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Touch the Sound
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by Mel Valentin

"A fascinating, if overlong, documentary on a singular artist."
4 stars

"Touch the Sound: A Sound Journey with Evelyn Glennie," the latest documentary from filmmaker Thomas Riedelsheimer ("Andy Goldsworthy: Rivers and Tides") takes as its subject Scottish-born, solo percussionist Evelyn Glennie, a hearing impaired musician. Due to a neurological disorder, Glennie began to lose her hearing at an early age. By twelve, she was almost completely deaf. Glennie uses lip reading to communicate with those in the hearing world. As a Grammy-award winning classical percussionist, Glennie has transformed her disability into an opportunity to “hear” music in a profoundly different manner than non-deaf musicians, through waves and vibrations, in effect using her body as a resonating chamber.

As a documentary focusing on an artist and the medium she works in, Touch the Sound unsurprisingly covers Glennie’s back story, including extensive interviews with Glennie herself, a visit to the family farm in Scotland operated by her taciturn, reserved older brother (where she reminisces about her parents, with a special focus on her father, who played the accordion), and a visit to the school for the deaf where she learned how to play percussion instruments. At the school, she benefited from a far-seeing instructor, who experimented with teaching her how to play percussion instruments through touch and feel (he obviously succeeded). Glennie is shown passing some of her insights to another deaf student, who positively beams when she discovers that she can “feel” the vibrations caused by playing drums of different sizes.

In a series of interviews conducted over the better part of a year, Glennie discusses the profound difference becoming a percussionist has made in her life. It’s given her life purpose, shape, unique insights into music, the ability to travel, and in an extended sequence, the ability to collaborate with other musicians, from street performers in New York City, to a rooftop (complete with ubiquitous pigeons) with a Latin drummer, to Grand Central Station and the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan, to an abandoned industrial warehouse in Cologne, Germany, where she performs and improvises with avant-garde instrumentalist Fred Firth (prior to the performance recorded and filmed for the documentary, Glennie and Firth had never met before). The warehouse, with its vast, open spaces, exposed metal and rusty pipes, functions as a gigantic resonating or echo chamber, all of which Glennie seems to feel and respond to with relative ease.

As in his previous documentary, Rivers and Tides, an exploration of Andy Goldsworthy’s ephemeral, nature-bound sculptures, Thomas Riedelsheimer complements Glennie’s story and performances through editing, cinematography, and, of course, sound design. Through editing and photography (he does both on Touch the Sound), Riedelsheimer moves from the abstract and the particular (e.g., a snare drum, vibrating when struck, the tap of ghostly feet walking across a semi-transparent floor high above Glennie), to sights and images from Glennie’s peregrinations abroad from her current home in England, to Scotland, continental Europe, the United States, and Japan. Through the sound design, Riedelsheimer reminds his audience both of what Glennie lost when she lost her hearing, and what we tend to ignore or tune out, specifically natural and man-made sounds.

Where Riedelsheimer falters, however, is in overindulging some of Glennie’s more gnomic, cryptic, and sometimes repetitious, pronouncements (Goldsworthy too suffered from an inability to express or explain his work verbally) or in allowing some musical excerpts or interludes to run too long. Alternatively, Riedelsheimer uses the Cologne segment as a wraparound, introducing Firth and the location early in the documentary, then intermittently returning to Glennie and Firth’s performance. Riedelsheimer would have better served the material by, at minimum, bookending the documentary with the initial set-up and closing with the improvised performance. It is possible, however, that Riedelsheimer didn’t feel that the performance could stand on its own, at least not continuously.

Still, Riedelsheimer should be commended for bringing a little-known artist and her work to a wider public. Given his emphasis on sculpture in his previous documentary and on music in "Touch the Sound," most likely Riedelsheimer’s next documentary will examine the efforts of another artist working in a different expressive medium.

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originally posted: 09/24/05 13:55:45
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Edinburgh Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Edinburgh Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Vancouver Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Vancouver Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Toronto Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Palm Springs Film Festival. For more in the 2005 Palm Springs Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Tribeca Film Festival For more in the 2005 Tribeca Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Seattle Film Festival For more in the 2005 Seattle Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

5/23/05 emma breathtaking 5 stars
12/12/04 A Clink awesome 5 stars
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  07-Sep-2005 (NR)



Directed by
  Thomas Riedelsheimer

Written by

  Evelyn Glennie

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