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Deaf musician tunes in to surrounding rhythms, the stronger for it

“Touch the Sound,” a documentary portrait of accomplished percussionist Evelyn Glennie, has an obvious hook, which is worth getting out of the way immediately. Having lost 80 percent of her hearing as a child, Glennie is essentially deaf.

During an interview, a journalist asks her, “How can a profoundly deaf person become a musician?” Director Thomas Riedelshei­mer’s decision to cut before she answers suggests contempt for such questions. Later on, Glennie responds to this query in a roundabout way––being a deaf musician has forced her to examine herself and her senses in ways that people with full hearing capabilities never think about. Therefore, she finds the question patronizing and unnecessary. To Riedelshei­mer’s credit, by the end of his film Glennie’s deafness seems almost irrelevant.

“Touch the Sound” is subtitled, “A sound journey with Evelyn Glennie.” A road movie of sorts, it follows her to New York, Germany, Japan, her brother’s farm in Scotland, and Santa Cruz. In New York, she plays a snare drum to an enthusiastic crowd in Grand Central Terminal. In Germany, she records an album of improvisations with guitarist Fred Frith. All the while, she keeps her eyes open for potential new instruments. In Japan, she improvises a drum kit out of a pair of chopsticks, cups, glasses, and plates. At the farm, she bangs on scrap metal. For the most part, the film doesn’t address her personal life, but Glennie mentions her late father, who played the accordion, as a source of inspiration.

Riedelsheimer and his four sound designers create a carefully layered soundtrack––and not just during Glennie’s performances. He depicts urban life as a rhythmic cacophony. When Glennie walks down a New York street, we hear a symphony of construction workers banging on metal, drills, subway rumbles, people talking faintly on cell phones, and other everyday noises. These are the kinds of sounds most New Yorkers generally try to tune out, but Riedelsheimer sees potential beauty in them. He depicts Glennie playing with another drummer on a rooftop, as construction and demolition happen around them, timed to their rhythms.

At worst, Riedelshei­mer’s sensibility recalls the New Age mush of Godfrey Reggio (without the Philip Glass soundtrack); it’s no accident that he named his last film “Rivers and Tides.” “Touch the Sound” is full of images of running water, its final scene juxtaposing a glistening river with blurry close-ups of Glennie playing the marimba. It asks the audience to wake up to the rhythms around us, whether in cities or in nature.

Glennie’s rapport with other musicians is astonishing, as she sensitively responds to their input. Playing along with a pianist, her marimba propels the rhythm without calling attention to itself. With Frith, she uses a vocabulary of unusual sounds to match his experimental techniques, which include playing guitar with a violin bow and drumsticks.

Riedelshei­mer’s style is unusually sensual for a documentary, as his camera pirouettes around Glennie while she drums in Grand Central. “Touch the Sound” is full of Steadicam tracking shots, especially in the studio where she and Frith play together. Rather than use digital video, he shot it on 35mm.

Early in “Touch the Sound,” Glennie teaches a deaf girl to play a large bass drum, telling her to watch it and keep her finger poised on its skin in order to feel its vibration. She tells Riedelsheimer that when one loses a sense, the others grow stronger in order to compensate, alluding to the power of a sixth sense. It’s difficult for a person with full hearing to hear through touch, as Glennie does, but she insists on the validity of this experience.

Unfortunately, it’s even more difficult to make a film evoking this sensation without disappearing into airy mysticism––after all, sight and hearing are the only two senses film can directly stimulate. Some of Riedelshei­mer’s images do succumb to such lightness. But on the whole, “Touch the Sound” explains beautifully how a person like Glennie perceives the world.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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