the electronic music genre. As she struggled to let go of her old life and find a way forward, another lifeline emerged in the form of Black Quantum Futurism (BQT).
In October 2018, BQT collaborated with Charlotte artist Janelle Dunlap to create a second iteration of Time Camp at Goodyear Arts in Camp North End. Time Camp 002, an Afrofuturism event, offered a series of workshops, including one that featured Philadelphia-based artist, author, community activist and lawyer Rasheedah Phillips.
Phillips’ talk about the nature of time and quantum physics was an eye-opener for Kate, who realized she was already dealing with concepts like temporal dilation by using delays and reverse effects to fold, collapse or expand time in her electronic compositions.
“I feel like vibrations sometimes are expanding time, like you’re messaging time and getting more out of an hour,” Kate says.
In 2019, Kate attended graduate school at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, where she earned a Masters of Fine Arts in Print Media.
“I went to grad school because I was at a loss for what to do next,” Kate says. “I felt like I needed to afford myself the time and space to grapple with my relationship with sound.”
Grad school provided the epiphany Kate needed to redefine that relationship. At Cranbrook, she started to connect with other deaf and divergently-abled people, allowing her to find beauty in the way they thought about themselves and the world.
“That was a big change for me because during the time that I have been experiencing hearing loss, the language around disability has changed,” Kate says.
Nomenclature has shifted from terms like “hard-of-hearing” that suggest a person’s hearing is damaged, to acceptance that someone’s hearing is simply different. Kate says the most common misperception people have when they learn of her hearing loss is feelings of sorrow and pity for her. The reaction is painful to Kate, because it casts her life as a tragedy.
People feel sad because she had to change her life to adjust to the change in her ability to hear. In contrast, Kate’s connections in the deaf community have been liberating because they have helped her see she’s not experiencing a loss.
“I don’t need to view this change in my hearing as a failing, but as a real difference,” she says. “That has created a lot of self-acceptance for me, and helped me to revisit what it means to work with sound.”
Until Kate had that revelation, she says she was struggling to not feel broken. This perception of worth is doubly-important when dealing with a world that badly needs to catch up with those who experience hearing differently. Kate notes that museums and art spaces are currently non-inclusive to such people. The institutions need to do a much better job at captioning pieces, exhibits and installations, for example.
Kate notes she has not had health insurance for a decade, so hearing aids are unaffordable, as even the best health plans only cover 40% of the cost. In grad school, Kate jury-rigged a pair of AirPods using LiveListen on her iPhone to be a stand in for hearing aids.
‘Sisters with Transistors’
Kate remembers sitting on a porch drinking beer with Julian Calendar’s Jeff Jackson when he asked her if she was familiar with the work of Maryanne Amacher. Amacher, one of the electronic music pioneers spotlighted in Sisters with Transistors, is best known for working with psychoacoustic phenomena in which the ears themselves produce audible sounds.
Her work laid the foundation for a revolutionary way of thinking about music, anticipating developments in media, and art installation. Kate was flabbergasted that she never heard of Amacher.
“I felt that the ethos of [her work] is so close to the things that I’m after,” Kate says. “The thing about electronic music that has always intrigued me is that it is an exploration through sonic terrain that feels like uncharted waters.”
In her work, Kate employs radio frequencies. Sometimes she’ll go for a walk and record frequencies from one channel to experience how they change constantly. Much of her work also incorporates somatics, a field within bodywork and movement studies that emphasizes internal physical perception and experience.
As such, her pieces invite the audience to experience listening as a somatic phenomenon — vibrations that transcend hearing. Cymatics, the phenomena of sonic vibrations generating patterns in fluid and particulate mediums, also come into play.
“Cymatics are a means for visualizing, or demonstrating, sound through vibrational patterns,” Kate says.
A practical application of these phenomena occurred in the summer of 2020 when Kate had an accident in rural New York while running. She tripped on a root and another root went into the side of her knee. She had to get stitches.
As Kate recuperated, she did some reading on healing frequencies. She began to listen to certain frequencies, like the one at 420 Hz, which is thought to support healing. Kate realized she could help other people with these often unheard frequencies.
“Especially at this time, we have all experienced a kind of trauma that we don’t know how to process or articulate,” she says. “With the pandemic continuing to be such a global disaster, [there] is a big invitation to instigate healing for people. We need all [the healing] we can get.”
Kate’s work also explores the use of captions, vibrations and other kinds of somatic or sensory experiences as a kind of translation or a map for people. This “map” allows audiences to experience Kate’s art from a neutral, non-judgmental space.
“It’s more like a demonstration,” she says.
Kate’s performance at The Mint will incorporate tape decks, speakers, synthesizers and layered vocal effects as she mixes an original composition live through four or five decks. The original pre-mixed composition, recorded at the Record Company in Dorchester, Massachusetts, near Kate’s current home in Boston, was played on a vintage ARC 2600 synthesizer.
“I use the kinds of equipment that I do to continually to invite myself to discover something,” Kate says. Obsolete technology has a warm sound that can’t be replicated with solid state equipment, she maintains, and the ever-degrading textures of old synths cannot be controlled. “I love the relinquishing of control.
“I’m drawn to warmth and low frequencies and creating a space for imagination to occur,” she offers. “I hope this performance will be the equivalent of a sonic embrace.”