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PopMatters Seeks Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

Touch the Sound: A Sound Journey With Evelyn Glennie (2004)

“There’s sound absolutely everywhere.”

— Evelyn Glennie

How does one perceive sound? Which sounds are worthy of perception? Touch the Sound, a documentary by German filmmaker Thomas Riedelsheimer, seeks to answer these questions by exploring sound in a myriad of its manifestations. It is a beautiful, interesting but somewhat shapeless collage on the subject of sound.

The film opens with a close-up of percussionist Evelyn Glennie pounding on a gong. The camera then quickly backs away from this scene and out of the building, where you can still hear the sound of the gong. The camera then moves to a close-up of a car wheel in motion, then to a busy highway, then to a snare drum solo by Glennie in NYC’s Grand Central Station. The entire film basically follows this course: it constantly travels from one type of sound to another, covering everything from short performances by several world-class percussionists to anonymous human footsteps in an airport.

Although most of us would probably rather watch a 99-minute film of professional musical performances rather than one which puts such glorious fare on equal footing with traffic noise, this film has a quite an interesting and unusual take on the subject of sound, and with good reason: it’s main star is deaf.

Glennie, a highly acclaimed Scottish musician sometimes known as “the first full-time solo percussionist”, became deaf as a schoolgirl and decided to continue her musical studies in spite of contrary advice, eventually switching from piano to percussion (where she could more easily “hear” her instruments). Although the film is filled with Glennie’s sound-related opines, the most insightful window into her dual passions for music and sound comes when she asks a deaf student to lay her hand on a drum after Glennie has pounded on it. She then tells the student, “we’re hearing the sound because we’re feeling the sound far longer than an audience member. As a matter of fact, we’re hearing more.”

Glennie, who likes to perform bare-footed in order to “hear” more, not only has broken the sound barrier (so to speak) into professional musicianship, but is probably more passionate and thoughtful on the subject of sound than anyone. What is the opposite of sound? Most of us would say that it’s silence. Glennie disagrees: “The opposite of sound definitely isn’t silence . . . I don’t know if there is such a thing. Well, there must be an opposite actually, but what it is I don’t know . . . it’s the closest thing I can imagine to death.”

At the center of the film (if there is such a thing in Touch the Sound), is a completely improvised CD by Glennie and composer/guitarist Fred Firth, wherein they take different items (some essentially musical and some definitely not) and record the different sounds in a huge abandoned factory. While it looked like they were having a lot of fun doing this, these sessions have a strangely immature feel, as if you’re watching two world class musicians walk into a grammar school Orff class (which is very nearly what you are seeing). I kept thinking, when are these talented performers going to make some real music?*

Apparently director Riedelsheimer had the same question in his mind. In the “making of” extra, he tells how he was hoping that the improvised Glennie/Firth CD would eventually take some shape, thus creating the “spine” of his film. The “making-of” shows him approach Firth with this idea and then receive the following response: “Here we are in this incredible space where it suggests many things as we play. And rather than make any more of that, [we should] just allow the space to tell us what we should be and what we should be doing.”

Whatever frustrations Riedelsheimer may have felt about his unstructured “spine” however, he obviously had a load of creative freedom with the cinematography and it’s a visually stimulating and often gorgeous piece of work. The film is focused on sound but is also very easy on the eyes; Riedelsheimer has made certain that both sensory components complement each other beautifully.

Because Touch the Sound is most definitely non-linear in its approach, it requires a certain laid-back state of mind while viewing, but once you’re there, this film is a lot of fun. From the waves crashing on the Scottish coast to the vibrations on the top of Glennie’s snare drum, Touch the Sound leaves no sound or accompanying sight left unexplored.

*Near the end of the film, Glennie and Firth do make some beautiful guitar/marimba music together, and while it’s absolutely lovely, the DVD extras reveal that unlike their concert in the factory, this was not improvised.

RATING 6 / 10