Sound and vision piece inspired by dyslexia to feature on Radio 4 All in the Mind programme

A new sonic art work inspired by dyslexia and the science behind dyslexia is to be covered by Radio 4’s flagship All in the Mind programme, which explores the limits and potential of the human mind. The programme will be broadcast on Tuesday 18 December at 9.00pm and repeated on Wednesday 19 at 3.30 and will be available online after the first broadcast.

Lexicon was composed by electroacoustic composer, Professor Andrew Lewis of the University’s School of Music. It was funded by a Small Arts Award from the Wellcome Trust, the aim of which is to bridge arts and science.

The composition process began with conversations about the latest research and understanding about dyslexia, and about individuals who are dyslexic, with experts at the University’s Miles Dyslexia Centre.  The Centre has world leaders in the field of dyslexia research and dyslexia education and also provides study support to local school pupils and the University’s own students who are dyslexic. It was a long-serving member of staff at the Centre who recalled a poem written by a 12 year old boy, which provides an insight into his feelings about struggling with dyslexia. This short poem provided the inspiration for the piece.

The composition is based on manipulations of recordings of Tom Barbor-Might, who wrote the poem, and who is now an adult, and other dyslexic people reading the poem- from both the original text and a revised version with conventional spelling.

Professor Andrew Lewis explains: “I’d describe the composition as a ‘word-painting piece’.  The message, if there is one, is that the so-called ‘mistakes’ that people make don’t have to be viewed as such. You can view them as creative alternatives. We don’t always have to think about the necessity to be correct ‘according to the rules’, and this can lead to unexpected and original creative thinking. Some of the ideas for the piece arose directly from these ‘mistakes’.”

“For example, Tom wrote that words are like leaves blowing in the wind- but wrote leaves as lifes. This struck me as an accidental metaphor for life somehow feeling chaotic for the person struggling with dyslexia. One of the readers, on reading Tom’s original text read lifes (leaves) as flies- at which point in the piece, the sound and images in the piece represent words buzzing and swarming like flies.”

Tom Barbor-Might said: “When I was contacted for my consent for the poem to be used in the art work, to be honest I couldn’t even remember writing it. I think that made re-reading it after twenty years all the more strange. After deciphering the spelling, a lot of memories came back. Strange classroom mantras – A is for Apple, B is for Ball, C is for Cat – a lot of terrible stories concerning red, blue and green pirates. Essentially it brought back the struggle to get to grips with grammar, spelling and the way we structure thoughts on the page. Why should A be for Apple and B for Ball? Language isn’t just a way to communicate it’s also a way of thinking, a way of making sense of the world and as a child I remember feeling locked out of that. If the poem hints at that experience then I am glad it’s being used.”

“It has been my experience that the educational authorities are actually really rather sophisticated when it comes to dealing with dyslexia. For me it’s been people’s perception, which has proven problematic. Despite the hundreds of thousands of people dealing with dyslexia in the UK today, lots individuals I meet think it’s a bit of a ‘made-up’ disability - symptomatic of over-diagnosis by educational psychologists. I think because of this, I’ve hidden from it, maybe even ignored it. It wasn’t much fun to grow up with, and to this day I couldn’t repeat the alphabet or months of the year in order for you.

“I really hope that Andrew’s piece will in some way help explain the experience of being dyslexic to an audience and in an artistic manner help promote empathy and legitimacy. It was a pleasure to be involved.” 

Dr Markéta Caravolas (Director, Miles Dyslexia Centre), said: “It has been a rare pleasure to work with Andrew in attempting to connect scientific notions with artistic expression.  Lexicon is a sonic art piece that evokes emotions and thoughts that might be experienced by dyslexic persons as they engage with print in non-conventional ways. But at the same time, it is a work that attempts to convey the current scientific understanding of the mismatch between processing the sounds of spoken words and their written form, that is known as the hallmark ‘phonological processing difficulty’ in dyslexia.  Dyslexia is a language-based disorder of which one common manifestation is somewhat slow and/or inaccurate processing of speech-sounds; this causes the mappings between speech and print during reading and spelling to be dysfluent and error-prone. Working with a sonic artist who has a special interest in exploring and manipulating speech made the collaboration with Andrew Lewis on Lexicon an exciting and very enriching project for us at Miles Dyslexia Centre, given our interest in advancing the understanding of both the human experience and the science of dyslexia.”  

A short extract of the piece can be viewed here:

Publication date: 14 December 2012