Thursday, March 18, 2010

Experience the Sound

Did you ever attend a concert performed by a solo virtuoso percussionist?  Could there even be such a thing?  Well yes, there really could be.  But let's stretch credulity a bit more.  How about a solo performance by a virtuoso percussionist who is so profoundly deaf that she must read people's lips to be able to converse with them?  There is such a woman!  She is Evelyn Glennie from Scotland, "the first full-time solo percussionist in 20th-century western society."  Please take a brief detour and follow the above link to the Wikipedia entry, to get to know a little bit about this remarkable woman.  I'll wait for you to get back.  You might even want to follow the link there to her "Hearing Essay."
Okay, I'm glad you're back.  I discovered a Ted Talk this woman gave in Monterey, CA in February 2003.  I just started watching it, with no idea of what she had in store for me.  I've now watched the entire 32 minutes three times through.  She begins with this startling statement, especially so, coming from a so-called "deaf" woman.      
"Of course, my job is all about listening.  And my aim, really, is to teach the world to listen.  That's my only real aim in life."
And that is what she proceeds to do in the talk.  I'm sure you've heard about how those with a particular disability (e.g. deafness) can develop the other senses (e.g. hearing) to a much greater degree.  This is what she has done, as she doesn't just listen with her ears.  She says, "I also hear it through my hands, through my arms, my cheekbones, my scalp, my tummy, my chest, my legs and so on."  In fact you'll notice that the first thing she does is to remove her shoes, so that she can hear the music she plays better.

Well, do we need to be deaf too, to do this?  No, she encourages us all to really learn to listen, to fully experience the sound of the music.  She says, "It's unbelievably important for us to really test our listening skills.  To really use our bodies as a resonating chamber."

And she concludes with the following challenge.
"The next time you go to a concert, just allow your body to open up, allow your body to be this resonating chamber.  Be aware that you're not going to experience the same thing as the performer is.  The performer is in the worst possible position for the actual sound, because they're hearing the contact of the stick on the drum, or the mallet on the bit of wood, or the bow on the string, etc.  Or the breath that's creating the sound from wind and brass.  They're experiencing that rawness there.  But yet, they're experiencing something so unbelievably pure, which is before the sound is actually happening.  Please take note of the life of the sound, after the actual initial strike or breath is being pulled.  Just experience the whole journey of that sound, in the same way that I wished I'd experienced the whole journey of this particular conference, rather than just arriving last night."

Wow, now there's a woman who has mastered her instruments.  And I really love her wonderful Scottish way of speaking!  I wish I could roll my R's like that!

Well I took her challenge to allow my body "to be this resonating chamber" when I went to see the Mahler's Second Symphony performed last Sunday.  And it was certainly a wonderful experience, with the amazing variety of sounds that Mahler delivers in that awesome piece.  And really, there is no way to experience that sound as fully as at a live concert hall with a full orchestra and chorus.

What does this say about the ear buds and iPods we see everywhere we go these days?  Well it certainly is limiting the experience of the sound to what is coming in through the ears!  Remember, she said we should "really try to connect with those sounds far far more broadly than simply depending upon the ear."  So for me, attending a live performance of music is far and away more satisfying than any other way of experiencing music.  I invite you to put down your headphones, or turn off your boom box and go to the telephone and order some tickets to a real live concert.  You'll be glad you did.
But I just can't restrain myself from making one final point.  You'll recall that she said, "Every one of us, depending upon where we're sitting will experience this sound quite quite differently."  Of course she's right, but for one exception!  And that is when the performers, the conductor and the audience are all participating as one in the creation of the sound of silence!  I had the privilege of being able to help create that glorious sound when I went to hear Mahler's Ninth Symphony.  It was an exceptionally rare and moving experience and one that I will never forget!!  Remember when she asked about the sound of snowing?  It's the same thing!  So you can do that too, on a snowy night.


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