Listening together

You have never heard (music) like this before

The Bundesjugendorchester initiated the project.
(Photo: Selina Pfruener)

On 17 April, the National Youth Orchestra of Germany will take you on an acoustic voyage of discovery – including Beethoven’s »Eroica« and works written for and with people with impaired hearing. It is an invitation to listen in a completely different way and to cast aside familiar listening habits.

“O you men who think or say that I am malevolent, stubborn or misanthropic [...], how greatly do you wrong me, you do not know the secret cause [...]. It was impossible for me to say to men speak louder, shout, for I am deaf. Ah how could I possibly admit such an infirmity in the one sense which should have been more perfect in me than in others [...]. O I cannot do it, therefore forgive me when you see me draw back when I would gladly mingle with you.”

At the age of only 31, Ludwig van Beethoven wrote these lines to his brothers while staying in the spa town of Heiligenstadt. The letter provides an insight into the composer’s deep despair at the progressive loss of his hearing and the isolation that accompanied it. A situation he could not share with anyone – not even his siblings: he never sent the letter.

A multimedia concert project

The document known as the Heiligenstadt Testament is the starting point for a special project of the National Youth Orchestra of Germany: what does a hearing loss or impairment mean for individuals? How (differently) do we hear? How can we still share listening experiences together? These questions inspired the National Youth Orchestra of Germany to create this multimedia concert evening Listening together – with classical and new music, light installations and a performance.

In addition to Beethoven’s »Eroica«, which was written around the time of the Heiligenstadt Testament, there will also be a world premiere by the composer Mark Barden: the weight of ash is a piece that was created for and with young people with hearing impairments.

Conductor Christoph Altstaedt tells us about the genesis of the work: “Since it is a commissioned work for the young people of the Education and Counselling Centre for the Hearing Impaired in Stegen, it became clear to us quickly that we first had to find out: what do the young people hear, how does a cochlear implant work?”


Christoph Altstaedt and Mark Barden first went to a clinic in Essen to talk to patients with different hearing impairments. The development of cochlear implants, a hearing system, has made great progress in recent years and has made hearing and consequently everyday life easier for many of those affected. The young people in Stegen can perceive sound to varying degrees with the help of this cochlear implant device.

Listening without bias

“In Stegen we discussed and tried things out together with the young people: what is sound? What do you find stimulating? What would you like to further develop?” Altstaedt relates. “What materials can you use for music-making if you don’t play an instrument in the classical sense at all?” The second special feature of the concert programme is that the young people become musicians themselves, without any classical music training. Using polystyrene sheets and spatulas as instruments, they become part of the orchestra.

Conductor of this project: Christoph Altstaedt
(Photo: Peter Gwiazda)

A world premiere offers a good opportunity to make the theme of listening experience tangible, Altstaedt finds: “It is a very noise-filled score. At the moment, I can only partly imagine what it will sound like in the end. That’s the great opportunity of a premiere: for everyone involved – regardless of how well you hear in the anatomical or ideological sense – it’s a new listening experience. You can’t configure it, and that’s a very unifying element.”

But even with the well-known piece of the evening, Beethoven’s »Eroica«, the National Youth Orchestra of Germany wants to pique the audience’s curiosity. So, the symphony will not be heard in one piece as usual. The movements will be interspersed with other works and a performance.

“Here, too, we deliberately wanted to play with listening conventions and also incorporate some historical performance practice. In Beethoven’s time, the concerts were much longer than today and much more mixed in terms of genre. Sometimes three lieder were placed next to a symphony and then a piano sonata on top of all that. We also wanted to say that we don’t necessarily have to play works in one piece or in the correct chronological order. We don’t even have to maintain genre congruence either.”

No such thing as normal listening

Listening (and belonging) together promises an acoustic voyage of discovery, and at the same time raises exciting questions about listening habits. The unbiased listening experience, a liberation from conventional ideas of listening, and the realisation that we all perceive music differently – these are the central aspects of this evening.

“It is important to us,” sums up conductor Christoph Altstaedt, “that everyone leaves the concert at the end with the feeling that there is no such thing as ʻnormal listeningʼ. We don’t have to consider what people with hearing impairments perceive acoustically as deficient, but as a different way of hearing. Whatever happens emotionally, content-wise or metaphysically with music, they can experience that at least as well, if not perhaps even better than we can.”


Saskia Dittrich