'Lexicon': Sound and vision give expression to dyslexia

A poem written by a 12-year-old boy, which gives an insight into his feelings about struggling with dyslexia, has provided the inspiration for a new sonic artwork supported by a Wellcome Trust Small Arts Award.

Electro-acoustic composer Professor Andrew Lewis of Bangor University's School of Music, whose daughter is dyslexic, wanted to focus on dyslexia and to find new ways of communicating and engaging people's interest in the condition.

The process began with conversations about the latest research and understanding about dyslexia, and individuals who are dyslexic, with experts at the Miles Dyslexia Centre. The Centre has world leaders in the field of dyslexia research and education, and provides study support to local school pupils and the University's own students.

It was a long-serving member of staff at the Centre who recalled the poem written by Tom Barbor-Might as a child, when he was being assisted by the Centre, where it was displayed on the notice board for many years. The composition is based on manipulated recordings of Tom and other dyslexic people reading the poem, from both the original text and a revised version with conventional spelling.

Professor 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 that appear in 'Lexicon' arose directly from what others might judge as mistakes. For example, where Tom meant to write that words are like leaves blowing in the wind, he wrote 'leaves' as 'lifes'. This could be viewed as a metaphor for life feeling chaotic for the person struggling with dyslexia.

One of the readers, on reading Tom's original text, read 'lifes' as 'flies'; this is represented in the piece by sound and images representing 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 artwork, to be honest I couldn't even remember writing it. I think that made re-reading it after 20 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.

"Despite the hundreds of thousands of people dealing with dyslexia in the UK today, lots of individuals I meet think it's a bit of a 'made-up' disability – symptomatic of overdiagnosis 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."

Dyslexia is a language-based disorder of which one common manifestation is slow and/or inaccurate processing of speech sounds; this causes the mappings between speech and print, during reading and spelling, to be disfluent and error-prone.

Dr Markéta Caravolas, Director of the 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.

"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."

Hear more about 'Lexicon' on Radio 4’s programme, All in the Mind.

Performance dates
Leicester: 16 January
Sheffield: 1 February
Huddersfield: 16 March
Bristol: 1 May
Cardiff: 11 May (Vale of Glamorgan Festival)
Hatfield: 7-17 May
Scarborough: 29 May

For the performances, the audience is immersed in a 360-degree spatial sound and visual experience in which words disintegrate and reassemble into new and surprising combinations, creating a kaleidoscopic labyrinth of sound, image and meaning.