Touch the Sound (documentary)

Evelyn Glennie is a red-haired Scottish lass whose interest in music is the vibrations it causes. A percussionist by trade, she enjoys creating music by striking unusual objects against other unusual objects; indeed, upon entering a vast German warehouse that will serve as her recording studio, the first thing she does is take off her shoe and whack it against a railing.

The subject of Thomas Riedelsheimer’s documentary “Touch the Sound,” Evelyn is one of those free-spirited bohemian types with a propensity for public exhibitions like playing a snare drum in the middle of Grand Central Station. (She plays well, but all I could think was: How annoying for the people around her.) In that warehouse, she joins musician Fred Frith to record a CD of improvised music played by the two of them using mostly non-instruments. You can be sure it will be a bestseller.

So far, Evelyn’s New Age touchy-feeliness doesn’t do much for me. She seems like the type who would be selling hand-made jewelry from a booth at the swap meet on Saturday, and maybe working part-time at a hemp store the rest of the week. Then the film reveals a crucial piece of information: She’s deaf. She lost most of her hearing in childhood and now gets by with the tiny bit of hearing that’s left, her almost supernatural lip-reading skills, and her uncanny ability to feel the vibration of things.

“I feel sound through my body,” she says. High-pitched sounds make different vibrations from lower ones; hence, while she can’t “hear” the two tones, she can sense the difference, sense which sounds make pleasant harmonies together, and thus play beautiful music on the xylophone. She can’t really explain it any better than that, but she points out that hearing people can really explain how they hear, either. (“With my ears” isn’t a very thorough explanation of the process, is it?)

“Touch the Sound” now becomes a far more interesting thing. Rather than being the story of a hippie chick who plays drums on a street corner, it’s the story of a deaf woman who’s also a musician! The curiosity factor goes up a thousand percent.

Riedelsheimer follows Evelyn all over the world as she engages in jam sessions with improvisational musicians in Japan, visits her childhood farm in Scotland, and records that album with Frith in Cologne. Through it all, he includes frequent long shots of the environment: city streets in New York, a rippling pond, and so forth, capturing their ambient sound and letting their natural rhythms emerge. The film takes on a dreamy, druggy feel that way, and you’ll either sail along with it contentedly, or you’ll start to think halfway through that maybe the movie could have been a lot shorter and made its points just as well.

B- (1 hr., 39 min.; Not Rated, probably PG for a couple swear words.)