Posted by: kaleidophonic | October 24, 2011

Listening / Abilities (Evelyn Glennie Pt.2)


Yesterday I talked a bit about deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie, and the documentary film Touch the Sound.

Today I watched her TED talk. There’s not much introduction to the video and I was distracted right off the bat when Glennie thanked Herbie Hancock for his introduction.

Wait, what? Herbie Hancock did an introduction? TED, why not include the whole program? Sigh. I couldn’t find his intro but I did find another, more recent, Hancock TED performance, HERE.

My hankering for Hancock slaked, I returned to Glennie to hear what she had to say about listening with more than just your eardrums.

I was immediately taken with her dissection of written music. I’m a drummer myself, and I love the cathartic nature of banging on the skins, although I have to confess that I haven’t sat behind a kit in a while. But I took lessons for quite a few years when I was a teenager, and I played in various rock groups throughout high school and university. I obviously have at least some kind of natural proclivity towards music (I play guitar as well), but here’s the thing: reading music was always something I found to be very frustrating. I never got to the point where I could see the notes on the lines and know what they said. I disliked childhood piano lessons for this very reason: I could read the info only very slowly – far too slowly to be able to play what I saw as I was reading it. (But I could sometimes remember what the song had sounded like when the teacher played it, and then I would piece it together later from memory.) The fact that the notes, those sounds flying through the air, were somehow represented by the markings on the paper always seemed somehow alien to me, as if written music was some sort of strange hieroglyphic language and I didn’t possess the power to decode it. I wondered if I had a learning disability.

My difficult relationship with musical notation on the mind, I was rather overjoyed to hear Glennie reproduce the sounds dictated in a score – but then say: “What I have to do as a musician, is do everything that is not on the music,” then proceed to demonstrate her interpretation of the music through an exploration of the surface of the drum – the sound-making potentialities of the simple action of hitting a drum with two sticks.

Glennie is a highly skilled percussionist. A drummer needs a great deal of coordination and control (not to mention a good sense of time/rhythm) to master even simple single-stroke rolls like these. But the real talent of a musician lies not in his or her technical abilities but rather in their personal interpretation of the music, through the relationship between the musician and their instrument. Glennie has a real, tactile, commanding yet deeply sensitive relationship with her instruments (especially that snare drum) and I find it just such a joy to watch her perform.

Her discussion of how listening is something we can do with our entire bodies is fascinating. She is open enough to physical vibrations that she can ‘hear’ the differences between sounds, even very subtle differences, with her hands, her feet, her skull, her body. The resonating cavity of the body. Evelyn Glennie ‘hears’ with her whole body.

Now I know I’ve said a lot already, but I’d like to say just a few more words about Glennie as a “dis”abled person (or as she puts it, “so-called deaf person”). Glennie speaks a bit about her role in opening up Britain’s top musical institutions to musicians of disparate physical abilities. She talks about “an explosion of access to sound”, facilitated especially through the deaf community, whose experience of sound is so radically different from people without significant hearing loss. This led to not only open access to musical institutions or the teaching of music in deaf schools, but has also led to acousticians and sound engineers engaging in dialogue with deaf people to broaden and deepen our understanding of the relationships between sounds, spaces, and people. This reminded me of something similar from a recent episode of CBC radio’s Q, about how engineers designing electric cars are in conversation with deaf or limited-hearing people in an effort to design a quiet engine whose approach can still can be ‘heard’.

In the end, Glennie’s talk is really about ability – about our abilities to know the things and the people around us, about our abilities as listeners, about how we can, and should, really listen to other people with open ears and open hearts. It’s about relationships between people as much as it is about the relationship between a drummer and her drum. This talk is rewarding and inspiring. Check it out.

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