For Evelyn Glennie, a professional percussionist, hearing is a form of touch, something the body feels as a physical presence, and not merely as a stimulus for our auditory organ, the ear. It's a philosophy Glennie has also earned physically, for she is profoundly deaf and, since childhood, has trained her whole being to be a receptor for sound.
Glennie is the subject of Thomas Riedelsheimer's film Touch the Sound, which is less a documentary comprising important dates and the explication of techniques than it is an invitation to reconsider what constitutes sound and what it truly means to hear. Riedelsheimer never shows Glennie in her "professional" life, performing concerts both as a solo act and with renowned orchestras (this film will never tell you she's won a Grammy). Instead he joins her ongoing journeys in sound discovery.
Some of her forays are relatively formal, such as when Glennie and fellow musician Fred Firth record an improvised piece in the vast expanse of an abandoned factory in Cologne, using available industrial odds and ends. While in Japan, Glennie commandeers the detritus of dinner - plates, glasses, condiment containers and chopsticks - to perform an impromptu work. At other times, Glennie tunes into a sonic world we've long since ceased to perceive, that of omnipresent background noise.
Glennie is emphatic: "There is sound absolutely everywhere. We have to listen." And Riedelsheimer guides us, directing our ear with helpful visuals. On a tour of Manhattan, for instance, he pauses so that we might hear, with some surprise, such distinct sounds as a horseshoe clop, a trash-can wheel against the pavement or the amalgamated clatter of a construction site.
Clearly Glennie has given much thought to what it means to hear, but she's not burdened by our inability to comprehend how a deaf person becomes a gifted professional musician. Instead, she challenges us to express how - with fully functional ears - we receive and understand sound, and suggests that as inarticulate and mystified as we likely are, so is she. To Glennie, sound is the gift; its delivery system is not important.
The film has plenty of down time - sequences where we watch Glennie experiment with sounds, or where we are simply asked to hear for ourselves, say, what the "silence" around a Japanese meditation garden sounds like. The irony is that because all we're really hearing is the sound of the film - true sound is participatory, immediate -Touch occasionally feels passive and somewhat removed. But such a paradox can be overcome with a little imagination, and surely what Riedelsheimer and Glennie hope that the audience takes from the film is not its pre-packaged sounds but rather the ability to encounter sound afresh in their own lives.