On the surface Lost and Sound is a film about music and hearing, but its deeper subject is the human relationship to sound, at its most profound and elemental level. Lindsey Dryden's documentary tells the stories of three people with varying levels of deafness and unwavering commitments to music: a young woman, deaf since birth, who is finishing her degree at an elite dance school; a pre-teen piano prodigy who lost her hearing as a baby and grew up with cochlear implants; and a middle-aged music journalist who goes deaf in one ear and finds he must painfully and painstakingly rebuild his relationship to "the architecture of sound."
The visual metaphor is apt. Woven into Lost and Sound's trio of engaging human dramas is a fascinating and accessible exploration of why we love music and how our brains interact with it, especially when the normal channels are altered or lost.
It's a subject of some moment to Dryden, a music lover who went deaf in her right ear when she was 3 years old. A few years ago she was diagnosed with Meniere's disease, an inner-ear disorder that could, at any time, further damage her hearing.
"That's the point when hearing and music suddenly became a really big issue for me," Dryden tells MusicFilmWeb. (Click here to read the full interview at MusicFilmWeb.com.) Making the movie "was primarily a way of understanding what the possibilities were if my hearing got worse."
Lost and Sound premiered last year at South by Southwest and went on to play festivals across North America and Europe. Now Dryden is in the midst of an Indiegogo campaign to raise money for licensing the film's music - including pieces from Beethoven, Mozart, and Blur - for a cinema, DVD, and on-demand release.
For a fully hearing person, a fascinating element of the documentary is that Nick, the music critic, has a far harder time with his comparatively less-disabling condition than Emily, the dancer, or Holly, the young pianist. He personifies the nightmare of the music fan in the audience.
"That's a really important element of the film - it's really about what you're used to. It's much more a film about hearing loss than it is about deafness," Dryden observes.
Indeed, Emily, the one character who has always been deaf, is shocked that her dance-school classmates are amazed that she responds so naturally and beautifully to music. I was too, watching the film. So I ask Dryden: Why shouldn't we be?
"I think it goes back to experiencing what you've got already," she replies. "If you have something that works in a way that we perceive as normal, then you're very unlikely to have thought about the other ways in which your body or your mind might work unusually.
"That's a really, really important part of how I feel about the world, actually," she adds. "People coming at Emily's story with normal hearing are very unlikely to have considered that normal hearing isn't the be-all and end-all. ... Music is something that she can picture. It's something she can see, something she can feel."
Dryden notes that she has a facility with languages, "and I think it's partly because I'm a really intense lip-reader. I'm very good at imitating and copying and remembering the intricacies of language, and also filling in the gaps when I don't know what's going on. That's something I had to develop, because there are loads of situations that I can't hear in.
"And so I think, if you're perceived to be lacking what is considered a normal sense, other parts of your brain are going, OK, what can I do to give you a full experience of that, without the sense that you haven't got?"
How the brain tries to maintain sensory experience when a particular sense no longer functions normally is a key undercurrent of Lost and Sound, explored cogently and at times even poetically by a series of scientific experts. In the film, Nick faces the question of whether, after putting a great deal of time and emotional investment into learning to re-engage with music, he would consider implants to get back more of his hearing. He's clearly ambivalent. Dryden is not.
"I don't even know if a cochlear implant could help someone with hearing like mine. I've never been able to have hearing aids because I've always been told this specific kind of deafness is nerve-related and no kind of amplification will help. But I think the fact that I haven't ever really researched it is pretty telling," she says.
"It isn't a priority. What's a priority to me is to protect what I have. In an ideal world, if I could wish for something, it wouldn't be to fix the hearing that I've lost, it would be to keep the hearing that I've got."