Evelyn Glennie’s listening life

Evelyn Glennie. Photo: Jim Callaghan

Wherever Dame Evelyn Glennie goes she picks up things with an eye to making music with them.

“At the moment,” she said in an interview earlier this year with ARTSFILE, “I am collecting bottle tops and plastic tops … things like that. I have a whole bag full of them. I can use them in different ways to create different types of things.

“l’m a big kid to be honest,” she said, reading my lips over a Skype connection from her office.

She keeps the items in a bag in her studio in the U.K. and pulls them out from time to time to give them a bash.

Glennie was supposed to be in Ottawa this week to perform at the National Arts Centre. This interview was intended to set up the concert and offer an insight into her unique musical life. COVID-19 put paid to the concert, but not the inspirational message she offers.

She is an advocate for percussion and the range of instrumentation she brings is enormous and situational. She is an active commissioner as well as performer single-handedly creating a massive repertoire of music for solo percussion.

“In the early years I just wanted everything and the kitchen sink.

“But as the years have gone on, I have had to really think about the logistics of the instruments, making sure the pieces have a long shelf life for other people to play them so they aren’t spending too much time and energy trying to find unusual bits and pieces.

“For me, as the years have gone on, I have tried to really reduce the number of instruments I use.”

She says orchestras don’t necessarily have a bottomless pit of cash any more.

“And even the whole process of commissioning is more challenging than ever before. There are a lot of things that come into play now in the decisions you make with the equipment.”

Glennie said that she is also at a phase in her life when “I want less actually. I want to be more focused on what I am playing.”

She says she is looking for simplicity and purity.

“It’s an appreciation of what a single instrument can do and really finding the layers of that instrument and the layers of expression actually. When you are dealing with fewer surfaces, it really forces the imagination and the listening skills of an audience as well.”

There is a magical word … listening. It is at the centre of her philosophy. She writes and speaks about the importance of listening often.

“Listening for me is an awareness. It’s basically an act that you decide to immerse yourself in. Hearing is a medical condition. Listening is not based on the amount that you hear.”

If you weren’t aware, Glennie has been hearing impaired since childhood. But really she ‘hears’ more that most people.

“I think as musicians we are a species that involves ourselves in a certain kind of listening. That doesn’t make us good listeners necessarily. Musicians can be selfish listeners at times.

“Listening is hard work. It takes focus. It does take time and concentration. It’s a kind of presence.”

As a journalist, it is crucial to listen intently in a conversation to get the facts and to also catch interesting insights and details. But, Glennie points out, “there is an aspect of the meaning that will not be available to the reader. The expression, the surprise, the disappointment whatever that may be.

“With music that is something that can always be changed. You can always change your interpretation even though an audience will only have one chance at it at a particular time.

“If you line up 10 different players you have 10 different stories. That’s the beauty of music really.

“Although a decision has to be made at 7:30 or 8 p.m. on a particular date about how you will interpret that piece you know that it will be slightly different the next night. That’s kind of nice to know.”

When Glennie was a young player starting out she said she wanted to be as good a percussionist as she possibly could.

“That’s just a neverending situation. Likewise I’m not going to get to the bottom of all of that so I’d like to be as good a musician as I could be. But then I’m not going to get to the bottom of that either so what do you do.

“I have found that the crux of what I did was that I’m always listening to what I am doing. You are always picking at what you are doing. You are weeding your sound garden, always going back to the drawing board.

“When I started giving masterclasses and workshops and had exchanges with students: basically what I was there to do was ask them to listen to themselves and make some decisions and to think to themselves what actions are actually taking place and why are they doing certain things and so on.”

She did this to encourage students to listen to themselves, “because ultimately that is what they will have to do in a performance or in a recording studio. There won’t be a teacher there holding their hand all the time.”

She said she realized that’s what she does herself.

“I am having a conversation with myself in a performance, recording or rehearsal. That made me realize the differences between practice and rehearsal and all sorts of different situations. The one thing that glued all these things together was listening.

“I think it was a natural progression and realization. Then as you get into so many different aspects of what you do in the profession, you realize that listening is absolutely paramount.”

This happens in the broader society as well. “Often the breakdowns are from not listening.”

What about the dynamic between a musician and an audience?

“A live performance always naturally involves all of the senses. You can give the illusion of creating a sound by just sort of hovering over the surface and people will actually think you are playing very quietly when in fact there is no sound.

“It is the presence of musicians that really helps an audience be involved in a performance.

“The visual aspect is so crucial in a live performance.” This she says is why we have so many different experiences when we digest a piece of music through a recording which is basically fed through the ears.

“In a live performance you can feel the air move when somebody swipes it with a mallet. You can see the sweat and the facial expressions, the grimaces, the frowns and the eyes. The pace of the piece changes in a live situation.”

That is different from a recording.

When one of the senses fades away, she said, “your body realigns itself and readjusts itself. That’s what we do when we walk into a concert hall and try to work out the acoustics of a place.

“If we go into a library we aren’t going to shout at the top of our lungs because it would be inappropriate. In the same way we won’t be whispering at a football match.

“We are so used to just slotting our senses into boxes. If you are blind you can’t see. If you can’t hear it means you are deaf. That’s gone on for too long. You realize all the senses are very connected. That creates this very mysterious sixth sense.”

In her experience, musicians who are sight-impaired or hearing-impaired or have some physical difficulty, “they are absolutely no less creative in any kind of way in what they do. They can often bring such surprising elements to a situation that make you think outside of the box a little bit. I think that’s pretty healthy.”

For Glennie, it’s been a journey in how she has felt. Dealing with (hearing impairment) has been a natural progression, she said. “That’s just what you do.”

She is often engaging with parents and children and “much more so now with adults who are musicians who are losing their hearing and trying to readjust themselves.”

Technology is changing the landscape for children or are hearing impaired. There is, she said, “an explosion” in such things as cochlear implants.

“I’m a big supporter of a foundation in the U.K. called the Elizabeth Foundation where hearing impaired children are being helped to develop their own voices. They can enter mainstream schools and be musicians, businesspeople, athletes, teachers or whatever. It’s possible.

“The whole detection of deafness into the womb gives a whole different support and program once the baby is born. It used to be deafness would be detected when a child was about two.”

These advances have had an impact on how we treat music and hearing impaired people, she said. It’s now highly accessible to a much larger proportion of people, she said.

All that said, Glennie is respectful of the desire of some to be deaf and not hear.

“I wasn’t born deaf. I was deafened as a youngster. We all have different aspects of this. There is no way I can be in a position to dictate what someone should or should not do or can and cannot do. I can’t force people to go to concerts. That’s their decision.”

Glennie is someone who has led the way for those seeking a career as a solo percussionist.

She believes it is important for “active players to involve ourselves in commissioning. We need each other and need to think of the longevity of the repertoire. We need to think about working closely with composers and think about the kind of pieces we want out there.

“I think percussion has come a long way on so many different levels. As a solo medium many more people now doing this in a serious way.

“Promoters now have a choice of thinking, ‘Do I want a violinist or a percussionist?’ Most orchestras will have a percussion concerto during their seasons. That’s good news.

“I also think the level of playing has completely gone through the roof, which is fantastic.”

More young people exposed to high quality instruments at school. That wasn’t the case when she was young. She said she didn’t get her own marimba until her early 20s.

“All that is really changing. There are many more and more high profile competitions. That gives more focus to repertoire. Audiences are now more exposed to percussion concerts. They can go for many different reasons now — the performer, the composer, the piece of music even curiosity. I think we are in a good place.”

She started in school at age 12.

“My teacher came through the army music system and he was very much a musician through and through. We had very little in the school as regards the number of instruments and no one would come to give masterclasses.”

She lived in a farming community in northeast Scotland. In her school less meant more.

“We were dependent on piano and violin repertoire fitted on a three octave xylophone. It was a rickety old thing, but that was enough to be thinking about melody, harmony, sound colour … all of the ingredients.

“I think that stood me in good stead.”

She doesn’t have a favourite instrument?

“Whatever is in front of me, it really is. That’s how I see percussion. I focus on each surface I am dealing with.”

The drum is a primal instrument. It is also spiritual for many peoples.

“From the beginning of time we made sounds with our body and we also struck two twigs together. So for many cultures, (percussion) is related to how the body is. It’s internal to external. I think that’s important.

“In our mother’s womb, it’s very percussive. We are all percussionists to an extent. That’s why I get a lot of enjoyment and curiosity out of every day objects.”

She says she has a lot of fun exploring what the imagination can do with something as simple as a bag of beans.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.