Recording tinnitus as it happens – for art AND science.

Well, if a microphone can act as a speaker (which it can, and vice versa), then why can’t an ear act as a megaphone? It might fly in the face of expectations but The Quietus has an interview with Lola De La Mata, an artist and audiological experimenter who has actually recorded the sound of her own tinnitus, caused by an old ear injury, using the soundless environment of an anechoic chamber to capture the vibrations of her damaged cilia:

The plan at that point was to create a number of pieces relating to different parts of the ear, but over time her scope broadened to become her new album Oceans On Azimuth, a visceral and intense thing that bristles with life in the same way her eardrum thundered as it tried to force itself back into shape. At the record’s launch at the Stephen Lawrence Gallery in Greenwich, a week before she speaks to tQ, De La Mata displays accompanying sculptures based on a 3D rendering of her ear canal while Jono Heale from the hearing protection company ACS takes similar moulds from attendees to form part of a future piece.

She was intrigued that the [Hudspeth Laboratory Of Sensory Neuroscience]’s director A.J. Hudspeth “kept employing words from artistic fields, like how the way hair bundles are distributed on the cochlea is almost like a piano in reverse. There was something that was accessible, not just academic.” You can hear that same impulse in Gianoli’s explanation of impedance matching, too, included on the album and in her live performance, where he compares the role of the middle ear to the bridge of a violin. “He wrote a master’s paper about it, and how there’s a possibility of creating the perfect bridge for each specific violin if you put in the right equations with the thickness of wood, the type, the width, etcetera.”

De La Mata had things to offer in return, pointing out how they might make use of soundproof rooms to deal with the noise produced by the fans of their machinery. Thanks to her experiments with an electromagnetic field recorder, which highlighted how noisy the lab could get, they were able to ascertain where previous experiments had run into issues. In turn, it also altered her view of science. “I’ve learned that it’s all about failure, and that they welcome it. People would open discussions by saying, ‘We have no idea how this thing works, we’re not there and we might never be there.’ And just as there’s a lot of failure in science, there’s a lot of failure in our communication, which actually allows spaces for questions, space to dream and innovate. So there was this common shared language, but we just had slightly different definitions of what it all meant, which was exciting.”

The most mind-blowing moment, not only for De La Mata but the scientists too, came when they managed to actually record the sounds that she heard in her ears – which now appear as ‘Left Ear’ and ‘Right Ear’ which begin sides A and B on the album – and in doing so opened up questions about the nature of tinnitus itself. “The NHS definition is that it’s a phantom sound that your brain is creating, that it isn’t something ‘real’, so you should try to ignore it.” By having De La Mata place her ear into an anechoic chamber, with an ultra-sensitive microphone perched in her ear canal, they were able to provide significant evidence to the contrary. “After the first recording of it, it was ‘There’s no way, this isn’t possible.’” They tried again with her breath held, and again with her tensing her ears, and again with other members of staff, but each time it became apparent that yes, the noises De La Mata hears are seemingly something physical. More intriguingly still, the two women whose ears were recorded, De La Mata and Lana Norris – the musicologist whose voice appears on the album’s ‘PINK Noise’, and who is also a choral director – were the only two people whose ears were found to produce spontaneous otoacoustic emissions. “It’s something to do with hormone difference, but they don’t really know why,” De La Mata says. Present in most children but believed to fade over time, they’re also found far more in musicians than in other adults, for reasons yet unknown. It all raises a lot of questions.

You can hear De La Mata’s album here, on Bandcamp.