hand-drum

Evelyn Glennie: Sound In Silence

The first thing you have to know is that Huntingdon is to Britain like Oblong feels to Illinois. It did once turn out a British prime minister and years back a dour revolutionary who did away with the king, but really it’s the kind of place that would rather sit in the rain and sulk.

So it caused quite a stir the day that Evelyn Glennie took Björk for a curry. Curry, the tourist people once said, is the new English national dish. For an exiled Scot and an Icelandic pixie it was neutral ground. But what was Björk doing in Huntingdon? She was singing while Glennie accompanied her on car exhaust pipes. But then you’d have guessed that for yourself.

“She doesn’t have her hair all out like she does on stage,” Glennie says, “but she does still wear those sweaters.” She chuckles for the millionth time that afternoon and waves her hands to demonstrate. “They sort of come up over her mouth and up to her nose and they end around her midriff, so it’s all there but it’s a foot further up than you think it’s going to be.

“Well, we took her into our local curry house and I could see the waiters looking at her all evening ... [I meant to ask how Björk ate curry through a sweater, but I forgot] and when I went to pay at the end, one of them came over and said, ’Excuse me, but that lady that you’re with ...?’ and I just said, ’Yes, it is!’ They couldn’t believe what they’d seen.”

You wouldn’t believe what you’d seen, either, if you’d prodded about in Evelyn Glennie’s drum store. It’s not just the Page kit with its 16" bass and rope-tightened toms, nor the marimba and stack of spare pipes that looks like dismantled air-conditioning. It’s not that there are enough cymbals to justify a Sabian display rack, nor even that there are boxed and wrapped orchestral basses and other bits of pieces, and a garage-full more outside, plus the kit still coming back from Iceland and Poland, still more loaded into a 7 1/2 ton truck outside (registration A4 OBE, in tasteful recognition of the day the Queen bejeweled her as an Officer of the British Empire).

No, it’s the little things that make the point. Like 14 cowbells. And mallets and sticks in such quantity that they’re stuffed into three large cans, several cardboard boxes and what looks like a small laundry basket. One day a fire will break out in Glennie’s mallet store and half of Huntingdon will be consumed.

Evelyn Glennie is the world’s foremost solo percussionist, and, as most concede, the world’s first full-time solo percussionist. Less remarkably, she tunes her own drums. She comes on in the interval and gives them a little twist and a turn and then goes off again. And then it dawns on you: Glennie is deaf? Deaf people can’t tune drums. Deaf people can’t even play drums.

The word in the woods is that she “feels the vibration as she plays.” Well, yes and no. The truth is she hears a crackle when the phone rings; she can hear you speak if there’s no other noise, but she lip-reads to be sure. Photographer James Cumpsty recalls: “I turned my back on her without thinking and spoke to her. She answered. It was quite eerie when I thought about it.”

She hears things more quietly than most people, but, more importantly, she hears a poorer quality of sound – though she can talk on the phone.

Her husband, Greg Malcangi, says: “Evelyn does most of the talking, but we have a few words which I can communicate by hitting the transmitter with a pen. Evelyn hears this as clicks. We have a code that depends on the number of hits, or the rhythm that I can use, to communicate a handful of words.”

The idea that she “feels” her drums is true. She can also imagine the sound of a cymbal just as the rest of us know the sound of blowing trees that we can’t in fact hear. She lost her hearing in childhood and her school percussion teacher, Ron Forbes, told her to stand by the classroom wall while he played notes on the timpani. Eventually she could match the perfect pitch she had before deafness with where the sound waves made the most impact.

She feels low sounds in her legs and feet and high ones typically in particular places on her face, neck and chest. She perhaps both hears and feels her drums in the way the rest of us hear and feel the vibrations of a passing truck. She describes the acoustics of a room by the “thickness” of the air. She can no more explain how she “hears” than anyone else can, Malcangi says. “Evelyn doesn’t know very much about deafness; what’s more, she isn’t particularly interested. To hear sound, all she does is listen.”

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