And she acknowledges that. What she plays varies according to the situation, but it’s what she wants to play and she’ll “play it to death” if she enjoys it. She won’t shy from the demanding, although a handful of highbrowed types suggest even her most obscure material is a bit on the fairground side. “I believe in what I’m playing,” and for all that she considers her audience, musical credibility counts higher.
She seems to see her role as part-entertainer, part-missionary. Audiences are gently reminded that percussion is valid, thoughtful music, not something made up as it goes along. There are 2,000 solo scores in the closet behind her. She commissions them, ten at a time, from composers such as Jonathan Harvey, Piers Helliwell and John Psathas. The scores have dull names such as “Concerto for Percussion and Brass Band” or more entertaining such as “Gorilla in a Cage,” “The Harlot’s House” and “Seventeen Days Two Bottles One Duvet.”
Composers call round with their score paper and they work on the pieces together. They have to be guided. Apart from the fact that composers aren’t necessarily used to writing for drums, they’re accustomed to putting a circled cross on a ledger line and waiting for a bash on a high, low or medium cymbal.
When Glennie points to the stack on the rack and says, “Yes, but which high, low and medium cymbal?” and then adds, “And crashed, stroked, rolled or what?” they can start losing the will to live.
She says: “We do need more repertoire, because hopefully there will be more and more players coming along, and they will need something to play. I mean, we still don’t have a Mozart marimba concerto. There are many, many concertos out there and many of them are interesting, but not great pieces of music. You couldn’t really compare them with a Beethoven violin concerto or a Tchaikovsky piano concerto.
“We’re still looking for that, and it will come. I have absolute faith that this will come. It just needs time.”
Halfway through Evelyn Glennie’s show, she stands in a three-sided frame that has a small serving counter and a sign that reads “EV’S CAFF.” This by the way, is a reminder that “Evelyn” is pronounced ever-lin and not ev-e-lin.
Hanging from the café roof are pots, bowls and frying pans. And with great enthusiasm she plays a tune on them. But then anyone who can accompany Björk on car exhaust pipes – “tuned” exhaust pipes, she stresses mysteriously – isn’t going to balk at pots and pans.
For the benefit of photographs, we dig in the drum store and produce a collection of do-it-yourself instruments that have seen service and been forgotten. Among them is a plank with a row of black-painted cans nailed to it. Skillets at each end have been pushed flush with the board. Glennie presses at them and, to her surprise, they swivel 90 degrees and make another playing surface. “Oh,” she says, “we must have been particularly inventive that day.”
I have brought with me a question from my friend Colin, who in his time has been the man who sits and counts 124 bars before getting up and tinging his triangle. Once. “Ask her,” he suggested, “if she agrees there are a dozen different ways to play a triangle or a tambourine, and whether she minds playing what some people consider to be toys.”
So I do. And she chokes with laughter on her cookie. “It starts, I feel, in your first school years. One of the things that I’m trying to do is create a series of educational publications for classroom teachers. They may not know anything about a triangle, just that you hit it, so this whole perception of percussion ends up being about hitting and banging – very negative.
“So it has to start from a young age, where you have this little instrument and your imagination is wide open. So you can use a triangle-beater, you can use a fork, you can use a chopstick, anything you want. And I think it’s important for people to have this openness, and truly treat an instrument in the way a child would treat a toy. They may look at it, take it apart, put it together again, and there are all sorts of possibilities with it. And once they’ve let their imagination run riot, then they can learn the rules.
“It can work the other way, where you learn the rules first of all and then go berserk with your imagination, but then I think we become a bit more inhibited. When you get older, you’re a bit more conscious of how you’re treating things.
“I feel it’s important for people like myself – performing musicians – to get into the schools, show the youngsters a great big marimba or a snare drum, and really play it. Really, really play interesting music, maybe the same music that you’d play at a normal concert so that you’re not compromising musically.
“Kids will listen to Stockhausen or anything, not knowing what it is. There are no rules there, and suddenly they’re experiencing the emotional side of playing. And then just a little knowledge of these instruments can help them look, the next time they go to a concert and see a triangle player, and think, ’Now, I know why he’s doing that. I know why the triangle is suspended the way it is, why he’s holding it like that with his fingers in a certain position. I know why he’s changing beaters.’
“Simple things can really enhance your visual and aural skills.”
She hints we should start clearing away the kitchen-pan department and with an apology darts back inside to take a call from the States. My last glimpse of the deaf musician is her on the phone with her business coordinator on an extension. This time, at least, no Morse-like tapping is needed to convey the message.