Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Touch the Sound


Evelyn Glennie, OBE, is a 40-year-old woman, thought by many to be the best solo percussionist in the world. In fact, she pretty much invented the profession of solo percussionist, and was the first to make a living at it. Maybe she still is the only one. And she’s been deaf since the age of 12.

Percussion is surely the earliest music. At its very simplest, it is nothing more than clapping hands and stomping feet. Beyond that, you can start whanging on things. Rocks, hollow logs, coconut shells, anything whose sound pleases you. The beat is the basic component of music. All that other stuff, timbre, tone, texture, pitch, crescendo and sostenuto and adagio, all that came later. Anything, literally anything, can be a percussion instrument. Bobby McFerrin slaps on his chest and cheeks as he sings. I’ve seen nice solos done on cardboard boxes, plastic paint cans, garbage cans, sticks played on the sidewalk. Hell, even a saxophone can be a percussion instrument if you whale on it with a ball-peen hammer (and some may not find that such a bad idea, particularly if the sax is being blown by, say, Bill Clinton).

You can’t help trying to imagine her world. She performs barefoot, feeling the sound through the floor. She also senses it with her body. She explains it as well as she can (and she doesn’t speak like a deaf person), and I came to think I understood a little of it. It really is all about touch. We see her showing a deaf girl how to sense the sound, where a particular sound registers on her hand.

Lee had trouble with the filming technique, specifically the overuse of close-ups. I agree with her, the three most abused things in film are “shaky-cam,” slow motion, and pore-revealing close-ups of faces. But it didn’t bother me as much as it did her.

Glennie’s music, or most of what we hear of it, is avant garde, much of it just sound shapes without a beat of any kind. But she can also play the hell out of her favorite instrument, the snare drum. She jams with traditional Japanese drummers and it is very good. She also can perform on found objects. I have to say that I’m not tempted to buy any of her CDs, because it’s not the sort of music I’d want to listen to over and over. But I’d download it, and be happy to hear it. And I was happy to have seen and heard and touched the sound in this movie.