LOS ANGELES — Between 2011 and 2013, thieves committed a rash of burglaries at 12 high schools in the Los Angeles region, stealing tubas from band rooms across the southland. This curious anecdote provides the title for artist Alison O’Daniel’s recent film The Tuba Thieves. Although it features re-enactments of the thefts, the film does not focus solely on the incidents; instead, it weaves these scenes together with other loosely related narratives into a patchwork dealing with loss, grief, communication, community, challenging shifts in perspective, and the different ways we experience the world through sound, vision, and touch.

When she was three, O’Daniel was diagnosed with 60% binaural hearing loss and identifies as d/Deaf (the lowercase “d” representing the physical condition of deafness, and the uppercase “D” denoting “cultural deafness” or a connection to the Deaf community). She uses hearing aids but grew up in a hearing family and only learned American Sign Language (ASL) as an adult. Although she can “pass” as a hearing person — you might not realize she is deaf by looking at or talking to her — she still faces everyday challenges that hearing people might take for granted.

“There’s just always a messiness in my life that’s from catching up, compensating, trying to figure things out … The relentlessness of ableism, it’s constant on literally a daily basis,” she told Hyperallergic. “When I’m missing things in conversations and filling in gaps, it’s super exhausting.”

O’Daniel says she had two goals when she began making the film a decade ago. One was to recreate this sense of perceptual instability and compensation in the audience “without people walking out.”

“That was the challenge,” she said. “How do I get people to become interested in that feeling?”

Still from Alison O’Daniel, The Tuba Thieves (2023), cinematography by Judy Phu

One way she does that is by featuring spoken dialogue, ASL, and written captions all on equal footing, without prioritizing audio as hearing audiences are used to. Sounds swell and cut out abruptly, leading to an unsettling feeling for those relying exclusively on sound to guide their experience.

She also plays with the barriers between narrative, documentary, and art film. Much of the funding for the film came from documentary sources, but it features both recreations of actual events as well as fictional storylines and has screened at festivals in both documentary and narrative categories. An earlier iteration of the film was presented in Made in LA at the Hammer Museum in 2018, where it was presented as an installation alongside sculptural work.

Still from Alison O’Daniel, The Tuba Thieves (2023) with Russell Harvard as Nature Boy; cinematography by Derek Howard

O’Daniel also flipped the traditional way films are created, beginning with the soundtrack instead of the script. She gave visual source material to three composers: the late Ethan Frederick Greene and artists Christine Sun Kim, who is also deaf, and Steve Roden, who created compositions which she built the film around.

She talks about The Tuba Thieves as a “listening project,” which “has made me deeply curious and interested in how I’m experiencing sound and using that as a kind of foundational structure for how to build a film.”

For some, it may sound counterintuitive to discuss “deafness” and “hearing” together, but that’s exactly the misconception O’Daniel says she’s trying to correct. “That’s just a thing that constantly needs to be demystified,” she says.

One such scene in the film recreates John Cage’s 1952 performance of 4’33” at the Maverick Concert Hall in upstate New York. The seminal piece of experimental music involves the performer sitting at a piano, lifting the lid, and sitting quietly for four minutes and 33 seconds without touching the keys. “I went to visit the concert hall and I realized it was so noisy, it’s the sound of the forest,” she recalls. “I was just amazed by the longevity of the mythology around 4’33” being about silence and that was the moment where I thought, ‘that’s the same mythology about deafness, that it’s like an experience of silence.’” In the scene, shot on location, a disgruntled member of the audience leaves the performance only to find himself engulfed in the sounds of the surrounding countryside.

Still from Alison O’Daniel, The Tuba Thieves (2023), cinematography by Judy Phu

This leads to her second goal with the film. “I wanted to really bombard people with this intense, all-over-the-place sonic experience. I was hoping people would leave feeling this like internal quiet.”

The film features a dense sonic backdrop of leaf blowers, whirring helicopters, whooshing waves, and mountain lions lapping up water captured on night vision cameras. The audience is made keenly aware of their presence when they drop out, followed by periods of quiet. 

These are also the everyday sounds of Los Angeles, to which O’Daniel adds a scene of conceptual artist and accomplished drummer Charles Gaines behind the kit, and a segment on Chalino Sánchez, the legendary norteño balladeer, whose narcocorridos can be heard bumping from car windows across LA. Gaines will be in conversation with O’Daniel when The Tuba Thieves screens at LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art next Thursday, April 27.

In between these scenes, the film follows different fictional and restaged vignettes: a love story between Nyke, played by deaf actor and drummer Nyeisha Prince, and Nature Boy, played by Russell Harvard, of There Will Be Blood (2007) and Causeway (2022); the effect of the tuba thefts on Geovanny Marroquin, a marching band leader at one of the schools; and a 1979 concert at the Deaf Club, a short-lived punk club housed inside an actual community space for deaf individuals in San Francisco. Although there was some archival footage of the space, O’Daniel chose not to use it, “because I wanted to really recreate it from a kind of deaf perspective … I wanted to be in control of the image.”

Still from Deaf Club scene of Alison O’Daniel’s The Tuba Thieves (2023), cinematography by Meena Singh

But why use the tuba thefts to frame all these disparate stories? For O’Daniel, they epitomize the isolation and misunderstandings that come with being deaf. What does it mean when a band loses its lowest notes? How does this affect the schools from mostly underdeveloped areas that have to deal with these losses?

“It took me a really, really long time to understand that I was making a film about grief,” she says. “I realized that my whole life I’ve been told I have ‘hearing loss.’ In the Deaf community, we use the term ‘deaf gain.’ It’s such a beautiful turn of phrase, as someone who is hard of hearing but who passes, it’s always about hearing loss.”

“But if you’re raised in Deaf culture, there’s a brightness, a cultural kind of support that feels really concrete to me from this position of having not had that,” O’Daniel continued. “And then in these 10 years, a disability art movement has happened and to have that community, I can’t even articulate the depth of emotional relief.”

Matt Stromberg

Matt Stromberg is a freelance visual arts writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to Hyperallergic, he has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, CARLA, Apollo, ARTNews, and other publications.

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