Dame Evelyn Glennie on life, music and deafness.
Dame Evelyn Glennie scarcely needs an introduction. As an extraordinarily virtuosic percussionist and the first full-time solo percussionist in the world, Evelyn has created immense media interest through her unique approach to music making.
Click here to listen to Evelyn Glennie's tracks.
Giving up to 100 performances a year, she has played with all the world's major orchestras and conductors, consistently winning massive critical acclaim. Her twenty-five solo albums to date , 2 of which have won Grammys with a third nomination have reached a remarkably diverse public, as have her numerous collaborations including Kodo, Bela Fleck, Emmanuel Ax, Fred Frith, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Bobby McFerrin and Bjork. She has performed with Indian, Indonesian and South American traditional musicians, and in the mid-'90s co-wrote and recorded several songs with the Icelandic singer Björk, including the hit single My Spine. Her 2000 solo album Shadow Behind the Iron Sun, produced by acclaimed rock music producer Michael Brauer, is radically new in concept and entirely comprises studio improvisations by Evelyn. She gives totally improvised live concerts with Fred Frith and together they provided the music for the award winning art-house film "Touch the Sound" . Evelyn has pushed the boundaries of percussion playing by commissioning 147 pieces for solo percussion by the world's most eminent composers. Her collection of over 1800 instruments provides incredible inspiration to both herself as a performer/composer and to others.
In addition to her life as a performer and recording artist, Evelyn has established for herself a considerable reputation as a composer for film and television. One of her earliest credits was her music for a series of Tony Kaye-directed TV commercials for Mazda Cars in the mid-90s - which was so original that it spawned numerous imitations. She was nominated for a BAFTA Award for her music for the first series of Lynda La Plante's ground-breaking crime drama Trial & Retribution (La Plante Productions for ITV), and has gone on to record five subsequent series of the show. Other drama credits include two four-hour versions of Bramwell (Whitby Davison Productions for ITV); and Blind Ambition (Coastal Productions/Yorkshire Television).
Documentary credits include 3BM TV's 4-part study of the history of terrorism, The Age of Terror, transmitted on the Discovery Channel to coincide with the anniversary of September 11th. Evelyn also composed the title music for two series of the BBC's Soundbites, for which she appeared as presenter.
Having a high-profile and world-class virtuoso performing on their soundtrack is surely a bonus to any producer!
The Trench (Blue PM/Skyline Films/Galatee Films, 1999)
Writer/Director: William Boyd Producer: Steve Clark-Hall
Trial and Retribution, 6 series (La Plante Productions for ITV, 1997-2002)
Writer/Producer: Lynda La Plante Director: Aisling Walsh (I, II and V); Jo Johnston (III); Michael Whyte (IV); Ferdinand Fairfax (VI)
Blind Ambition (Coastal Productions/Yorkshire TV, 2000)
Producer: Peter Norris Director: Richard Standeven
Bramwell (Whitby Davison Productions for ITV, 1998)
Producer: Tim Whitby Directors: Tim Whitby, Paul Unwin
The Age of Terror (3BM Television - 4-part series, 2002)
Producer: Jon Blair
Deaf/Blind (Scorer Associates for BBC2, 2000)
Producer/Director: Mischa Scorer
The Seven Ages of Man (BBC 1996) - title music
Producer: Catherine Seddon
The Body-Collectors of Bangkok (BBC 1995)
Producer/Director: Krishna Govender
Baboons (Anglia 1995)
Producer: Caroline Brett
Soundbites (BBC - 2 series, 1992/4)
The Music Show (Illuminations Productions, 1994) - title music
See Hear! (BBC, 1994) - title music
Dame Evelyn Glennie has become famous as the most successful classical percussionist in the world. There are those who are especially fascinated by the much publicised fact that she is deaf. However, it is simplistic and inappropriate to define one of the finest virtuoso musicians of her generation simply by the fact that she hears things differently from everyone else. Her talent and virtuosity renders her deafness irrelevant and she has always been particularly keen that she is judged on her ability rather than her disability.
As if to prove this fact, Evelyn is as driven by sound and timbre of music as much as the accuracy and feel with which it is played. She is motivated by a curiosity to discover how the mundane can be made to sound sublime. It is the desire to experiment which Audio Network has encouraged with regular recordings and collaborations. We have taken a trip to a farm and recorded ploughs, oil tanks and tractor tyres. We’ve recorded in a variety of studios around the country and more recently at Evelyn’s home in Cambridgeshire where we experiment with her huge collection of some 1800 instruments.
Andrew Sunnucks, Audio Network’s Creative Director says, “Evelyn’s sessions have been amongst the most enjoyable and creative we do. We simply set up microphones and wander around choosing instruments to improvise with. Evelyn’s ability to play anything from an 8 foot marimba to cheese board keeps these days endlessly exciting and novel.”
Beyond her career as a performer and writer, Evelyn has received particular media attention for her passionate advocacy for musical education in schools. With Julian Lloyd-Webber, James Galway and the late Michael Kamen she successfully lobbied parliament and ministers and generated considerable public debate about the importance of giving young people a chance to learn an instrument. This action resulted in the government provided £332 million towards music education.
Not content to stand still Evelyn is now diversifying her interests into other areas including Motivational speaking and designing her own range of contemporary jewellery with the Orcadian company, Ortak, based in the Orkneys close to her own Scottish roots.
In her own words, Evelyn, writes about her music and how she hears and works:
Music represents life. A particular piece of music may describe a real, fictional or abstract scene from almost any area of human experience or imagination. It is the musician’s job to paint a picture which communicates to the audience the scene the composer is trying to describe. I hope that the audience will be stimulated by what I have to say (through the language of music) and will therefore leave the concert hall feeling entertained. If the audience is instead only wondering how a deaf musician can play percussion then I have failed as a musician. For this reason my deafness is not mentioned in any of the information supplied by my office to the press or concert promoters. Unfortunately, my deafness makes good headlines. I have learnt from childhood that if I refuse to discuss my deafness with the media they will just make it up. The several hundred articles and reviews written about me every year add up to a total of many thousands, only a handful accurately describe my hearing impairment. More than 90% are so inaccurate that it would seem impossible that I could be a musician. This article is designed to set the record straight and allow people to enjoy the experience of being entertained by an ever evolving musician rather than some freak or miracle of nature.
Deafness is poorly understood in general. For instance, there is a common misconception that deaf people live in a world of silence. To understand the nature of deafness, first one has to understand the nature of hearing.
Hearing is basically a specialized form of touch. Sound is simply vibrating air which the ear picks up and converts to electrical signals, which are then interpreted by the brain. The sense of hearing is not the only sense that can do this, touch can do this too. If you are standing by the road and a large truck goes by, do you hear or feel the vibration? The answer is both. With very low frequency vibration the ear starts becoming inefficient and the rest of the body's sense of touch starts to take over. For some reason we tend to make a distinction between hearing a sound and feeling a vibration, in reality they are the same thing. It is interesting to note that in the Italian language this distinction does not exist. The verb 'sentire' means to hear and the same verb in the reflexive form 'sentirsi' means to feel. Deafness does not mean that you can't hear, only that there is something wrong with the ears. Even someone who is totally deaf can still hear/feel sounds.
If we can all feel low frequency vibrations why can't we feel higher vibrations? It is my belief that we can, it's just that as the frequency gets higher and our ears become more efficient they drown out the more subtle sense of 'feeling' the vibrations. I spent a lot of time in my youth (with the help of my school Percussion teacher Ron Forbes) refining my ability to detect vibrations. I would stand with my hands against the classroom wall while Ron played notes on the timpani (timpani produce a lot of vibrations). Eventually I managed to distinguish the rough pitch of notes by associating where on my body I felt the sound with the sense of perfect pitch I had before losing my hearing. The low sounds I feel mainly in my legs and feet and high sounds might be particular places on my face, neck and chest.
It is worth pointing out at this stage that I am not totally deaf, I am profoundly deaf. Profound deafness covers a wide range of symptoms, although it is commonly taken to mean that the quality of the sound heard is not sufficient to be able to understand the spoken word from sound alone. With no other sound interfering, I can usually hear someone speaking although I cannot understand them without the additional input of lip-reading. In my case the amount of volume is reduced compared with normal hearing but more importantly the quality of the sound is very poor. For instance when a phone rings I hear a kind of crackle. However, it is a distinctive type of crackle that I associate with a phone so I know when the phone rings. This is basically the same as how normally hearing people detect a phone, the phone has a distinctive type of ring which we associate with a phone. I can in fact communicate over the phone. I do most of the talking whilst the other person can say a few words by striking the transmitter with a pen, I hear this as clicks. I have a code that depends on the number of strikes or the rhythm that I can use to communicate a handful of words.
So far we have the hearing of sounds and the feeling of vibrations. There is one other element to the equation, sight. We can also see items move and vibrate. If I see a drum head or cymbal vibrate or even see the leaves of a tree moving in the wind then subconsciously my brain creates a corresponding sound. A common and ill informed question from interviewers is 'How can you be a musician when you can't hear what you are doing?' The answer is of course that I couldn't be a musician if I were not able to hear. Another often asked question is 'How do you hear what you are playing?' The logical answer to this is; how does anyone hear?. An electrical signal is generated in the ear and various bits of other information from our other senses all get sent to the brain which then processes the data to create a sound picture. The various processes involved in hearing a sound are very complex but we all do it subconsciously so we group all these processes together and call it simply listening. The same is true for me. Some of the processes or original information may be different but to hear sound all I do is to listen. I have no more idea of how I hear than you do.
You will notice that more and more the answers are heading towards areas of philosophy. Who can say that when two normally hearing people hear a sound they hear the same sound? I would suggest that everyone's hearing is different. All we can say is that the sound picture built up by their brain is the same, so that outwardly there is no difference. For me, as for all of us, I am better at certain things with my hearing than others. I need to lip-read to understand speech but my awareness of the acoustics in a concert venue is excellent. For instance, I will sometimes describe an acoustic in terms of how thick the air feels.
To summarize, my hearing is something that bothers other people far more than it bothers me. There are a couple of inconveniences but in general it doesn't affect my life much. For me, my deafness is no more important than the fact I am female with brown eyes. Sure, I sometimes have to find solutions to problems related to my hearing and music but so do all musicians. Most of us know very little about hearing, even though we do it all the time. Likewise, I don't know very much about deafness, what's more I'm not particularly interested. I remember one occasion when uncharacteristically I became upset with a reporter for constantly asking questions only about my deafness. I said: 'If you want to know about deafness, you should interview an audiologist. My speciality is music".
I’ve tried to describe something which I find very difficult to explain. Even so, no one really understands how I do what I do. Please enjoy the music and forget the rest.
Any musical guilty pleasures?
Buying too many instruments.
Who would play you in a movie?
Which composer or band would you bring back from the dead?
Freddie Mercury and Beethoven
What is your greatest extravagance?
Purchasing a 30 piece Gamelan and the largest Timpani in the world.
Any words of wisdom you would like to offer or have received?
Know your stuff, know who you're going to stuff, then stuff them!
Any hidden talents?
I make the best Scrambled Eggs ever.
What/who would you put in Room 101?
The TSA Airport security company
Your top 5 musical works of all time or today are?
Beethoven's 9th Symphony
Elgar's Enigma Variations
Anything by the group Queen
James MacMillan's Veni Veni Emmanuel
Stravinsky's Rite of Spring
What's behind you?
My bottom and stubbornness.
If you could be reincarnated, who would you come back as?
I would like to have another go at being me.
What inspires you?
Opening my eyes each day.
If you weren't writing music for a living what would you be doing?
Working in visual art or something to do with animals.
Do you ever hear a complete piece of music in your head before writing it/ recording it?
Not a complete piece, only sections.
Do you download or buy music on CD?
I buy CDs mostly.
Other than family, what one thing would you rescue if your house was on fire?
Sophie the cat.
What question have you always wanted someone to ask you, and what would be your answer?
Question: May I help furnish your bank account with a million pounds? Answer: Yes, please.
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