14 August 2007

Evelyn Glennie: Feeling Sound. The connections of sound, rhythm, time, and the body

Dame Evelyn Elizabeth Ann Glennie is a Scottish, Grammy-winning virtuoso classical percussionist. When she was 12-years old she became profoundly deaf – meaning that she was left with some very limited hearing. But rather than abandon her study and love of music, in which she had shown such talent, she instead turned her focus toward percussion instruments and developed her ability to feel the sound through her entire body.

Evelyn owns over 1,800 percussion instruments and in a live performance Evelyn often plays about 60 of them. She also plays the Great Highland Bagpipes and has her own registered tartan known as 'The Rhythms of Evelyn Glennie'.

She contends that deafness is largely misunderstood by the public. She claims to have taught herself to hear with parts of her body other than her ears. She regularly plays barefoot for both live performances and studio recordings, to better "feel" the music.

In response to the misguided attention directed to her from the media, Glennie published her now famous Hearing Essay in which she personally discusses her condition:
"Hearing is basically a specialized form of touch. Sound is simply vibrating air which the ear picks up and converts to electrical signals, which are then interpreted by the brain. The sense of hearing is not the only sense that can do this, touch can do this too. If you are standing by the road and a large truck goes by, do you hear or feel the vibration? The answer is both. With very low frequency vibration the ear starts becoming inefficient and the rest of the body's sense of touch starts to take over. "
I found the concepts in Evelyn's essay quite akin to some things I'd learned about elephants and how they communicate with one another in the wild through very low seismic vibrations. I'd written about it on here before.

What intrigues me most about deafness, in its infinite mystery and from what Evelyn describes, is that while I'd never wish to be deaf and I think I'd rather be blind than deaf because I don't think I could survive without knowing music; but now I am pondering if those who are deaf can actually become more in tune with their surroundings than those with perfect hearing by calling on other senses to work on overdrive and by hearing with your body rather than simply your ears, and calling on touch and feeling and smells and sights and not relying on your ears; couldn't a person basically train themselves to be more aware, in every way, by calling on your entire body to be the receptor for every impulse or stimuli? You'd no longer taste with your tongue... you'd no longer hear with just your ears... you'd no longer touch with just your hands... I think I'm gonna go smoke some pot and I'll be back.


There's a wonderful documentary about Evelyn called "Touch The Sound" directed by Thomas Riedelsheimer. It follows her as she performs in New York, Germany and Tokyo, sharing her insights into the nature of music and the ways in which we experience it.

1 comment:

Seb said...

I was impressed upon reading her MySpace page to find an amazing biography of all her achievements with absolutely no mention of her deafness - it's obvious how she doesn't consider hers to be a disability.

'Touch the Sound' is good, it's being shown again on Sky Arts soon. Read my article here [link!!] .