Adding a symphony of touch to Beethoven’s 9th

5 perc
A black background, through which only the face of a laughing Japanese child, their white gloved hands and light trails of green, purple and red can be seen.

A child’s face fills with joy as his little gloved hands trail beautiful light – that is also sound. When the White Hands Chorus reached out to Canon in Japan, little did they realise that they would be reaching out across the world and find themselves on stage in Europe. Through the power of poetry and music, photography and print, their performances are now a multidimensional creative force that is pure Kyosei – living and working together for the common good.

And, surprisingly, the story begins 200 years ago at the Theater am Kärntnertor in Vienna, where Ludvig van Beethoven stood on stage with a lot to prove. He hadn’t presented any new work in a decade. Taste in music across Europe had changed, rumours about his mental state were rife. And he was, by this time, profoundly deaf. He was to stand on stage with a full orchestra (and the same number again in singers) as they performed his latest work, which was six years in the making: Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125. And it was an experimental piece by the day’s standards.

But by the time the symphony reached its climax, with the phenomenal An die Freude (‘Ode to Joy’ adapted from a poem by Friedrich Schiller), the audience were roaring with approval. And Beethoven could not hear it. Contralto Caroline Unger finally approached and very gently turned him, so he could see and accept the applause of the audience. 200 years on, of course, An die Freude is considered a masterpiece, beloved the world over, and the anniversary of this daunting premiere is being celebrated across Vienna in a number of exciting and new ways. Including Japan’s White Hands Chorus whose own joy could barely be measured as they joined one such event with their own performance and exhibition that have also been years in the making.

A printed photograph of many people, facing left, with their white-gloved hands raised. Beside it is a video screen showing a woman with her arms outstretched. The caption below her reads: Alle Menschen warden Brüder, All men become brothers.

The exhibition which accompanied the visit of the White Hands Chorus to Vienna was multi-sensory, using audio, video and tactile print to bring the performances of the young people to life.

Founded in 2017 by Artistic Director, Erika Colon, The White Hands Chorus Nippon (WHCN) aims to foster social inclusion through music education. More than half the Chorus are Deaf or hard of hearing, visually impaired, developmentally disabled and wheelchair users. “Since the beginning of our choir, we have challenged the children with a repertoire that has tradition and has a meaning to their lives,” explains Erika, who feels that An die Freude, in particular, resonates with the young people she works with. Which is why she and the WHCN have spent the past four years translating Beethoven and Schiller’s masterpiece into a new form called ‘Shuka’, or ‘Hand Song’, a combination of sign language, movement and facial expressions that bring the 9th Symphony to life in an entirely new way.

Their journey to the home of An die Freude’s first performance began with a single comment from a member of the Chorus who, after their very first performance in 2021, said to Erika, “I wish Beethoven could see our sign language performance of his masterpiece.” She was so moved by this that she and her creative collaborator Mariko Tagashira were determined the children would one day be able to fully embrace the spirit of Beethoven and bring their performance to Europe.

It was when lifelong soprano Erika met with Deaf children during a school visit that the first spark of what is now WHCN was ignited. The students asked her to show them her singing and she immediately told herself she “had to trust in the world without sound,” she says. “It's so wrong to think that music doesn't exist if you can't listen to it. There's something beyond the sound that connects people.” Since this experience twenty years ago she has extensively studied how Deaf people perceive music, bringing this to her practice as a choral director with a difference.

Two pairs of small hands hold and run their fingers over tactile photographs.

Each of Mariko Tagashira’s images of the children were transformed into elevated prints by Canon Production Printing’s team in the Netherlands.

A dark haired woman, who appears to be mid-sentence, stands among a group of people. Next to her is a young person in a white hat and glasses who holds their hands up as though using sign language and is smiling widely.

Visiting Vienna with White Hands Chorus was a dream come true for the organisation’s founder, Erika Colon (pictured left at the opening of the exhibition).

So, she, Mariko and the WHCN were thrilled when the years of work on this complex and nuanced piece was recognised, and they were finally heading to where Beethoven himself first performed it. The invitation was to perform their interpretation of An die Freude at an exclusive gala concert at the United Nations Office in Vienna, as part of the Zero Project Conference, which is focused on the rights of disabled people around the world. It was an emotional experience for all involved, but especially the children and their parents. “It was so moving. I was so proud of the children. And I was so happy that their parents and the supporters watched them and sent them love while they were performing,” she says. “We could really feel that the children were responding to that. There was mutual communication from both the audience and the children, which made the moment very, very special.”

Mariko Tagashira is a respected photographer and so was also able to bring a new dimension to their performance through an exhibition at the renowned WestLicht Museum of Photography. She had previously photographed members of the Chorus in a dark room, where each wore white gloves with LED lights in the fingertips. As they moved their hands to ‘sing’, Mariko shot the sweep of their gestures with a long exposure, capturing the traces of light that now also form part of the symphony.

However, after an initial exhibition of these images was attended by a blind child, she came to a realisation – “I had been exhibiting photos primarily for those who could see." Mariko fortunately has had a fond relationship with Canon in Japan for some time and decided to take her thoughts to them. “They provided their wholehearted support and introduced me to an expert team in the Netherlands with great technological capabilities.” She refers to the Canon PRISMAelevate XL and Arizona printer series, which can produce amazing ‘elevated prints’, by layering ink to produce a fully tactile printed image. Visitors to the exhibition at WestLich could then feel the movement of the music that Mariko has captured with the performers and, of course, this technology was also able to print explanations of each artwork in braille to add further detail. “I was deeply moved by a comment from one of the parents,” recalls Mariko. “They expressed that the photographs captured the unspoken aspects of their children's inner worlds.”

Like Beethoven himself, who embraced the work of a poet to enhance his own and adopted new ways of composing as his hearing deteriorated, Erika, Mariko and the White Hands Chorus have redefined what it means to experience music – turning to all the senses and using technology to enrich An die Freude for everyone. Erika has started to call the project ‘Visible An die Freude’ and hopes that it will “transcend all barriers of society and bring “joy” for a much wider range of people around the world.”