My World: Interview with Evelyn Glennie

Posted on March 15th, 2015 in News, Recent posts by .

A pioneering solo percussionist, Dame Evelyn Glennie continues to revolutionise the field. In 2014, she spoke to editor-in-chief Simon Broughton about her favourite music destinations and collection of percussion from around the world

The upper floor of Evelyn Glennie’s offices in Huntingdon is packed full of percussion instruments from all over the world – components of a Javanese gamelan, Korean drums, countless rattles, shakers, skins and resonating things of every size, colour and material you can imagine. And there’s another packed room downstairs.

This isn’t a surprise, of course. Glennie has been a groundbreaking force in percussion as long as I can remember and was the first to make the profession of percussionist a possibility. Dame Evelyn Glennie’s contribution to music has been nationally recognised. She has commissioned some 170 new percussion works and was one of the notable Britons involved in the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics. “They came to see me and said they wanted a bell-like sound,” she remembers. “I said ‘why not use tubular bells?’ but they said, ‘actually we’ve got Mike Oldfield doing his Tubular Bells, is there anything else?’ So I suggested this brand new instrument called an aluphone and as soon as I played it, they said ‘yes, that’s it.’”

The aluphone, which she demonstrates to me right here, is like a cross between a vibraphone and temple bells, with conical aluminium chimes struck with mallets. It’s typical of Glennie to bring together the best of the new and the old in pioneering instruments like this. She premiered a Concerto for Aluphone and Orchestra by Anders Koppel this year.

In her travels as a percussionist, I wonder what parts of the world have made a particular impression on her. She has no hesitation: “Definitely the Far East is the one territory where percussion is treated with a real respect. It runs right through from the traditional side onto the concert platform. I’ve had wonderful exchanges with musicians and met specialists of certain instruments like janggu and buk (Korean drums), tabla or marimba. There’s always this tendency when you’re studying music to say it has to be done like this or that and you get tied up in the system. For me there is no method, but there has to be respect. So I meet the janggu or tabla or gamelan expert to understand the history and meaning of that instrument, but ultimately I’m a Scottish person living in the UK dealing with composers and creating music myself. Who knows where all this will go? We’re still part of this journey.”

Dulsori (literally ‘Heartbeat of the Land’), from South Korea, are a percussion-led band that have been going since 1986 and grew out of the drumming and dancing tradition popularised by the group SamulNori. Dulsori’s music is powerful and elemental, based on drumming. In ‘Drum Sinawe’, the music is led by a Buddhist ritual drum called a beopgo joined by daegeum (flute) and geomungo (zither). “When I went to South Korea to explore traditional instruments there, I was amazed by the physical impact that hits every part of your body. It’s so physical and they are throwing themselves into music and performance.”

Brazil is another region where Glennie has direct experience, having been invited to join Unidos do Cabuçu samba school for the Rio Carnaval in 1989. “I was given a tamborím – it’s like a tambourine with no jingles and played with a thin plastic stick. It’s a really nifty technique that drives the upper frequency of the samba rhythm.”

“It’s this huge group of people creating a wave of rhythm and energy where you can hear the sweat. It’s not often that women play the instruments – they are usually the dancers, but I was disguised so they wouldn’t get marked down. Other than the Olympic ceremony, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such an overwhelming feeling from the audience as we marched down the streets. It was breathtaking.”

Another tradition that fascinates Glennie is Indonesian gamelan, with the large percussion ensembles that have intrigued Western musicians for years. “When I was first married we went out to Bali for a honeymoon and we saw Balinese ensembles virtually every day.”

Glennie points to some hanging gongs just behind me. “I thought it would be great to have my own gamelan but tuned to both the Javanese (pelog and slendro) and Western diatonic scales because I needed it to work in our own situation. Jonathan Harvey wrote a concerto for me, which we premiered at the Proms for marimba, vibraphone and several pieces of the gamelan as part of the solo set-up.” The piece Glennie has chosen for the playlist is from Sunda, West Java, and combines various mallet instruments led by strong drumming on the double-headed kendang drum.

Alaska is another territory Glennie suddenly throws into the conversation, where she became fascinated by a shaman’s drum in the museum in Anchorage. She searched high and low to find one to bring home, and because of its walrus skin, keeps it in the bathroom to regulate humidity. Glennie recently performed with Tanya Tagaq at Carnegie Hall who demonstrated some of the Inuit throat singing techniques. “I really enjoyed that. It’s like using the body as percussion.”

The traditional Inuit singing called katajjaq is one of the most extraordinary styles you’ll ever hear. It’s performed by two women singing directly into each other’s faces almost like body percussion which fascinates Glennie. As she is profoundly deaf, the feel of music through its vibrations is even more crucial to Glennie than the rest of us.

On this playlist, we’re including one piece in which Glennie performs herself – part of the percussion concerto by Taiwanese composer Yiu-Kwong Chung. “He’s a wonderful musician who’s studied both traditional Chinese and Western percussion. His premise is to combine East and West and he does that by inviting soloists like myself to work together with his orchestra. The Taipei Chinese Orchestra is really like the London Symphony of traditional Chinese instruments. “The last movement is for a multi-drum set-up from the high sounding tom tom to the low resonant bass drum – a mixture of Western and Chinese instruments. Percussion is the backbone of so much Chinese traditional music. The traditional instruments look so wonderful with their vibrant colours. It’s fantastic to see as well as experience.”

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