Tinnitus: ‘Like stormtroopers marching on gravel’

Radio Review: A compelling documentary about the hearing condition; Lyric uses sound to re-create visions

Tinnitus: “akin to hosting a never-ending concert of avant-garde minimalist drones in your head”

Tinnitus: “akin to hosting a never-ending concert of avant-garde minimalist drones in your head”

 

The ability to suffer in silence is at best an ambivalent quality, but it’s something people with tinnitus can only dream of. The condition whereby people hear sound even when there is no external noise, tinnitus makes peace and quiet an impossible goal for those afflicted by it. As the Documentary on One: White Noise (RTÉ Radio 1, last Saturday) makes clear, silence isn’t golden for tinnitus sufferers: it’s more coveted and elusive than the precious metal could ever be for any prospector. 

In a textbook example of an ill wind, however, this incurable condition proves a goldmine for producers Orla Higgins and Kevin Brew, whose documentary imaginatively evokes the experience of living with ever-present inner noise. That both of them have tinnitus is, perversely enough, an advantage. When Higgins, who narrates the programme, describes the inner sound as akin to hearing “stormtroopers marching on gravel”, she knows of what she speaks. 

Arriving home off a flight, his ears wouldn’t pop at first, then his hearing was muffled, then a piercing, unrelenting sound developed

Higgins wants to find out more about the “mystery of tinnitus”, interweaving personal accounts with scientific analysis. She hears from Sean O’Reilly, who recalls how his life was utterly changed in the space of a week. Arriving home off a flight, his ears wouldn’t pop at first, then his hearing was muffled, then a piercing, unrelenting sound developed. O’Reilly recounts the desperation that enveloped him, as well as the apparent inability of medical science to help: after his diagnosis, he was informed by his GP that the only solution was to “man up”. 

The documentary also attempts to evoke the sensation of tinnitus for listeners unfamiliar with it. She invites four people with the condition into a studio to choose from a selection of high-pitched tones, hisses and hums to find the noise that best matches the one buzzing in their ears. Judging by the results, having tinnitus is akin to hosting a never-ending concert of avant-garde minimalist drones in your head, a fate as close to living hell as one can imagine.

In a cruel twist, the stress caused by the incessant sound compounds the situation further. Prof David Baguley talks of the “vicious circle between the sound sensation, the physical reaction and the emotional reaction, back to the sound sensation”. In some acute cases, this cycle can be too much to bear. Overwhelmed by his hearing disorders, Welshman James Ivor Jones took his life in 2015. Higgins meets his son Wesley, who reads harrowing letters in which his father describes the agony caused by his malfunctioning hearing. 

Despite such grim details, however, the prevailing mood is one not of despair but of stoicism and even hope. O’Reilly, for example, finds solace by practising mindfulness, a concept he once scoffed at. Meanwhile, technological advances offer the potential of meaningful relief, if not an actual cure. Of course, some pressing questions remain unanswered, not least the correct pronunciation of the word itself: is it tinni-tus or tinn-i-tus? Higgins and O’Reilly pronounce it in different ways, leaving the conundrum unsolved.

But overall, the documentary provides a compelling insight into a little-discussed but surprisingly common condition, with one in 10 people are apparently affected. Moreover, on purely sonic level, sound designer Damian Chennells uses the various tones to almost abstract effect, creating a wonderful piece of radio. Wonderful, that is, for listeners who can turn the sound off afterwards.

If White Noise strives to re-create sounds that no one else can hear, “Through the Canvas”, a new Tuesday morning slot on Niall Carroll’s Classical Daytime (Lyric, weekdays) faces a different problem: how to bring visual art to life on the airwaves. Embedded amid the solidly canonical works that make up Carroll’s show, these short pieces meet the challenge of translating Irish paintings to radio in engaging fashion.

Rather than trying to slavishly describe what appears on the canvas, the presenting duo of art critic Cristín Leach and producer Diarmuid McIntyre explore the environment in which the artwork was created.

All told, it’s a delightful yet innovative slot that merits expansion into a longer, stand-alone programme

In the most recent episode, for instance, Leach and McIntyre examine John George Mulvany’s landscape View of Kilmallock by visiting the eponymous Co Limerick town where it was painted during the early 1800s. Leach explains how the artist makes use of the location, with the diagonal lines of the streets drawing the eye to the castle at the centre of the painting.

At the same time, the pair discuss the historical context in which Mulvany worked. On hearing that such works were bought as status symbols during that era, the presenters muse that painting was then seen as a craft, but somewhere along the way the “internal impulse” kicked in. “Our very idea of the artist has changed,” says Leach.

These critical digressions have a pleasingly casual quality, but the slot’s real strengths lie elsewhere. Once again, atmospheric sound design plays a key part. Honking horns and beeping traffic lights bring Kilmallock’s (modern) main street to life, while an astonishing cascade recorded during a country downpour provides a fitting soundtrack for an earlier episode on Gwen O’Dowd’s painting Rain II. Such impressionistic techniques capture the fleeting nature of the creative process more effectively than any arid verbal reconstruction.

Meanwhile, an interesting partnership has formed between the knowledgeable but slightly didactic Leach and McIntyre, whose pithily down-to-earth manner is exemplified by his jocular characterisation of Mulvany’s landscape genre as “made-to-order painting”. All told, it’s a delightful yet innovative slot that merits expansion into a longer, stand-alone programme. For the moment, however, “Through the Canvas” shows that sound can allow a fresh way of, well, seeing things.

Radio Moment of the Week: Drinks or drills?

On Monday’s edition of Lunchtime Live (Newstalk, weekdays), Ciara Kelly hosts an item that is, she confesses, a “tough one” for her. With her daughter currently on a post-Leaving Cert holiday in Magaluf, she talks to journalist Rudi Kinsella about youthful shenanigans in the notorious resort. Kinsella’s accounts are not reassuring. He talks about young holidaymakers who “start drinking when they feel like it and stop when they fall asleep”, adding that “it’s exactly what you expect it to be; that’s the best way I can put it”. Hearing about such uncontrollable antics clearly alarms Kelly. By a complete coincidence, she then hosts an item on whether national service should be introduced for young people. That would put manners on them.  

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