Dame Evelyn Glennie is the world’s first full-time solo percussionist. She has commissioned 160 new works for percussion, and she has collaborated with everyone from Emmanual Ax to Sting. She has also been profoundly deaf since the age of twelve. The film Touch the Sound is about her journey as a hearing-impaired musician.
Glennie visited Indiana University in April of 2010 to teach master classes and hold composition seminars with students at the Jacobs School of Music. She spoke with Annie Corrigan in the WFIU studios about her career past, present, and future.
Highlights From The Interview
With all the traveling you do, how do you stay strong as a musician? How do you keep your practicing up?
Well, that really is the challenge because you can’t easily move a set of timpani or marimba or a set of drums or something into a hotel room. You have to have the confidence in yourself to know that physically you can deal with the music. But it goes far deeper than that. A lot of the thinking process is about the musical direction, the actual interpretation, and that’s something you can deal with as you’re on a train or a plane. Nevertheless, any time I can get with an instrument is pretty valuable and quite precious.
Also, these aren’t your instruments. These are instruments that the orchestra has that they’re bringing in for you, instruments that you pick up at schools like Indiana University. That’s something that pianists struggle with too: they’re not really sure what they’re going to sit down at to play.
That’s very true. On this tour I’ve had different makes of marimbas across the board. And probably unlike pianos, a marimba or a vibraphone can vary in height, it can vary in the width of bars, in the width of the space between the bars. So it is pretty crucial to use that time to get used to a particular instrument and not panic about it either, to know that you will be able to handle a situation.
What Could Have Been A Disability Became A Strength
You’ve been profoundly deaf since the age of 12. It might be strange for some people to think that this world-famous professional musician can’t hear. When did you start losing your hearing, and how did that affect you as a young woman?
I began losing my hearing at the age of 8. It was a very slow process, and I was having real problems with my ears before that. At that time, music was not so affected, because I was still very much dealing with the mechanics of playing. It was really in my teenage years that music became a challenge, because I assumed that in order to hear, I needed things to be louder. Hearing aids boost sound, but they don’t give you any clarity. As a percussion player, playing in the school orchestra and being in the school environment, I had an awful lot of frequencies, different attacks, different dynamics to deal with. This was hugely tiring, very frustrating indeed.
Sometimes when I got home, I’d just take the hearing aids off, throw them on the bed, and be in a world of silence. What I did discover, when that happened, was that all my other senses became razor-sharp. My hearing skills actually also became much more profound. I was discovering that actually without feeding the sound through my ears, I was inadvertently feeding the sound through my body, so my body almost became a huge ear. This was just a revelation.
The State Of Contemporary Music
Let’s talk a little about the music climate these days. Orchestras are in some financial trouble. Tuition at music schools like Indiana University is going up, while some say interest in music is going down. As someone who has her toes in many different areas of music, how do you see it? Where are we as Western art musicians today?
We can’t take anything for granted. We have always got to reinvent. Those are the facts. Nowadays, our entertainment can happen within the privacy of our own four walls. We’re quite happy being entertained on our own, it’s not such a shared experience anymore. So for people to get out of their comfy chairs and out of their home environment, they’ve really got to make that trip to see something quite special.
You think of the name of Bela Fleck, for example, or Edgar Meyer. They are just fantastic examples of musicians who delve into many different avenues, who collaborate with many different types of people. If you can program Beethoven or Tchaikovsky or Sibelius or something alongside their music, the Beethovens will become really exciting again.
The flip side of this is the music-lovers out there, the people who tend to go to concerts. Perhaps they want their Beethoven, they want their Mozart. Some people say that new music, 21st century and 20th century music, is a little alienating. What would you say to the people just aren’t interested in that? Who might say, “I don’t want that, I’ll stick to the 18th and 19th century music, thank you very much.”
Our whole problem has been about categorization. We’re determined to use the term ‘classical’ even for today’s composers. Of course, it’s too early to categorize the music that’s written today. It hasn’t had a chance to breathe yet.
A Sound Aural Meal
It’s about listening to each other, and giving each other that chance to be heard. Listening is about watching, it’s about body movement, it’s about patience, it’s about teamwork. Very often I’ll be with an orchestra that I’ve never been with before, with a conductor I’ve never met before, a piece of music I’ve never played before, in a hall where I’ve never been before. You might have four hours over two days to put this piece of music together in order to serve a sound meal to an audience.
If that isn’t about teamwork, I don’t know what is. And if that isn’t about listening, I don’t know what is.