Thomas Riedelsheimer’s documentary cinema is enthralled by the intangible, whether it be Rivers and Tides’ artist Andy Goldsworthy communicating (via his organic material-made sculptures) with the underlying, elusive essence governing all of nature’s elements, or Touch the Sound‘s deaf classical percussionist Evelyn Glennie’s ability to feel sounds in her body through the vibrations they emit. Born and raised in Scotland, the sometimes blond, sometimes brunette 40-year-old virtuoso (and Grammy winner) began losing her hearing around age 12. Yet an interest in music cultivated by her supportive, accordion player father eventually led her to percussion, a performance art whose sonic sensations she learned to discern and analyze with the use of her hands, arms, feet, and torso. Though her career has included recitals and sessions with some of the world’s most accomplished orchestras and artists, Riedelsheimer’s attentive doc primarily captures the well-spoken, cheerful Glennie recording a free-form improvisatory CD with avant-garde experimentalist Fred Frith in an enormous abandoned warehouse in Germany, as well as playing with fellow musicians and street performers in Manhattan, collaborating with Japanese kodo drummers, and soloing with abandoned junk scattered about her brother’s farm.
From an opening shot in which Riedelsheimer’s camera is cast out of Glennie’s studio space by the overpowering force of her gong’s reverberating clatter, to the stunning final close-up of mallets banging against xylophone keys, Touch the Sound—courtesy of Christoph von Schoenburg’s audio design—is actively attuned to the corporeality of noise, whether it be the workaday rumble of Times Square or the clink-clink of zippers hitting metal buckles on a rolling suitcase. This concentration on sounds’ physical quality is the filmmaker’s mesmerizing corroboration of Glennie’s belief that tones, timbre, and tempo are in “everything we see,” and that her art is a means of “trying to find the sound way, way, way, way down under the surface” of normal human perception. As Glennie experiences sound—including the rhythm of her breathing—from within, so she transforms her body into a highly sensitive conduit (or “some sort of resonating chamber,” as she puts it) for invisible auditory frequencies, thus becoming living proof of her idea that “music is always happening within yourself.” And confirming the fundamental spiritual, creative, and physical roles sounds (including the “heaviness” of silence) play in her life, the only definition she can ultimately provide for the opposite of sound is that such an absence, whatever it might be, would be “the closest thing I can imagine to death.”