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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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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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.