Barefoot in the pit

8th March 1996 at 00:00
No surface is off limits to Evelyn Glennie; she will tap out a beat on anything from a bed rail to a saucepan. And all the time she's feeling the sound through her feet. Reva Klein meets the diminutive percussionist who has contributed to the Resources Award winner

There's a terrific sequence in Evelyn Glennie's section on rhythm for Channel 4's The Music Show, winner of The TES's new Resources Award, in which she lets rip in a room at Great Ormond Street Hospital. Wielding a pair of drumsticks, she starts off on some metal coathooks on the back of the door, then works her way around the room. Nothing is off limits. She taps out a beat on the bins, on the bed rails, even on the film camera itself. There's a joyousness and eagerness to share about her playing and the way she explains things to the children that says as much about her as about the way the programme has been constructed.

For such a small woman, Glennie sure makes an impact wherever she goes. Especially when she hits things. Just take a look at the converted barn that is her recording and rehearsal studio, which you can do on her World Wide Web pages on the Internet. It's chock-a-block with the things she hits.

In the middle of the long, white room, an array of charity shop saucepans (one of them still with its 50p price label) dangles from a rack above an enormous wooden marimba. Every square inch of space is taken up with state of the art western musical instruments, beautifully handcrafted objects from the four corners of the world and reassuringly familiar things, such as a cheese grater and pestle and mortar.

Without exception, everything is there to be hit, from the small, prettily painted Mexican drum to the huge rack full of different-sized cymbals; from the Indonesian bamboo anklung, which looks like a vertical xylophone, to the sizeable array of timpanis, congas and pans. And somehow you get the idea that their owner has thwacked the living daylights out of each and every one of them, many times over.

But when Glennie hits them, you hear the most sublime sounds. The world's first full-time solo percussionist is also an internationally acclaimed musician whose numerous honorary doctorates and fellowships, musical awards, hyperactive touring schedule and OBE attest to the fact that the tiny Scotswoman is considered by the music establishment, the media and the public, to be very hot property indeed.

It has to be said that part of the media fascination is to due to her deafness and that her accomplished musicianship has developed in spite of it. You get the feeling that she is heartily tired of people dwelling on her disability; she perceives it as something that happened at the age of 11 which she has learned not only to overcome but to use to her advantage.

While we hear music, Glennie literally feels it with her body and her brain and, metaphorically, with her soul. Vibrations help the small amount of residual hearing that she has, and she will go barefoot when accompanying an orchestra or listening to music, to feel them more acutely. But, to a large extent, her capacity to identify tone must be put down to a kind of sixth sense.

And her lip-reading abilities are so finely honed that it's easy to forget she is deaf. Her beautifully modulated voice, with its occasional Aberdeenshire burr, is as clear as a bell and her speech is fluid and fluent.

whatever the explanation for her hearing abilities, feelings play a significant part in the creative process of interpreting and making music. "My job," she says, sitting in a corner of her large home outside Huntingdon, Cambridge-shire, "is creating sound and making some kind of emotion from it".

She is constantly in demand in the United States, Europe and Japan. Fuelling her is an almost missionary fervour to open the world of music and musicianship to children and young people as well as to older audiences. "Music is something we all communicate with, whether as participators or as passive listeners. It's important for young people to experience the real creativity of music, literally using every sense to experience it - doing everything but tasting it."

This approach comes across in her section of The Music Show, which she had a hand in shaping. There are visual interpretations of sound to complement her illustrations of rhythm and pattern, giving a depth of meaning to the sounds and making the programme beautifully accessible to deaf children.

Glennie knows how important it is for children to gain inspiration from others and how it can influence the way they think and feel. Her own inspiration came when she saw a local girl playing the xylophone. "I thought it was the most incredible thing and I decided it was what I wanted to do."

By that time, she had already begun to lose her hearing because of what doctors identified as gradual nerve damage. Nobody has ever found the cause. She refused doctors' advice to go to a special school and to wear hearing aids, which she abandoned when she could no longer stand the way they distorted sound.

Her determination to stand her ground and become a percussionist was vindicated when, in 1984, she auditioned at the Royal Academy of Music and received one of the highest scores ever. "Internally, I was a pretty secure person. I knew what I wanted to do."

There was a time not too long ago when she had the flexibility of running occasional masterclasses and going into schools every now and then. Those days are over because of the unrelenting demands of her schedule. Setting up a Web page has helped to fill the breach to some extent with an educational, informative guide to what she is doing, her schedule, her writing projects, as well as a small masterclass. But not having much direct interaction with children anymore was one reason she was keen to work with Illuminations, the producers of The Music Show.

"It was one of the most interesting projects I've done because of the openness and freedom of ideas and having a lot of creative input into it. This was certainly not just another music programme which teaches notation - the sort of thing I saw as a youngster."

But then there were not many percussionists around then - male or female - who regularly humped nearly a ton of equipment around the world for solo concerts or who recorded a half a dozen records with top female pop vocalists. Evelyn's partnership with Bjork has been a felicitous, if unusual one. On her "It's So Quiet" recording, Glennie played on car exhaust pipes and this summer they will appear together at the Montreux Festival. She says of the small Icelandic vocalist: "She's completely adventurous and so individual as a musician. "

People have said the same about Glennie. With her heady blend of athleticism and musical virtuosity, she is a joy to watch and listen to, offering us something that, she says, she "can't actually describe."

Evelyn Glennie's web site can be found on

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