Evelyn Glennie: Sound In Silence

She tours 20 countries a year (literally) and spends a quarter of her life in America. She has honorary doctorates of music at Queen’s University in Belfast, Surrey, Leicester, Portsmouth, Bristol and Aberdeen, an Honorary Doctor of Letters from Loughborough University, an Honorary Doctorate of Laws from Dundee University and is Honorary Doctor of the University of both Durham and Essex Universities. And all of that makes it all the more surprising to find a biography of Keith Moon on her bookshelf.

“He’s pretty interesting, you know,” she says with one of drumming’s greater understatements. Moon, wild man of The Who, who, a couple of decades back, was more famous for throwing televisions from hotel windows and cars into swimming pools than for Glennie’s delicate precision.

“I love reading percussion books, which can often be quite rare. I have a curiosity towards percussionists of all sorts of backgrounds. It’s not so much the mechanical aspects, which you can very easily find out, but it’s the person that I’m more interested in, because that can reveal all sorts of things as to why they may have done certain things with their playing or their whole approach to music.”

Moon the Loon ended his act by kicking his drums into the audience. You could hardly imagine Glennie doing that. In fact, to her, the instrument is sacrosanct and one of the few criticisms it’s possible to drag from her is that drummers do themselves no favors by the way they treat their drums in the gaze of other musicians. She cites drummers who use their floor tom as drinks stands and players who use timpani as writing tables to alter the score.

The word “perfection” comes up in the conversation more than once. Even so, I venture, there must be times when she fancies going out on a Saturday night and thrashing out “Mustang Sally” with the guys? Didn’t she maybe fancy ten minutes in Keith Moon’s shoes?

“But which ten minutes?” she laughs. “What I admired about him was this openness, or what seemed to be this openness. [The Who had been going a year when Glennie was born and she was still at school in Aberdeen when Moon died.] I can only go by what I read.

“I think that with so many of the early drummers that there was this sense of experimenting. On the one hand they had this immense technical aspect of jazz drummers, but then also they had to provide this underlying roar. It’s these two extremes I find really interesting. Everyone can in some way relate to percussion, because it can be so simple, so raw, or it can be as refined and as structured and as complicated as you want. So in concerts, going from playing something that looks black on the page and sounds complicated to playing something that’s so simple, that’s what I really enjoy.”

I suggest “Mustang Sally” again and there’s another peel of laughter. “You know, funnily enough, as a student, I was part of a jazz trio and we went around the local pubs around the academy. It was a tremendous experience and fun. It’s something that’s still with me now. I still think about it.

“It’s not something I would do now, simply because I know I wouldn’t do it well. Your whole level of appreciation towards music kind of changes. There’s the one level where community music is important and you don’t care whether someone has had no lessons or a million lessons. Then again there’s another side of you that’s so perfect, you aim for that perfection.

“And I think if I was in a situation like that, playing in a pub again, I’d be leaning towards wanting to be the best I possibly could. Just walking in there and doing it would be pretty dangerous.”

But quite a sensation, I suggest.

More laughter.

“It could certainly be a sensation for the people! It would either be the start of a whole new career or The End!”

If you’re seen her play – nearly always barefoot, incidentally – you’ll know much of what she chooses demands a certain amount of listening. Ordinary drum solos can be difficult, even to drummers, but when what you’re hearing is written for percussion alone, probably in the last 40 years – because not much percussion work predates that – then it will be challenging in both structure and musicality.

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