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ALTER BOY REDEFINE THE NATURE AND VALUE OF EXISTENCE

Alter Boy
Alter Boy

Have you ever done anything important in your life?  I mean put it on your headstone and write about it in the history books important.
No?
Neither have I.

With the release of their debut EP, Act Of God, Perth’s electro-pop pioneers, Alter Boy, claim to have changed music for ever. That’s a mountainous claim that, coming from any other band, could be written off as the sort of bombast a high-priced PR would come up with. Attention grabbing, yes, but in the end, you’re just listening to some new music that may or may not be pleasing to the ears.

These songs demand the complete redefinition of ‘music’ and an expansion of what it means to be ‘able’ enough to participate.

Because, music is something we listen to, isn’t it?  I must acknowledge that, until now, I’ve accepted that truth uncritically. It says so in the dictionary. Music is:

a pattern of sounds made by musical instruments, voices, or computers, or a combination of these, intended to give pleasure to people listening to it

By the time you hit track four of Act Of God, ‘Follow Along As Best You Can’, you begin to see everything that’s wrong with that definition. It excludes the portion of humanity that is deaf or hard of hearing. It’s ableist. It promotes prejudice and exclusion. To the hearing among us, Alter Boy’s song, ‘Follow Along As Best You Can’, is the repetition of that phrase by a detached, mechanical sounding voice, interspersed with silence. This song begins to set fire to the accepted definition of ‘music’ by bringing us into the world of the deaf and hard of hearing. Are Alter Boy exhorting or taunting the hearing with their instruction? It’s difficult to know, but this song challenges the conventional wisdom about what music is, as well as about what it means to be disabled. Can’t access the music Alter Boy have created? Whose fault is that? Maybe it’s yours? Maybe the problem lies with you, not them? Maybe you’re the one with the disability?

It’s the same with Act Of God’s closer, ‘I Can’t Hear This Note’, which appears to be musical tones interspersed with silence. As with ‘Follow Along As Best You Can’, the silence is, at the very least, intriguing. What if there’s something there but you can’t hear it? What if there’s more, but it’s not accessible to you?

With these two tracks Alter Boy have begun to redefine music as we knew it before the release of Act Of God. How do you listen to music? Do you have to be able to hear it in that pejorative, moral-majority definition of the meaning of ‘hear’?

Speaking about the songs on Act Of God, Molly/Aaron, one of the three deaf and hard of hearing members of Alter Boy said, “Some of the songs exist, while some exist partially, and others not at all; it’s all in an effort to subvert the traditional music experience by flipping the script and alienating the hearing listener.”

The video for the fifth track on Act Of God, ‘In Death We Wed’ is presented as an Auslan music video. The song invites viewers into the world of Achilles and Patroclus in a unique and soundless retelling. At the opening of the song, fully deaf performer, Laura Bullock, removes their hearing aid and cochlear, proceeding with the song in silence. The Auslan performance triggers lights that move rhythmically in harmony with the visual elements of the storytelling. ‘In Death We Wed’ confronts the hearing person’s definition of what is considered a ‘song’.

“It is a song that does not require sound, and one which does not follow the beat and pace of the hearing world,” Laura said, “If we say it’s a song, then it is.”

Speaking of the existence or otherwise of the songs on Act Of God in this way, Molly/Aaron and Laura are very clearsighted about what it is Alter Boy have attempted and achieved with their debut EP. These songs demand the complete redefinition of ‘music’ and an expansion of what it means to be ‘able’ enough to participate.

This is the first of a number of important things Alter Boy have achieved with Act Of God. They have demanded that we redefine what it is to create and consume music and, in doing so, have broken down some of the barriers that exclude those currently classed as ‘disabled’ from the world of the ‘abled’.

If we take this a step further, what Alter Boy also are demanding is a redefinition of the nexus between ability and disability. Most often disability is caused by a society conceived and run by ‘able’ people that consciously or unconsciously excludes people who are ‘disabled’. It’s not disability that’s the problem, it’s society.

The accepted definition of music is a case in point. If we changed it to include those who are deaf and hard of hearing, what would people who can hear lose? Not. One. Single. Thing.

What do deaf and hard of hearing people gain? The capacity to be involved, as equals, in the creation and consumption of music.

With one simple act the impact of disability in this context is removed, people become equals and everyone’s lives are richer.

So far, then, Alter Boy have redefined music and what it means to be disabled and, through this, our understanding of the nature and value of human existence. In my mind, that’s definitely headstone and history books important, and I thank them for shaking up my world, yet once more. You should thank them, too.

As for the content of the songs on Act Of God, people who are familiar with Alter Boy’s music and lyrical content won’t be surprised to find them continuing to explore the most difficult tropes of meaning and existence. Not just through some detached examination of existential angst but through the, at times, actual life and death existence of the song’s protagonists and creators. This is as real as music gets and it’s all parcelled up in Alter Boy’s expansive and beguiling take on electro pop. Alter Boy’s music is a bitter pill, but one you happily swallow, because it just tastes, smells, feels and, for those of us who can perceive it that way, sounds so good!

Perhaps the other important thing Alter Boy have done with Act Of God is prove definitively that, as a benign, or even vengeful, patriarchal figure, god does not exist?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Follow Alter Boy – FACEBOOK  INSTAGRAM

See Alter Boy live:
Saturday 16 October, Busselton
Saturday 23 October, Fremantle Arts Centre

Get tickets here.

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