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Significant Scots
Evelyn Glennie, Percustionist

Evelyn Glennie – Variation on a Virtuoso Theme

Article from 'Leopard' - The Magazine For North-East Scotland March 2004

[Photograph courtesy of Cambridge Newspapers Ltd.]

There is more to celebrity than basking in the warm sunshine of applause, as I discovered in talking with the internationally famous percussionist, Evelyn Glennie.

A countless number of column inches have been written about Evelyn. The Aberdeenshire-born percussionist enjoys fame far beyond the boundaries of her birthplace. Critics and musicologists scour their thesauruses for verbal accolades after every remarkable performance.

The New York Times called her “the percussion worlds Segovia or Rampal”, and went on to state in characteristically scholarly terms: “her musicianship is extraordinary. One has to pause in sheer wonder at what she has accomplished. She is quite simply a phenomenon of a performer.”

Writing in The Guardian, Alfred Hickling enthused: “Glennies mere presence instills a hypnotic quality, and the intensity of her stage presence is compelling.” Rick Jones trumpeted in Londons Evening Standard: “Glennie has a feel for drama. She extracts interest and meaning from every note she hits.”

Leonard Slatkin, director of the National Symphony Orchestra, summed it all up by declaring: “She has done for percussion what James Galway did for the flute and Richard Stolzman for the clarinet. She has got young people turned on to music in a setting other than jazz or rock. I also suspect that by her ability and personality she will have inspired lots of people to go into the profession.”

She has also received innumerable honorary doctorates and fellowships, not only in music but in Laws and Letters; been voted Scots Woman of the Decade and International Classical Music Personality of the Year. In 1993 she was awarded an OBE (Officer of the British Empire).

Frustratingly, there are some writers who want to concentrate on other aspects of Glennies life notably the profound deafness she has lived with since she was 12. It seems to bother others much more than Glennie herself. An anonymous writer on the performers personal website emphasises that “for her, it is virtually irrelevant. Hearing is basically a specialized form of touch”, the writer goes on, “and sound is simply vibrating air which the ear picks up and converts to electrical signal which are then interpreted in the brain…”

Faced with a more insouciant questioner, Glennie is reported to have quietly but firmly said, “If you want to know about deafness, you should interview an audiologist. My speciality is music”.

Although her mother played the organ at the local church, at Methlick, there was no great pressure on Evelyn or her two brothers to take an interest in music. However, she began to play the piano and clarinet. When her deafness first manifested itself, she insisted that she would go to a mainstream school at Ellon, rather than to a specialist school in Aberdeen. It was there she was introduced to percussion. She became infatuated with the instruments, particularly with the snare drum, and quickly realised that her future lay with the discipline.

With characteristic openness, she now says: “When I started playing music at school, I just assumed that the world was full of percussionists. Of course, when I became a full-time musician and a soloist, I realised that this was not the case at all.”

Whether such knowledge would have inhibited her can only be imagined, although one is inclined to believe it would rather have served as an inspiration; one has only to listen to her to sense that this is a very determined lady who knows exactly where she is going. It has been so since she started.

In 1982, she won a scholarship to Londons Royal Academy of Music, where she won innumerable prizes, including the highest award of all: the Queens Commendation Prize for all-round excellence. Four years later she made her professional debut at the Wigmore Hall, Londons mecca of chamber music, and three years after that she played the first solo percussion recital at Londons world-famous prom concerts, in the Albert Hall.

So her glittering career has continued, with applause and critical praise acknowledging her work as a musician, as a writer and broadcaster, and as a tireless campaigner for the musical education of young people. She probably will not care to know it, but Evelyn Glennie, has become something of a national treasure.

That said, she holds to an almost beguiling personal modesty. Ask her about the benefits that come from her celebrity, and she eschews the flippancy of others in her position; there is no suggestion that it guarantees decent service in a restaurant or prompts quick response by taxi drivers. Rather, she says artlessly: “I dont really think of myself as a celebrity.” Then she stops briefly to consider a most qualified response. “It probably means that if you think of certain ideas or projects, then people will listen to what you have to say.” She pauses again before adding, “Thats about it. I dont really see this whole celebrity thing in the same way that some people do. At the end of the day, everyone is beavering away, doing what they have to do in order to make things work.”

The record shows that Glennie is no slouch when it comes to work. Apart from a daunting programme of concerts which this year will take her to Italy and Germany, America, Australasia, Africa, the Far East she has made her mark in so many other ways, notably as a composer, performer and producer of music for film and television.

She earned a bafta nomination for her musical score for Lynda La Plantes powerful drama, Trial and Retribution, and made ear-catching contributions to notable international television commercials. She co-wrote a number of songs with Icelandic singer, Bjork, and collaborated with the noted pop producer, Michael Brauer, on the top-selling album of improvised music, called Shadow Behind the Iron Sun. It was a stunning experience, recalls Brauer.

“Evelyns musicianship is amazing. On the first day of recording, we walked into the studio which was covered wall-to-wall with every conceivable percussion instrument known to man. Our first track was based on the title called First Contact. In order to start the improvisation, I would describe a mood and she then goes out to the sea of percussive instruments and interprets the idea. The first day we only completed this piece a total of two-and-a-half minutes of music! Over the next three days we recorded 12 more titles totalling over 70 minutes of music. And they were all first takes.”

Glennie, who has herself made many of the sea of percussive instruments, was equally satisfied with this, her 12th album. I wasnt dependent on anyone or anything, she has gone on record as saying.

“What you experience with this recording are the thoughts of a player at the moment of creation, so there is no way the music could be reproduced by anyone even I couldnt figure out how to play pieces again. It is truly one-of-a-kind and that feels really good.”

She has also made her mark in television, not only as a musical performer, but as a scriptwriter and presenter. After hosting a couple of series of shows for the BBC, and presenting and appearing in innumerable other television and radio programmes throughout the world, she wants to do more.

“I think it’s interesting to delve into other art-forms,” she says, “whether it’s writing, visual art, dance, story-telling or whatever, but I’m not able to say whether I would have gained as much satisfaction as I get from music. Music is one of those things which is difficult to put into words, because you don’t actually leave with anything tangible; you leave with the memory of what has happened.”

One of her prime interests is the promotion of music among the very young. To that end she is involved with Sir James Galloway, Julian Lloyd Webber and Michael Kamen in the Music Consortium, a project which is dedicated to addressing the crisis in music education. Together, they recently met with Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, to discuss what is currently happening and what is needed in schools. The results were very encouraging.

“He suggested that we meet again in September or October, having laid out some recommendations and outlined what we need to do between now and then. The fact that he opened himself up for us to meet with him again is really positive. It’s not going to happen overnight, but we’ve been receiving a lot of feed-back from up and down the country, supporting our aims, and so we look forward to seeing where that might lead.

“Music teachers need a lot more support in order to deal with what is a very fluid subject. Music now involves computers, keyboards and all sorts of technology, and teachers may not necessarily be up to speed with those things because they’re developing at such an incredible rate.”

On a personal level, Glennie gives workshops and master-classes, and endeavours to get young people to the rehearsals for some of her concerts. Such arrangements depend on her concert schedule, but she uses the internet to good effect. “We communicate a lot more easily with schools and young people in general throughout the world,” she says.

For all her celebrity, Glennie enjoys the challenge that goes with her performances. “A concert or recording session is still a challenge and, dare I say it, an adventure as well. Every single one is different… every hall and room we walk into is different… how you might be feeling; who you are performing with, and the repertoire you’re performing, so, yes, it is still very much of a challenge.”

Evelyn Glennie has come a long way since she rattled her first snare drum in Methlick, and she has clearly enjoyed almost every moment of the journey.


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