Percussionist has the perfect touch

By John Fleming, Times Performing Arts Critic
Published August 24, 2007

ORMOND BEACH - Percussionist Evelyn Glennie dashes around stage like a woman possessed, darting from marimba to tom-toms to cymbals to bongos to every other imaginable instrument that can be struck, shook, rattled and rolled.

But just one, she says, is indispensable.

"If I were stranded on a desert island, the snare drum is the instrument I would want to have close at hand," Glennie said to the audience before her performance of Prim, a piece for solo snare drum by Icelandic composer Askell Masson.

As Glennie spun out a long roll on the drum, the effect it had was more than a little disorienting as the repetitive, tightly woven pattern gained in volume, speed and intensity. With a single spotlight on the drum, the Scottish percussionist herself seemed to recede into the shadows.

My attention narrowed down to her hands, the drumsticks, the head of the drum. Gradually the sounds they produced with scrapes and taps and rim shots took on a surprising variety and expressiveness and even color, like a lively dialogue in some exotic language.

All this from an instrument I'd long thought mundane, even annoying.

"That's why I like the snare drum on its own, because it is just this little sound world that we're kind of familiar with, yet we're really not," Glennie said later. "It's as though I'm mixing a pool of sound, and everything else is nonexistent."

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Glennie, 42, is a singular artist. Most conspicuously - and much to her consternation - she is known for being deaf. It's a seemingly insurmountable obstacle for a musician, but one she has overcome with stunning success as the first person to have an international career as a solo percussionist. She has been performing upwards of 100 concerts a year for two decades.

Glennie is an advocate for the deaf who fiercely resists being defined by her hearing loss. She is portrayed as a high priestess of sound in a prize-winning documentary, Touch the Sound: A Sound Journey with Evelyn Glennie.

"My whole life is about sound. It's what makes me tick as a human being," she says in the film.

I went to see Glennie in July at the Florida International Festival, which brings the London Symphony Orchestra to Daytona Beach. She was featured in a new arrangement for percussion soloist of the Symphonic Dances from Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story with the LSO, and she also gave a recital of contemporary works that included Prim.

As a performer, Glennie is known for her showmanship, shifting among the battery of percussion that surrounds her onstage. She plays barefoot, to feel the vibrations of the music.

Visually, Glennie is like a brilliant chameleon. Sometimes she exudes the winsome sweetness of Emmylou Harris, the country singer whom the percussionist resembles, complete with a shy little smile and girlish toss of her hair. She also reminds me of rocker Patti Smith for the sexy mix of toughness and poetry she brings to a performance. Her muscular left shoulder sports a thistle tattoo.

In the opening scene of Touch the Sound, Glennie's long hair is bright red. Later in the film, wearing jeans and tank top, she's a dirty blond, taking on the look of a waiflike street musician banging on a couple of soda pop cans to the rhythms of a tap dancer.

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At 9:30 on a Monday morning, Glennie in redhead mode was checking out her dressing room backstage at the Ormond Beach Performing Arts Center, a venue more accustomed to country gospel quartets than a solo percussionist.

"I've been in a trillion and one dressing rooms, and I always walk in and take note of how it is going to make me feel," Glennie said, coolly surveying the tiny space, bare except for a mirror and two chairs.

"Do I have to walk miles to the stage? Is it warm? Is it cold? Where's the toilet? All this sounds so trivial, but I cannot tell you the importance of the dressing room."

Glennie found a nail on the wall to hang up the outfit she would wear in that night's recital, opened a suitcase full of mallets and got to work. She wouldn't be finished until 13 hours later.

Along with her ponytailed technical manager, James Wilson, and a local crew of stagehands, Glennie spent the morning and afternoon setting up her instruments and doing sound and lighting checks. Occasionally she would retreat to the dressing room and close the door, but you could still hear the crisp rata-tat-tat of drumsticks on a hard surface.

"I practice when I can," Glennie said. "People assume if you're a musician that you play your instrument all day long. The reality is that the percentage of time you spend with your instrument is tiny in comparison with what needs to be done behind the scenes.

"There are musicians who only play and leave everything else to agents or whoever, but I definitely like to create my own path and not be reliant on other people."

Glennie demands a lot of herself, and she can become exasperated with others. Two days earlier she and the LSO had premiered the Bernstein piece, arranged by Craig Leon, a composer and pop record producer known for his work with the Ramones and Blondie.

Symphonic Dances was a fun spin through Bernstein's score, and the sellout crowd gave Glennie a standing ovation. But the arrangement didn't do much more than ape the standard orchestral version, replacing strings with saxophones and giving the soloist lyrical tunes like Somewhere on marimba.

Glennie, scheduled to record the work later this year, didn't sound pleased. "For me, it's not particularly soloistic, so I wouldn't actually stand up and play only this piece," she said. "Now, having tried it, I would definitely want to pair it with a proper concerto."

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Glennie's greatest achievement may be the staggering amount of percussion music she has commissioned, more than 140 works, starting when she was a student at the Royal Academy of Music in London. "I'd get the British music yearbook that lists composers, and I'd write them and ask them to write little pieces for me," she said.

Some of the most popular works written for Glennie employ the whole gamut of percussion and orchestra, such as James MacMillan's Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, Michael Daugherty's UFO and Christopher Rouse's Der Gerettete Alberich, inspired by Wagner's Ring cycle. In February, she will premiere a percussion concerto written for her by John Corigliano with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

"The fantastic thing about Evelyn is that she has in many ways created the genre," said Neil Percy, the LSO's principal percussionist. "Before her, there weren't any percussion soloists, except for some marimba players. Through her determination and drive, she's paved the way for so many other people."

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Glennie was raised on a farm in northeast Scotland near Aberdeen, origins she credits for her remarkable story. "In the northeast, people are pretty stubborn and down to earth," she said, rolling her R's in a Scottish burr. "They're not full of frills or interested in superficial things. Basically, to build a career means hard work."

She lost her hearing over about four years, culminating at age 12, which was also when she took up percussion. After her first lesson, the teacher "basically said to me, 'Why don't you take this snare drum away for a week and experiment with it?'

"I had no stand, no sticks, just the drum. So I spent the next week trying to figure out what to do with this thing. I'd start out sort of beating it, scratching it, stroking it, hitting it with my fist.

"Then the next time, my instructor asked me to create the sound of thunder, or the sound of sun rays, or the sound of snow. Well, that interested me. What is the sound of snow? That kind of approach was a key influence on me. I'm not about technique and the mechanics of playing. I'm about playing how I feel, getting out what I believe in."

Glennie, who is profoundly deaf, has some hearing, most clearly in the upper and lower frequencies; her middle range consists of noise she has learned to interpret. Marin Alsop, who conducted the Symphonic Dances premiere, has worked frequently with her.

"She actually hears music pretty well," Alsop said. "She'll say to me, for example, 'I think there's a wrong note in the horn.' I think it's because her other senses are so highly developed. She's paying incredible attention and has tremendous focus."

Glennie reads lips, and I told her I almost forgot about her deafness after talking with her for a while. "Good, good, that's the way I like it," she said.

There were anomalous moments as she rehearsed in Ormond Beach, such as her playing a shimmering solo on the marimba, apparently oblivious to the loud whine of a vacuum cleaner a few yards away.

Her deafness is not exactly off limits for a journalist, but Glennie is tired of the attention it receives. She wrote a "Hearing Essay" on her Web site (www.evelyn.co.uk) "because I was getting the same questions, questions that were not well thought out, questions that wanted answers just in a sentence or two," she told me. "I get very frustrated with that."

In the essay, Glennie says that hearing is "a form of touch," and that she feels sound vibrations in various parts of her body. "The low sounds I feel mainly in my legs and feet and high sounds might be particular places on my face, neck and chest," she writes.

Touch the Sound suggests that our sense of hearing is being degraded by cell phones, MP3 players and modern life in general. "It is ironic," Glennie said of her role as sound's version of the canary in the coal mine, "but often it's the opposite of what you expect that makes people sit up and take notice."

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Glennie's recital was not only a superb display of virtuosity, but it was also a fresh approach to classical concert presentation, with vivid lighting and an electronic sound mix rich with reverberation. She would say a few words between pieces, but the program had a seamless quality that was mesmerizing.

The centerpiece was a far-out work for percussion and tape called Temazcal by Javier Alvarez. Bathed in misty red light, Glennie played maracas as if in a trance, her movements frenzied amid a tumultuous electronic soundscape that ranged from eerie blips and bleeps to thundering white noise and feedback to a chirpy calypso tune.

Afterward, Glennie sipped a beer in the dressing room and chatted about artists who inspire her, such as Cirque du Soleil and Blue Man Group and Stomp. Her latest essay on her Web site argues that classical musicians must bring more flair to their performances, or completely lose audiences used to the glitz of pop culture.

"When I go to an event, I need all my senses fed," she said. "If I'm just sitting there just watching sound - literally, seeing the players doing their thing - it isn't enough for me."

Glennie incorporates that experience into her concerts. "Each piece has its color, has its shape, has its movement," she said. "The atmosphere, in a way, helps you to hear."

John Fleming can be reached at (727) 893-8716 or fleming@sptimes.com.

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Percussion preserved

Evelyn Glennie appears on 22 recordings that range from recitals to concertos with symphony orchestras to crossover projects. She is famous for offbeat collaborations with banjo player Bela Fleck, Bjork (featured on the Icelandic pop star's album Telegram) and Oscar the Grouch from Sesame Street. Here's a sampling of her on DVD and CD.

Touch the Sound: A Sound Journey with Evelyn Glennie (Docurama) - German filmmaker Thomas Riedelsheimer's counterintuitive concept - an exploration of sound focused on the deaf percussionist - yielded one of the best documentaries ever made about a musician.

Shadow Behind the Iron Sun (RCA) - Glennie collaborated with pop producer Michael Brauer in a four-day studio session entirely improvised on a vast array of percussion. Electronic sound manipulation gives tracks like Battle Cry a wild techno quality.

Evelyn Glennie: Her Greatest Hits (RCA) - This two-CD compilation from 1997 has a wide range of music, including Glennie's truly weird rendition of Born To Be Wild and her haunting pairing with Bjork on Oxygen for marimba and voice.

Veni, Veni, Emmanuel (Catalyst) - Premiered in 1992, this concerto for percussion and orchestra by fellow Scot James MacMillan was Glennie's calling card in establishing her career as a soloist with orchestras.

Murray Perahia: Bartok Piano Works (Sony Classical) - Glennie is featured, along with duo-pianists Perahia and Georg Solti and percussionist David Corkhill, in Bartok's groundbreaking Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. Released in 1988, it was her first recording and won a Grammy.

John Fleming, Times performing arts critic