Sunday, December 13, 2009

Multi-sensory sound: Evelyn Glennie's talk on

Dame Evelyn Glennie shows how to listen from

Filmed February 2003; posted April 2007

Summary: In this talk, renowned percussionist Evelyn Glennie discusses and demonstrates what it means to listen with more than your ears, and to be engaged in listening beyond the process of sound waves hitting your eardrums. Evelyn Glennie is a Scottish percussionist and composer who lost almost all of her hearing by the age of 12, yet went on to become an internationally acclaimed musician. Her music and her lectures challenge her listeners to ask where music comes from. According to Glennie, her hearing loss brought her a deeper, richer understanding of and connection to the music she loves.

Being a successful musician involves more than reading the notes on the page. Evelyn describes feeling music through one’s feet, legs, stomach, arms, etc. One example she gives is how to hold a snare drum stick very lightly, in order to let the vibration resonate through one’s body. She describes why it is important to understand music in more than just an auditory capacity by drawing an analogy to understanding human beings. At first glance, we take in visual information as we see someone and we can perhaps infer details about who they are, where they are from and perhaps what they do for a living, however we cannot go much deeper than that. Only when we spend time with the person and are more thoughtfully engaged in their presence can we come to a greater understanding of who they are. The same goes for music, Glennie says. Engaging with more than just our ears can bring us to a greater understanding of what music is and what it means. This topic is the basis of her section on “rote versus feeling”. It is one thing to listen to and play music by rote (taking in the music via one sense only) and an entirely different thing to listen to and play music by feeling (with more than one sense). She goes on to describe listening with every sense, a huge paradigm shift for me (and I imagine many other musicians).

“Music is our daily medicine; I say music but actually I mean sound”, says Glennie, who describes a young man who is struggling with several physical and mental challenges, who can take in the vibrations of the marimba by sitting by it or underneath it while it is being played. This, Glennie says, is an experience for this young man that is entirely different from that of the experience of the performer. Being above, below, beside, far away from or close to the instrument all provide very different experiences, and not just auditory. Glennie says that whatever the eye sees, the body associates and imagines a sound with it (e.g. a tree blowing in the breeze; we might imagine the sound of leaves rustling). Glennie looks at music as not just a type of therapy, but as a way of engaging ourselves physically and mentally, no matter what our capacity (e.g. a deaf person, a blind person etc). Interestingly, she talks about how acousticians are often in constant communication with people who are hearing impaired because it is just as, if not more important for understanding how sound hits the audience.

To conclude, Glennie discusses her struggle in university when asked to use method books. She describes how she craves a connection and relation to the instrument she is playing, and how necessary it is in order to appreciate the “life of sound”, and the “journey of sound”.

Reflection: I found this lecture fascinating on many levels. As a pianist, I have worked to understand the various effects of how sound is created through the pads of my fingers, but I have never been so acutely aware of the way I experience sound as more than just an auditory sensation as I am now after hearing Glennie speak. I consider the piano to be a percussion instrument, so Glennie’s ideas resonate with me in terms of touch, but less so in terms of vibration and resonance. Her ideas have, however, helped me to experience the piano as more than a percussion instrument. I am more aware of the resonance through my feet, through the pedal, through my arms, etc.

On a scientific level, Glennie’s work got me thinking about simple harmonic motion, and the science of physics. Simple harmonic motion descibes how an object that is pushed out of place feels a correcting force that tries to restore it. To cause simple harmonic motion, the correcting force always opposes the object’s motion and scales with the distance it is moved, so as an object pulls further away, it feels a stronger force pushing it back. An example of this is a swing or a pendulum. More complex vibrations can be described by taking simple harmonic motion as a starting point and adding extra forces. A violin string can be made to vibrate by bowing it, and the longer it is bowed, the longer it vibrates for. A driving force such as bowing can be timed to reinforce the main oscillations. These principles of harmonic motion, oscillation and vibration are the underpinnings of music itself; I regularly take them for granted, until they are pointed out to me. I believe that these underpinnings are also the basis of what Evelyn Glennie is conveying. What we do as musicians goes far beyond sound waves as they hit our eardrums. I believe that the scientific underpinnings of music and Evelyn Glennie’s ideas are very closely connected. Once we as lovers and players of music can tap into the harmonic motion, oscillation and vibration of sound, I think we can come much closer to Glennie’s notion of listening to music as more than sound. There is resonance and vibration in much of what we do as human beings. Our voices resonate, our movements oscillate. Perhaps music is more a part of our everyday existence than we realize. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why music can affect us in such a profound way; it’s foundations are so closely related to the foundations of our movement within ourselves and through our world.

We often assume limitations and restrictions when it comes to people who deal with deafness, blindness, physical and mental health problems and so on. There is often an assumption that people who deal with these things cannot experience music in the same all-encompassing way that “fully-functional” people can. For example, would it not be fair to assume that someone lacking a sense would inevitably miss out on the breadth of a musical experience? No. In fact, it’s often been said (and has been shown to be the case) that when you loose one sense, your other senses are heightened. Perhaps people with fully functional senses are missing out on the opportunity to experience music in a richer way. This is not necessarily to say that people who are blind or deaf experience music in a better way; this is to say that it is so important to be aware of how multi-layered and connected our senses are. This awareness can serve to heighten our experience of music, and Glennie does an outstanding job of demonstrating it.

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