I recently read a compelling blog post about a 2015 Pulitzer-winning historical fiction novel. The blogger, a college professor who is blind, expressed her sadness and frustration about the book’s misrepresentation of blind people described through the actions and inactions of the book’s young blind heroine. The blogger also lamented how most sighted readers accepted the author’s stereotyping of a blind person without raising any questions or objections. As a person who closely works and interacts with colleagues and patrons who are blind, the post resonated with me, and when I saw a movie online that may be able to correct such misconceptions, I was eager to share it with our readers.
“Braille Music” is a 2017 documentary about a group of highly accomplished blind musicians paying homage to Louis Braille, the inventor of not only literary braille but also braille music code. The musicians honor Louis Braille by recording a musical work written by a young female British composer who is blind, not much older than the heroine of the aforementioned book. The musicians use braille music to learn and rehearse the composition.
The movie starts out with the narrator, James Risdon, a blind recorder player from London traveling to Paris to learn about Louis Braille and the history of braille. He visits L’Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles, where Louis was a student and later a professor, and explains how this first school for the blind was founded by Valentin Haüy. This is a name that’s not foreign to me since the music section has over 200 Braille music scores that were produced by L’Association Valentin Haüy braille music publisher.
The school tour guide discusses how the braille system was developed from the 12-dot night reading system of the French Army to a 6-dot code which easily fit under the fingertips. Our narrator has the privilege of reading an original 12-dot document which requires moving his fingers up and down to touch all the dots in the cell. During the tour, the viewers get a glimpse of the beautiful André Marchal concert hall with its historical pipe organ. Outside on the school grounds, two young men vigorously run around the tracks as the guide explains how sports are an important part of the school’s curriculum.
Back in England, the narrator tells about Thomas Armitage, a doctor who became visually impaired later in his life. Armitage advocated music as a suitable vocation for blind people and with the American music educator Francis Joseph Campbell, co-founded the Royal Normal College for the Blind with a strong emphasis on music education.
The seven blind musicians participating in the musical ensemble range from under 20 to over 70 years old, representing four different continents. There is a young singer who learned braille music as a child in her home country of Nigeria; an older Indian percussionist and sitar player who writes down music using his braille display to transmit it to other musicians, and a young pianist from Colombia who emphasizes the importance of reading braille music in order to interpret and express one’s understanding of the music.
An English flutist who has been teaching for years gives her testimonial about how she could not teach music to her students if she did not have braille music. A lutenist who plays exquisitely explains how he developed the tablature system for reading lute music. James Risdon, the narrator who plays the recorder, talks about what has been his passion for the past ten years: promoting braille music and supporting the musicians who use it.
Lastly, the documentary shows Zoe Dixon, the young composer who demonstrates how she composed all parts of her music using the music notation software Sibelius. The scenes from the recording session show all the musicians (except the percussionist who improvises) using braille music to discuss how the music should be played, who plays what and where, what parts need to be rehearsed and from which measure they should start. In other words, they rehearsed exactly like any other musicians do but with braille music.
At first, the combination of the instruments of the ensemble seemed very unusual: piano, voice, lute, recorder, flute, clarinet and Tabla, the small drums. But the end result was amazingly beautiful – the instruments blended well and the performance was outstanding, especially considering that they had only a few hours to rehearse and record the music. Louis Braille would have been very pleased and proud to receive such an homage. I think the blogger would enjoy watching this movie.
Selected braille music titles published by L’Association Valentin Haüy
- Etudes for the piano, op. 10 by Frédéric Chopin revised by Claude Debussy (BRM28093)
- Prélude, choral et fugue pour piano by César Franck (BRM28280)
- Twenty melodies for piano and voice by Gabriel Fauré (BRM36348)
- Four trios for violin, cello and piano by Widor, Thomé, Fauré and Franck (BRM34035)
- Berceuse sur le nom de Fauré for violin and piano by Maurice Ravel (BRM36249)