Disability Studies Quarterly
Summer 2006, Volume 26, No. 3
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Touch the Sound (2004). [Videorecording.] Celluloid Dreams, Shadow Distribution. Directed by Thomas Riedelsheimer. Documentary starring Evelyn Glennie, Fred Frith, The Fogmaster Jason. European release date 4 November 2004; price EUR19,99. Anticipated United States release date May 2006.

Review by Sarah Boslaugh, Washington University School of Medicine

The Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie differs from her peers in two important aspects: she is more successful than they are, and she is deaf. Thomas Riedelsheimer's award-winning documentary Touch the Sound demonstrates that those two facts are not contradictory: the key to understanding how a person medically defined as deaf can enjoy a career as a professional musician lies in redefining what it means to be able to hear.

The structural framework of Touch the Sound is a recording session by Glennie and the British composer Fred Frith. This session exemplifies the approach shared by both musicians, who are interested in all aspects of all types of sound, whether produced on an electric guitar, a piece of scrap metal, or by the reverberations of their voices in the abandoned factory where the session takes place. Interspersed throughout the film are interviews with Glennie and sequences of her playing in many different contexts: with tin cans on a sidewalk in New York City, on scrap metal at her family farm in Aberdeenshire, on a snare drum in Grand Central Station, on plates and glasses on the floor of a cafe in Japan.

Touch the Sound is much more complex than a simple narrative film about how a "handicapped" person overcame obstacles to achieve success. The real subject of the film is how limited official definitions of hearing and deafness are. This is expressed explicitly in two key sequences: in the first Glennie relates how she and her family refused to allow official definitions of hearing and deafness to define her future. When she was eleven years old, an audiologist told her that because she was deaf and would always need hearing aids, she would be unable to continue studying music and should make arrangements to attend a secondary school for the deaf. Glennie comments that "it was just so strange that thirty minutes before walking through the door I could do whatever I wanted to do, but then thirty minutes later, apparently, the medical profession tells you that you can't do something." Fortunately Glennie and her parents did not accept the audiologist's verdict. As her father said at that time: "Hearing or not, she will do what she wants to do" and Glennie proved him right. She attended a mainstream secondary school with a strong music program and began her study of percussion there. Aided by a teacher who was willing to teach her on her own terms, Glennie learned to "hear through the body" by removing her hearing aids and concentrating on feeling the vibrations of different pitches. She continued with her studies at the Royal College of Music in London at age 19 and launched a career as a solo percussionist, a profession which she largely invented.

In the second key sequence about the redefinition of hearing, Glennie expresses her belief that there is more to the experience of sound than simply "hearing through the ears" but that most "hearing" people never reflect on how they experience sound because they take it for granted. She shows a flash of temper as she tries to explain her perturbation at being repeatedly asked how she experiences sound:

If someones asks me, 'oh well, how do you hear that?' then I simply say 'I really don't know but I basically just hear that through my body, through opening myself up. How do you hear that?' 'Oh, well, I hear it through the ears'. 'Well, what do you mean through the ears? What are you actually hearing?' So when you try to bounce the question back to a so-called hearing person, they simply do not know how to answer these questions. So therefore why should I be put in that position? That is just slightly upsetting.

Her point is well-taken: if people with so-called "normal" hearing can't explain the process by which they experience sound, why should she be expected to have an explanation at the ready?

Touch the Sound is beautifully filmed and includes a number of abstract sequences in which Riedelsheimer demonstrates that sound and that rhythm exist all around us, all the time. My only criticism of this film is that it doesn't provide a sense of just how great Evelyn Glennie's accomplishments are. Among other things, she plays over 100 concerts a year, has recorded 22 albums, won two Grammies, and has commissioned over 100 works for solo percussion.


Glennie, Evelyn. (1991). Good Vibrations. London: Century Hutchinson.

Evelyn Glennie. (20 Jan. 2006). <http://www.evelyn.co.uk >.

Touch the Sound. (20 Jan. 2006). <http://www.skyline.uk.com/touchthesound/index.html>.

Copyright (c) 2006 Sarah Boslaugh

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