Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Evelyn Glennie and "Touch the Sound"

I recently watched Touch the Sound, a documentary exploring the life and art of percussionist Evelyn Glennie. For all her extraordinary abilities - her courage, sensitivity, charisma, focus, compassion - it seems rather petty to emphasize her one 'disability.' And in fact the film takes a long while to even mention that Glennie is deaf. For the first half hour or so, we follow Glennie around on several musical projects, from an improvised recording session in an abandoned warehouse with Fred Frith, to a jam session with Taiko drummers in Tokyo, to an impromptu snare drum solo in New York's Grand Central Station.

I began to wonder if all I had heard about her deafness wasn't exaggerated or invented - far from handicapped, she seemed one of the most fully alive and functional people I've ever watched. Eventually the film explains how she began studying music as a young girl, trying out several different instruments under the guidance of her father, a rather free-thinking accordion player. She had settled on percussion just as her hearing loss began to grow serious, and she was told by hearing experts that she would no longer be able to play. She described the strange finality of that diagnosis - having been fully, joyfully engaged in music just half an hour before, now with just a few words this doctor had apparently made that act impossible.

Fortunately Glennie and her family didn't accept the diagnosis; and while her audiology tests only worsened, she was learning to "hear" with her hands, and then to use her whole body as a resonating chamber for sound. She developed an astonishing degree of sensitivity to subtle nuances of vibration - learning to distinguish the smallest intervals of pitch and actually hearing more fully and deeply, by means of touch, than any so-called hearing person could with her ears.

It seems strange to envy a deaf person her hearing abilities - but the more I watched Evelyn Glennie, exploring the vibratory possibilities of every surface, object, and even people she encountered, the more I wished I could just shut my ears and listen through touch. The irony is that we all can listen in that way, and we do in fact - but just less consciously, and without the sensitivity and subtlety that Glennie has developed. When I sit down with my bass, I realize there are an enormous variety of vibrations passing through me; an E-flat might ripple up my left thight, while a B-natural harmonizes with my stomach, and a martele stroke on the D-string massages the tops of my feet. And even the floor resonates noticeably, sending vibrations up my legs and through the stool I sit on.

There is more than enough to occupy the mind, just keeping track of all those resonant sensations. Which is perhaps the difficulty, since when overwhelmed the mind falls back on the simplest, most direct signal - the ears. And so we lose the input of the rest of our senses, and the many dimensions of a full sound experience. Thinking of Evelyn Glennie's story, at least I can remember that fuller experience does exist, and can look for the kinesthetic awareness and mental space to listen in to it.

Touch the Sound is truly a delightful celebration of all the senses - entrancing sounds combine with beautiful images, like the long streams of ticker-tape unspooling in the empty warehouse, and all the while you're tempted to clink a cup, rub the rim of a glass, even to feel the rumble of your subwoofers and just get up and dance. It's a very inspiring journey - though if you should choose to improvise an extended solo on the back of a family member's head, you might be best off using your softer mallets.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Ellison and the unkown

"First there are the things that you know you know - that's probably a small section, maybe 10 or 15 percent. Then there's a larger part, which is the things you know you don't know. Perhaps 30 or 35 percent. The biggest section is the things you don't know that you don't know. That's the darkest, and it can be the most frightening, but it's also where the greatest learning begins."
I'm paraphrasing from a masterclass given last week by Paul Ellison - no, that wasn't Donald Rumsfeld talking! Most of the time when Rummy talked about 'unknown unknowns' my eyes started glazing over, but the way Paul Ellison talked about it really made sense.

Ellison usually starts out a lesson by asking the student a question - how did that go, do you have any thoughts, what issues are you working on here? That just sheds some light on the known unknowns, those problems we're already however dimly aware of. Then he likes to steadily, and sometimes stealthily, open up the world of unknown unknowns. He'll ask a question about the phrase structure or the period performance practice - or he'll sneak around and adjust your arm and say, "Now try it like this!" It's all calculated to reveal some of the possibilities you hadn't even considered. I think of him as a yoga teacher on the double bass, always pushing his students into a deeper, more inspired, more flexible place.

I'd like to write a ton more about Ellison and my week at the ISB convention in Oklahoma City - oh no, you're saying, here comes an excuse! It was an amazing week, and I came home with a huge new assortment of known unknowns - and maybe an inkling of all the unknown unknowns that still await.

Unfortunately, I also came home to a colossally messy apartment, which I need to sort through and pack in the next week! So I'm crazily sifting through papers, books, and unclassifiable junk right now, hoping that all the great memories and sounds from Oklahoma City will live long enough for me to write about them.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

have bass, will travel

Sorry to everyone who has written and who I haven't responded to in the past few days! I have been traveling to Oklahoma City, sight of the International Society of Bassists convention. I will have lots to write about the competitions, the recitals, and all the great people I've met and reunited with here already.

This definitely qualifies as more basses than you can shake a stick at. Above, there's mine boarding a plane at St. Louis' Lambert Airport.

Friday, June 01, 2007

a lesson on determination

I transcribed a short section of a recent lesson, since I think it gives me a good starting place to answer Michael Hovnanian's question about what I want to improve in my playing.

HR: It sounds a lot better – it doesn't sound like you're working so hard. As a matter of fact, the message that comes to me right now, and has in the past: it's that you have wonderful facility, you have tremendous training, etc. And you've taken great notes on this, you're like an encyclopedia.

MH: Yeah, if I could just get it all organized!

HR: Well you're probably more organized than anybody else.

MH: Oh maybe, I don't know...

HR: Look, I believe information floats around. It's floating in this room right now, and you can draw on it, you can draw on some of your past. And you do draw on a lot of your acquaintances, a lot of your mentors in a very positive way. I mean, you show respect to everybody and it's really fantastic the way you handle yourself. It's very upbeat and healthy. You're just a great guy to be around, and you're going to be a positive influence in all of your jobs. Because there's no obvious jealousies, and the competitive part of it – you know, it's got to be there for everybody, but it's not in the way.

So that part's fantastic... Where I was leading with this, you have all of these sources of information that you can bring up - but what I constantly want to tell you, when I think of your situation, is that your determination is both a positive and it's a negative. Your determination sometimes ends up squashing and controlling you. I think you realize it, and I think you try to find ways to get around it.

So in this instance, with this particular stroke in mind, just make sure it breathes, and you're releasing each one... But just keep in mind in everything you do, as you're working things out: think to the minimum side. What's the least I can do to get this desired way? How many extra muscles am I using, how much extra motion am I using? Which part of the bow is actually going to work the best. Which I think you do, you get there – I think you could probably get there sooner if you just consider that as an initial ingredient of all your work.

MH: If I spent more time thinking what can I take away, rather than what more can I put into it. Because I'm constantly trying to come up with more stuff to add, but I don't always clean the slate.

HR: Probably a good thing to think about.