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This story by Elaine Strauss was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

March 25, 1998. All rights reserved

Tuning In To a Resourceful Percussionist

Thuds and pings, tinkles and booms, buzzes and clinks:

these are the sonic raw materials with which percussionist Evelyn

Glennie works. Each sound implies a piece of equipment. These unusual

instruments offer audiences a feast for the eyes, as does the sight

of Glennie moving deftly from one to another, dressed in colorful,

comfortable clothing, and bare feet.

The sense of touch and the bare feet are of particular importance

to this musician because she is deaf. Glennie lost her hearing as

a result of a neurological problem that surfaced when she was eight.

By the time she was 12, she was profoundly deaf. "I didn’t worry

too much about what was happening to my hearing," she says. "It

was part of me, and it developed in a natural way." Rather than

using a hearing aid, which distorted sound, she learned to read lips.

And she continued to study and conquer her musical repertory, determined

to avoid making a fuss about her inability to hear.

The resourceful percussionist appears with the New Jersey Symphony

Orchestra on Thursday, March 26, at 8 p.m. at New Brunswick’s State

Theater, and on Friday, March 27, at 8:30 p.m. in Trenton’s Crescent

Theater. Glennie solos in the New Jersey premiere of James MacMillan’s

"Veni, Veni, Emmanuel," which is based on an Advent plainsong

from 15th-century France. Eiji Oue, director of the Minnesota Orchestra,

makes his debut with the NJSO in the program that includes Brahms’

"Variations on a Theme by Haydn," Tchaikovsky’s "Romeo

and Juliet Fantasy-Overture," and Ravel’s "La Valse."

Composer MacMillan calls his "Veni, Veni," "a musical

exploration of the theology behind the Advent message." Glennie

uses a battery of 38 instruments to play the 30-minute concerto, which

she premiered at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1992.

In an interview by fax from England, Glennie responds to all questions

U.S. 1 puts to her, taking the liberty, sometimes, of using incomplete

sentences. We are taking the liberty of making complete sentences

out of Glennie’s lively responses. We ask her about the ideas behind

MacMillan’s piece.

"The theme `O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’ on which the whole work

is based, is sometimes abstract and sometimes evokes a huge distant

congregation murmuring a calm prayer," Glennie responds. "The

congregation and the heartbeats which permeate the ending are all

points that are recognizable." Glennie considers the MacMillan

piece her all-time favorite among the works in her repertoire. "I

wouldn’t care if I had just one triangle to play and one stroke,"

she says, "I would be happy being on the platform with that music."

Now 32, Glennie, the youngest of three children, grew

up on a farm near Aberdeen, Scotland. Her mother played the church

organ and her father played accordion. Endowed with perfect pitch,

Glennie’s first instruments were piano, clarinet, and recorder. Yet

when she was eight, she noticed that she was losing her hearing. From

the age of 12, she studied timpani and percussion. At London’s Royal

Academy of Music, she won many prizes, including its highest award,

the Queen’s Commendation Prize for all-around excellence. She went

on to win a Shell/London Symphony Orchestra Music Scholarship that

enabled her to study marimba in Japan.

Exploring percussion instruments throughout the world, Glennie worked

with both scholars and street musicians to become a self-trained ethnomusicologist.

In India she learned hand-drumming. In Brazil she explored samba techniques.

In Huntingdon, England, near Cambridge, Glennie houses 700 percussion

instruments. She considers her 30-piece Indonesian gamelan as one

instrument. If, after scouring the world for an instrument that produces

a particular sound, Glennie cannot find exactly what she wants, she

has a technician create what she calls a "home-grown" instrument

to fill the bill. The "home-grown" instruments are essential

for Glennie because, in addition to being a solo performer, she is

also a composer, open to the possibilities for new sonorities.

By the time she was 24, Glennie had already written her autobiography,

"Good Vibrations," published in Britain and in Japan. We ask

her if writing it was as much fun as preparing for a concert tour.

"It was interesting to experience the whole process of creating

a book," she says. "It was hard work. My daily diaries helped

enormously. I felt very proud of the finished result."

Like a violinist or flutist, Glennie uses all her own instruments

on tour. Yet the logistical problems she faces are much greater. "It

needs good flight cases and lots of patience!" she exclaims by

fax. "I travel with 1-1/2 tons, which means I have big insurance

costs. The equipment goes by plane and truck, depending on the distance,

and is put in the hold of the plane when flying. It is hardly ever

on the same flight as me, as the instruments leave ahead of time."

Glennie’s tour truck is decorated with a logo in which the letters

of Evelyn are spelled out in musical symbols and drumsticks. This

logo also appears on her exuberant website,,

which provides, among other items, a biography, a discography, a list

of concert engagements, and the opportunity for a virtual percussion

lesson. By clicking on a link, one can elicit of picture of Glennie

surrounded by 10 percussion instruments; by clicking on an instrument,

one proceeds to the lesson.

Glennie spends an average of three hours setting up for a concert.

She follows no rigid placement plan, but eyeballs the size of the

stage, calculates the balance she seeks among the instruments, and

estimates what she calls "the practicalities of reaching the different

groups or stations of equipment."

She is attentive to the joys of playing more than one instrument.

"It’s like having a little orchestra," she says. "It’s

also good visually for the audience. Each instrument is special and

exciting to play. It allows you to use your whole body in different

ways physically, due to the shapes and sizes of the instruments. The

sense of touch is heightened due to the many surfaces to be struck."

She recalls no narrow escapes moving from one instrument

to another. "A well-written piece," she says, " will allow

a performer time to get from instrument to instrument, pick up sticks,

turn pages, et cetera, comfortably."

Her website attempts to put the topic of Glennie’s hearing to rest

by including an essay on Evelyn’s hearing by her husband, Greg Malcangi,

a tuba player and recording engineer who acts as Glennie’s producer.

"Surprisingly," he writes, "we have had more feedback

regarding the essay on Evelyn’s hearing than for any other item."

"Evelyn hopes that the audience will be stimulated by what she

has to say (through the language of music)," Malcangi says, "and

will therefore leave the concert hall feeling entertained. If the

audience is instead only wondering how a deaf musician can play percussion

then Evelyn has failed as a musician. For this reason Evelyn’s deafness

is not mentioned in any of the information supplied by Evelyn’s office,

to the press, or concert promoters. Unfortunately, Evelyn’s deafness

makes good headlines. Evelyn has learnt from childhood that if she

refuses to discuss her deafness with the media they will just make

it up."

Malcangi describes hearing as a specialized form of touch in which

vibrations are interpreted by the brain. He points out that sensing

a large truck going past is a matter of both hearing and feeling the

low frequency vibrations. "Deafness," he says, "does not

mean that you can’t hear, only that there is something wrong with

the ears."

"Evelyn spent a lot of time when she was young (with the help

of Ron Forbes, her percussion teacher at school) refining her ability

to detect vibrations," Malcangi continues. "She would stand

with her hands against the classroom wall while Ron played notes on

the timpani. Eventually Evelyn managed to distinguish the rough pitch

of notes by associating where on her body she felt the sound with

the sense of perfect pitch she had before losing her hearing. The

low sounds she feels mainly in her legs and feet and high sounds might

be particular places on her face, neck, and chest."

"It is worth pointing out," adds Malcangi, "that Evelyn

is not totally deaf. She can usually hear someone speaking although

she cannot understand them without the additional input of lip-reading."

Evelyn uses her vision, also, to help her listen to sounds other than

speech. "If Evelyn sees a drum head or cymbal vibrate or even

sees the leaves of a tree moving in the wind then subconsciously her

brain creates a corresponding sound."

Malcangi adds that "Evelyn’s hearing is something that bothers

other people far more than it bothers her. To her, her deafness is

no more important than the fact she is a five-foot two-inch female

with brown eyes."

Glennie does have an interest in bringing music to deaf children.

She is president of the London-based Beethoven Fund, a charitable

organization which, she says, "encourages the participation of

music-making by deaf children and provides musical instruments to

schools for the deaf. They spread the word that music can be enjoyed

by all who are curious enough to explore it."

For her part, Glennie spreads the word that percussion can be enjoyed

by all who are curious enough to explore it. On the CD "Evelyn

Glennie, her Greatest Hits," newly released this January, Glennie

leads a percussion-wide exploration of music that breaks new ground

in many directions. Foremost is the integrity of each separate musical

mood. Suppleness, starkness, or lyricism appear in pure form and on

a huge number of instruments. The variety of sound is overwhelming,

ranging from the rustling of marimbas to the primal sounds of Richard

Rodney Bennett’s "Concerto for Percussion and Chamber Orchestra,"

and reaching ethnically from Latin America to Japan, via Mexico, the

United States, Europe, and Russia. The inclusion of well-known pieces,

such as Chopin’s "Black Key Etude," Rimsky-Korsakov’s "Flight

of the Bumblebee," and Scott Joplin’s "Maple Tree Rag," sets

them in a new light.

If I had to choose only one selection to take to a desert island,

I would pick one of Glennie’s two collaborations with the Icelandic

rock singer Bjork. The chemistry between the two women was instantly

perceivable and they recorded within hours of meeting in 1995. In

the improvisation "My Spine," the tuned automobile exhaust

pipes played by Glennie with four glockenspiel mallets vividly contrast

with the sustained quality of Bjork’s voice. In "Oxygen" the

contrast is between marimba and singing.

Glennie is a consummate musician. Her music making is extraordinary

in its clarity and sensitivity. As her husband says, "No one really

understands how Evelyn does what she does. Please enjoy the music

and forget the rest."

— Elaine Strauss

Evelyn Glennie, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, State

Theater, New Brunswick, 800-ALLEGRO. $12 to $52. Thursday, March

26, 8 p.m. Crescent Theater, Trenton. $12 to $52. Friday, March

27, 8:30 p.m.

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