Touchy feely 

Spotty documentary illuminates musician's unusual methods

There is a reason why Touch the Sound often feels like an episode of "Sesame Street" for adults. As the avant-garde composer Fred Frith remarks late in this documentary, quoting the British environmental artist Richard Long, "Artists are people who are in touch with the energy they had when they were children that never left them."

Throughout Touch the Sound, director Thomas Riedelsheimer -- whose last film was on another iconoclastic Scottish artist, Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time -- attempts to convey an artist's enchanted and original sense of the world as a place full of wonder and discovery.

Avant-garde musician Evelyn Glennie occupies that state. A slight, pretty woman with a resemblance to Kate Bush, Glennie was diagnosed as deaf when she was a child. But Glennie has nevertheless found a way to adapt her love of music to her impaired sense, experiencing sound not through the simple corridor of the ear, but through sensations felt throughout her body, the "touch" of the film's title. In adulthood she has become a highly regarded percussionist who performs around the world.

But the "touch" the film treats is also something beyond sound -- a connectiveness to experience that we lose as adults.

Glennie strives to recapture that sensation not only in her daily life but in improvisational musical performances, often in diverse locations and by collaborating with other musicians from New York to Japan, Santa Cruz to Scotland.

Some of the most transcendent moments in this uneven and overlong film come when Glennie jams with traditional drummers in Fuji City, Japan, and then in a Japanese club.

Other sequences highlight the childlike process of discovery and experimentation in Glennie's music, like when she collaborates with Frith in a cavernous, abandoned factory in Germany. The duo plays everything from guitars -- plucking their strings and massaging their wood surfaces -- to reams of paper, pieces of factory machinery, even each other, in an effort to get at new sounds.

Those demonstrations become a powerful illustration of Glennie's whole-body approach to hearing and sound-making: A sound does not arise from the lips, but originates inside the body. Her holistic philosophy of sound is revelatory and serves to explain her many experiments to get "under the surface" and find sound everywhere. Her approach to music is an instructive lesson in how we should live our lives, using all of our senses, rather than just a small portion.

In this and other ways, the film becomes less about a clichéd overcoming of a disability and more about finding a deeper connection to the world around us that should inform all of our lives.

Though Touch the Sound is a film about nontraditional responses to the world, over time it becomes a little too locked into a formula of its own. The film's rhythm is often composed of garbled, unrevealing interviews with Glennie, vignettes of her performing around the world, and images of the various visual and aural sensations she experiences in locations from an airport in Cologne to a beach in Santa Cruz.

Riedelsheimer's touchy-feely approach often teeters perilously close to a Christopher Guest mockumentary. Over time a sense of discovery and insight tends to peter out as Riedelsheimer begins to belabor the same point over and over with countless examples of Glennie "touching the sound." Riedelsheimer ends up dredging a life founded on improvisation and wonder in increasingly tedious documentary clichés, as when he has Glennie return to her childhood home to discuss her relationship with her father. It's an especially unfortunate digression in a film increasingly plagued by them.

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Recent Comments

  • Re: Fresh air

    • Local band Manchester Orchestra, who provided the soundtrack, probably would have appreciated a shout-out.

    • on June 29, 2016
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