Dame Evelyn Glennie is an extraordinary percussionist and gave this insightful TED talk in 2003 (I only came across it recently) in Monterey, California. And she has a beautiful Scottish lilt in her voice.
It has been sitting in the back of my head, slowly composting. As a writer and a drummer, I wanted to find the connection between music and writing, to apply the principles of music to that of writing and creativity, and what it takes for a creative person to teach others to listen.
It’s a long presentation (just over half an hour) so here is the TL;DR version of highlights I picked out.
Evelyn Glennie – How to Truly Listen
One of the first comments she makes is that her job as a musician is all about listening. It is foundational. And it is the same for the writer and the creative person. We listen to stories, to the world around us to inspire and teach us. To teach to listen is to teach people to translate the meaning from their heads and hearts.
I see it as having two parts. The first part is listening as a creative person, listening to the world around you in order that you can create. The second part is the listening by the audience and receivers of your work. We have control over the first part, but not the second.
As a creative person a translation is reading the given text as it is, without adding your own personality to it. It is the technical aspect of reading a piece of music, a novel, a piece of art or film. It is absorbed as data, fact, neutral information.
Evelyn points out that the literal translation of the music will only take you so far. It requires an interpretation.
For a creative person to interpret we assimilate the raw data and begin to synthesise it through the lens of our values and beliefs, gender, perspectives to create. We assimilate and synthesise through listening. Listening to ourselves.
But how do we listen?
Evelyn is profoundly deaf, and has written about her deafness. She says, “I hear it thr0ugh my ears. And through my hands, feet, stomach, cheeks, every part of my body. Listening through the walls; listening far more broadly than simply the ears.”
She goes on to ask the audience, “When you clap, what do you use? Just your hands? How about your body, the floor, thighs, jewellery? Experimentation = improvisation.”
It is about learning how to listen with a different set of “ears.”
As a percussionist, Evelyn uses a range of different sticks. They produce different sound colours. It depends on the weight of the stick, the type of head (rubber, woollen, wooden) and produce different sound colours. They are the tools to allow her to interpret the music and can be likened to our own likes, dislikes, personality, temperament, culture.
As the percussionist uses drumsticks as a tool, what tools do we use to produce our art? How do we use them? To what effect?
Performing a piece on the glockenspiel, Evelyn points out the resonators beneath the instrument. Their purpose is to amplify the sound made. She comments that we are all connected to sound and become a participator in the sound. What the eye sees, sound is happening, being imagined. We are all participators of sound. When we listen, listen carefully, we become the resonators and participators.
As writers or creative people we listen to be able to say something through our creativity. To create a piece of art where the reader and participator experiences the whole of the sound, in the entirety of the journey from the breath to the striking or plucking of the instrument to make sound; in the reading of a novel, watching of a film, appreciating a piece of art.
A creative person teaches someone to listen. First they listen to the text they are reading before it is internalised and filtered. Then they can hear what we are saying through our art.