The evening of February 1st, 1924 — decades before she had a similarly profound first encounter with dance — 44-year-old Keller had a transcendent experience. With her hand pressed against the radio receiver in her living room, she “heard” a live Carnegie Hall broadcast of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor, also known as Ode to Joy — one of humanity’s most beloved pieces of music, which Beethoven, by then deaf himself, had composed exactly 100 years earlier.
The following day, Keller wrote an electrifying letter of gratitude to the New York Symphony Orchestra, articulating the trans-sensory transcendence of her experience and of music itself.
I have the joy of being able to tell you that, though deaf and blind, I spent a glorious hour last night listening over the radio to Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony.” I do not mean to say that I “heard” the music in the sense that other people heard it; and I do not know whether I can make you understand how it was possible for me to derive pleasure from the symphony. It was a great surprise to myself. I had been reading in my magazine for the blind of the happiness that the radio was bringing to the sightless everywhere. I was delighted to know that the blind had gained a new source of enjoyment; but I did not dream that I could have any part in their joy. Last night, when the family was listening to your wonderful rendering of the immortal symphony someone suggested that I put my hand on the receiver and see if I could get any of the vibrations. He unscrewed the cap, and I lightly touched the sensitive diaphragm. What was my amazement to discover that I could feel, not only the vibrations, but also the impassioned rhythm, the throb and the urge of the music! The intertwined and intermingling vibrations from different instruments enchanted me. I could actually distinguish the cornets, the roll of the drums, deep-toned violas and violins singing in exquisite unison. How the lovely speech of the violins flowed and plowed over the deepest tones of the other instruments! When the human voice leaped up trilling from the surge of harmony, I recognized them instantly as voices. I felt the chorus grow more exultant, more ecstatic, upcurving swift and flame-like, until my heart almost stood still. The women’s voices seemed an embodiment of all the angelic voices rushing in a harmonious flood of beautiful and inspiring sound. The great chorus throbbed against my fingers with poignant pause and flow. Then all the instruments and voices together burst forth — an ocean of heavenly vibration — and died away like winds when the atom is spent, ending in a delicate shower of sweet notes.
Of course, this was not “hearing” but I do know that the tones and harmonies conveyed to me moods of great beauty and majesty. I also sensed, or thought I did, the tender sounds of nature that sing into my hand — swaying reeds and winds and the murmur of streams. I have never been so enraptured before by a multitude of tone-vibrations.
As I listened, with darkness and melody, shadow and sound filling all the room, I could not help remembering that the great composer who poured forth such a flood of sweetness into the world was deaf like myself. I marvelled at the power of his quenchless spirit by which out of his pain he wrought such joy for others — and there I sat, feeling with my hand the magnificent symphony which broke like a sea upon the silent shores of his soul and mine.
Let me thank you warmly for all the delight which your beautiful music has brought to my household and to me. I want also to thank Station WEAF for the joy they are broadcasting in the world.
House of Vans returns to Austin, TX March 11th-15th at the SXSW Music Festival at one of Austin’s most beloved and eclectic music venues, the Mohawk. We’ll have afternoon and evening shows daily, curated by the partners below. This year, we’ll also be introducing Vans Village to downtown and the first-time partnership with the FLATSTOCK poster show at the Austin Convention Center. Opening March 11th, the Vans Village will host a range of events through March 15th transforming the parking lot on the corner of Red River and 7thto include a competitive BMX ramp, a full-service pop-up shop, a special truth activation and live art exhibitions by Vans artists Jay Howell, Rich Jacobs, Zio Ziegler and Russ Pope. Stay tuned to vans.com/sxsw for more info.
Tuesday, March 11 Day: Vans Mexico Presents Festival NRMAL Night: Pitchfork’s Show No Mercy
Wednesday, March 12 Day: SPIN Night: Vans SXSW Showcase
Thursday, March 13 Day: Stereogum Night: A$AP Mob
Friday, March 14 Day: The Windish Agency Annual Day Party Night: ATC SXSW Showcase
Head to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture to visit its newest exhibit, Motown: The Truth is a Hit!
Featuring items that highlight Motown’s inimitable founder Berry Gordy and the institution’s most beloved musical acts, the multi-media showcase chronicles one of the most significant record labels in American music history.
Stop by the Schomburg for a musical trip down memory lane and to learn more about the iconic Motown today!