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Compensation and Transfiguration: Alison O’Daniel’s 'The Tuba Thieves'

By Jordan Lord

Still from "The Tuba Thieves," directed by Alison O'Daniel, showing Nyke's hands in the moment right before she signs the film's title.

A caption in Alison O’Daniel’s film The Tuba Thieves (2023) refers to “quiet air”—a description of sound but also of sensation and (shared) substance, reattuning what it means to listen away from hearing and toward the material means by which listening occurs.

When I experienced the film at MoMA’s Doc Fortnight 2023, fresh from its premiere at Sundance, the way I listened to this quiet air was not just through my ears. Balloons were distributed to each audience member, conducting vibrations into our hands. Held together with a room full of other people holding balloons, literally holding their own breath, I listened to this “quiet air” by feeling the captioned words on the screen touching my brain touching the balloon’s calm, springy surface.

At other moments in the film, the balloon vibrates with all kinds of noisy air—the shaking roar of airplane engines, the rhythmic clatter of drums, the enveloping suspense of waves and things that sound like waves (skateboard wheels and traffic on the freeway)—that move the film across many different times and places. As the film cuts between them, it shows sound as not just noise but also elemental matter that shapes and segregates environments, affecting and acting upon the bodies of the people who inhabit them.

Part of this is fundamentally a matter of time (and, in turn, place). O’Daniel made the film over an 11-year period, which is both a deeply integral part of how the film takes time (a slowness that enfolds the audience) and what it makes out of time. Primarily set in Los Angeles, the film is a period piece spanning the years 2011–13: a contemporary moment hard to distinguish from our own, marked by extreme weather events such as wildfires and hurricanes. This timeline flows in and out of reenactments of other times and places, including a performance of John Cage’s 4'33" in Woodstock in 1952, a punk show at a Deaf club in 1979, and a Prince performance at Gallaudet University in 1984. What holds these times and places together isn’t just a history of Deaf people’s relationship to music but also a sense of how people, animals, plants, and environments are affected and connected by sound, music, noise, and the presence of their so-called absence. 

Most of the characters (played by Deaf actors Nyeisha Prince [Nyke], Russell Harvard [Nature Boy], and others) and stories within the film exist in peripheral relationships to each other and to the tuba thefts of the title, which refer to the large number of tubas that were stolen from several high schools in Los Angeles between 2011 and 2013, a series of events that are both briefly reenacted in the film and not at all its central concern. Or rather, the unifying concern is imagining what occurs around them and in their wake, such as a marching band without tubas. One thread of the film incorporating real-life figures depicts Geovanny Marroquin, a high schooler and saxophonist at one of the schools where the tubas were stolen, who lives surrounded by the noise (and air) pollution of LAX, playing a version of himself. 

We’re introduced to Geovanny’s neighborhood with an image of kids playing on a trampoline as the captions show [KIDS LAUGHING] and [RISING SOUND OF WIND RUSHING]; another caption appears on the opposite side of the frame, which measures the rising amplitude of this sound. Quick-cutting to a series of neighborhood streets, as the shadow of a plane passes overhead, the sound is soon accompanied by a [HIGH PITCHED MACHINE WHINE] and turns into [OVERPOWERING WIND RUSHING] as the amplitude rises from 55 dB to 120 dB, a volume designated by medical professionals to cause hearing loss. The amplitude then lowers as the plane comes into view and passes out of the frame. [55 DB] of the plane’s hum still lingers while Geovanny is ostensibly being kicked out of his house. As he tries to get the attention of the person inside—pounding on the door, tapping on the windows, and eventually yelling that he needs his shoes—his sounds are drowned out by the return of the captioned [JET WHINE]. Another shadow of a plane passing over the asphalt leaves behind the plane’s roar, which hovers around a montage of archival photographs of 1950s suburbia in which planes fly overhead, and people cover their ears. These images flow into photos of boarded-up houses and demolitions—making a remarkably literal connection between the noise of LAX and its destructive effects on surrounding neighborhoods. 

Throughout the film, sound and image reach a limit of transmission, producing cleavages. One recurring motif shows characters driving and listening to the radio before they drive into tunnels, where the radio frequency becomes static. The audience is then asked to fill in the gaps, piecing together narratives after the fact. For instance, a scene with Geovanny in bed with his girlfriend gives the audience context to infer that an earlier scene was a lover’s quarrel. Sometimes the gaps are temporal or thematic, asking what 4'33" has to do with LAX and Deaf card players at a punk show. But perhaps most often, it occurs where we enter and leave scenes of dialogue midstream and where many conversations may be happening at once.

This process of struggling to fill in the gaps is integral to how the film enacts a desegregation of Deaf and hearing audiences by both sharing and limiting the information to which they’re given access. As I discussed with O’Daniel in an interview for this essay, this ongoing experience and practice of filling in, or “compensation,” is both a capacity that audiologists test for and one that often prevents hearing people from understanding that O’Daniel is d/Deaf. In sharing this experience of navigating an audist world, she not only attunes hearing audiences to what they often ignore but also refigures the gap—not as loss—but as a space of Deaf gain that holds other poetic and political possibilities for connection. 

This space becomes powerfully present in a scene near the beginning of the film, in which Nature Boy takes an audiology test. The audiologist asks him to repeat a series of words with no apparent relationship to each other: nowhere, lifeboat, fireworks, iceberg, backbone, eardrum, sunrise, forgive, goodnight, etc. Increasingly frustrated by the test’s absurdity, Nature Boy takes off the headphones and puts his hearing aid back on. As the audiologist mechanically continues the test, Nature Boy fills in the gaps of the test words with poetry, speaking in ASL. The captions translate the poem into English. His poem ends,

     TODAY has been a thin WISHBONE / INSIDE a DAYDREAM, slipped into the
     QUICKSAND / on my EARDRUM’s ICEBERG. Where, reaching / out from themselves,
     are the ones with “BACKBONE” — / who tweak the WIDESPREAD NOTHING.

Briefly overturning the test’s medical logic, which measures hearing and Deafness as capacity and incapacity, Nature Boy (and O’Daniel) create meaning in the gaps–contesting the isolating and enraging experience of the test and its audist pathologies with the open-ended act of poetry, sharing a feeling that words can’t describe. 

This act of translation from ASL and sound to open captions is itself at the core of the film. Open captions, unlike closed captions, are not optional add-ons but rather are burned into the image itself. These captions produce their own gaps; often, two or more captions appear on different parts of the frame at the same time, extending the experience of potentially missing something. As the credits show and O’Daniel discussed in the Q&A afterward, the captions were written and embedded into the film’s image by O’Daniel and two other d/Deaf captioners. These captions both insist on d/Deaf people as authorities on what information makes the film accessible to d/Deaf/hard-of-hearing audiences and give access into how sound makes meaning in the film–focusing less on what is audible and more on how the captioners have listened to it (and are inviting the audience to listen).

Much of this listening observes how some sounds feel like other sounds, not just metaphorically but materially and synesthetically. One of my favorite moments in the film occurs when Nyke accidentally enters a closet on her way to the bathroom and is drawn to a shiny gold blouse with a crinkly fabric, and the caption [RADIO STATIC] appears. Here, the static electricity of the blouse is translated (and transduced) in multiple senses. This static appears to resonate in Nyke’s hands as she holds them up and begins to sign with both hands—one forward and one backward—the title of the film, followed by the timelines the film weaves together. Perhaps the blouse is a means of accessing the residue of these overlapping timelines.

A few scenes later, we’re transported to a performance of John Cage’s 4'33"—a piece of music that could be, perhaps, subtitled a tuba theft—in which Cage conducts the absence and thwarted expectation of a music performance, where the “music” is purportedly the sounds that the audience makes while waiting for the performance to happen. In O’Daniel’s reenactment, the film imagines an unengaged audience member who leaves the stuffy performance venue to walk in the surrounding woods, taking off his shoes and feeling the leaves underfoot. The scene produces many feelings at once. It begins as a funny and satisfying refusal of the piece’s essentialist claims about sound and music, which fetishize the ambient sounds of the theater and segregate Deaf audiences from the music the audience makes by shifting in their chairs, sighing, coughing, and so on. But here O’Daniel reappropriates (or, in keeping with the spirit of the film’s title, steals) Cage’s audist gesture, reinterpreting the themes of Cage’s piece about the presences that surround supposed absence as a meditation on Deaf presence or the simultaneity of different forms of presence.

With Cage, O’Daniel dislocates the act of performing the piece from the apparent performer or artist to the members of the audience itself—who, like the character onscreen, are invited to wander elsewhere. The experiences depicted in the film spilled over into the room it played in, where abled and disabled, Deaf and hearing people shared space and time. To the extent that the film is a documentary, it is less a depiction of reality inside the frame and more what happens around it, where the audience feels it.

The Tuba Thieves continues its festival run this month at SFFILM, the MOCA Artist Film Series in Los Angeles, Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival, and other festivals.

Jordan Lord is a filmmaker, writer, teacher, and artist living in New York City. Their work concerns the relationships between access, documentary, disability, and debt.