Evelyn Glennie: 'Sweet harmony? That would be my Lambeg and Irish traditional music'
Ahead of her show in Belfast this Saturday, profoundly deaf Evelyn Glennie tells Una Brankin about drums and being a Dame
Among her 2,000 instruments, Dame Evelyn Glennie has a custom-made Lambeg drum. The tribal boom made by the Orange Order's musical stalwart isn't the most tuneful of her percussive collection, but she appreciates its formidable resonance.
"I had a wonderful one specifically made for me several years ago, for shows in Dublin," says Evelyn, a highly accomplished classical percussionist and composer of film and TV soundtracks.
"It has extraordinary power and the stick used with it is like a cane whip. I find it very interesting. Percussion is one of the most primitive forms of communication, so we feel incredibly connected to it."
A co-writer and performer of the rousing soundtrack to the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games, the Scottish virtuoso is one of very few who has successfully made a career as a solo percussionist, having played with the world's foremost orchestras, conductors and artists and has released more than 30 solo albums.
She is particularly appreciative of the mighty vibrations emitted from the Lambeg. Profoundly deaf since the age of 12, having started to lose her hearing from the age of eight, she taught herself "to hear" with parts of her body and senses other than her ears, and studied at the Royal Academy of Music before joining the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland.
Three decades on, she was announced as joint-winner, earlier this year, of the prestigious Swedish Polar music prize, founded by former ABBA manager Stig Anderson. The 50-year-old and her co-winner, Emmylou Harris, looked stunning on the night, in similar floaty white outfits, both sporting silvery grey tresses.
Petite and feminine, Evelyn isn't a stereotypical biker but she is an enthusiastic one, who has lobbied the Government on parking rights for motorbikes, as well as musical education. Like Sandy Shaw before her, she regularly plays barefoot during both live performances and studio recordings to feel the music better, and although she cannot hear music through headphones, it does not affect her ability to perform as a soloist at an international level and make widely acclaimed recordings.
One of the most eclectic and innovative musicians on the scene today, she has collaborated with a diverse range of stars, including Sting, Bjork, Bobby McFerrin, Julian Lloyd Webber and our own Sir James Galway.
She also performs with visual artists and is bringing one of the most stimulating of these collaborations to the Belfast International Arts Festival at the weekend.
Hailed by critics as a heady mix of live art and music, with architecture and state-of-the art technology, the AniMotion show at the front of Belfast City Hall promises to be a mesmerising visual and aural feast. Evelyn plays a range of percussion while Russian artist Maria Rud paints a series of iconic images, which are beamed live onto the walls of the City Hall.
"I perform one hour non-stop; some of the music is improvised," Evelyn explains, down the line from her Cambridgeshire home. "There's a solo gong crescendo for 15 minutes. It's about an emotion - all live in front of your eyes. You can walk around Maria's work station and the diverse percussive instruments.
"The idea came from Maria - she had worked with a choir before and was very influenced by the percussive piece. In AniMotion, the two separate entities of art and music merge intimately; the painting becomes the sound. The audience enjoy not just beautiful paintings on this stunning building but also the process of painting itself.
"They witness each brush stroke and developing form as the images materialise and transform, and are then swept away to be replaced by something new. The effect is breathtaking."
We're conversing with the help of Evelyn's PR assistant, who relays my questions. Her answers come back in a clear burr, with no hint of her hearing impairment (which she declines to discuss when I ask about the extent of it).
Born and raised in Aberdeenshire, Evelyn's father was an accordionist in a Scottish country dance band, and the strong, indigenous musical traditions of north-east Scotland were important in the development of the young musician. Her first instruments were the mouth organ and the clarinet; she has also mastered the Great Highland Bagpipes and has her own registered tartan, known as The Rhythms of Evelyn Glennie.
A prolific performer, she spends up to four months each year in the United States, and gives over 100 concerts a year, as well as master classes and schools performances.
"I saw Riverdance in the US and I was completely enthralled," she enthuses. "It was amazing on all levels. The Irish have such a rich musical tradition. I have played with the Ulster Orchestra many times and Irish traditional musicians, once when a Eurovision song contest performance had a percussive element.
"I'm open to all forms of solo percussive music, jazz and rock and roll, too - Ginger Baker (founder of the rock band Cream) had a huge impact on me. I love Charlie Watts' style of drumming; anyone who pushes the boundaries. Ringo Starr, Keith Moon - they're all extraordinary and have their place in history. So iconic, and all interesting.
"And I'd love to work with Eminem and Kate Bush. Their music fascinates me and I think it's very important to work with people who have a very different approach to music from my own."
Given her deafness and "saturation" in her work, Evelyn doesn't listen to music in her car or at home much, but enjoys going to live concerts and musicals, recently attending productions of Billy Elliot and The Jersey Boys. Her diverse influences include the late cellist Jacqueline du Pre. She hasn't yet learned to play the cello but intends to, when she can find the time.
"I've always loved the cello. When Jacqueline du Pre was performing, it was rare at that time for women to play the cello, which made her all the more appealing. I love the resonance of the instrument and the fact that the whole body curves around it, feeling every part of the sound."
Currently single, Evelyn was previously married to composer, sound engineer and tuba player Greg Malcangi, with whom she collaborated on several musical projects. They divorced in 2003, following her widely publicised affair with orchestral conductor Leonard Slatkin.
Having turned 50 this year, would she envisage getting married again?
"Oh heavens, who knows?" she laughs. "Fifty is a wonderful age to be and I've really enjoyed this year, as it requires me to think about legacy and wonderful projects. It's very important to think of ideas in the birthday year."
Beyond music, Evelyn teaches, produces her own range of jewellery and works as a motivational speaker, including presentations for TED Talks. Her talents and contributions to music earned her an OBE in 1993, an honour recently extended to Dame Commander for her services to music. To date, she has received approximately 80 international awards and is overflowing with ideas to improve her audiences' live and interactive experiences.
"So much of my career has been about firsts," she concludes. (She was the first percussion soloist to perform with an orchestra and she played the first solo percussion performance at a venue, festival and world premiere). "But the Damehood was a huge surprise. It brings responsibilities and expectations with it; I don't want to disappoint."
Given her unending creativity and plans to create a permanent exhibition space in Cambridgeshire for her 2,000 instruments, there's isn't much chance of this Dame having to hand her honour back.
- The AniMotion Show in Belfast, Irish Premiere, this Saturday, 7.30pm, Belfast City Hall. Admission is free, standing only. For further information go to www.belfastinternationalartsfestival.com
Her moments of note
- Dame Evelyn Glennie's recording career has been as illustrious as her performing and composing career. Evelyn's first CD, a recording of Bartok's Sonata for two Pianos and Percussion, won her a Grammy in 1988
- A further two Grammy nominations followed, one of which she won in 2002 for a collaboration with Bela Fleck for Sony Classical. Evelyn's 12th solo CD, Shadow Behind the Iron Sun (BMG Records) was based on a radical concept and has once again questioned people's expectations. Despite working a relentless schedule, Evelyn is in constant demand to release new recordings, 22 so far
- Outside of actual performance, the Evelyn Glennie brand is constantly exploring other areas of creativity. From writing a best-selling autobiography, Good Vibrations, to collaborating with the renowned film director Thomas Riedelsheimer on a film called Touch the Sound, to presenting two series of her own television programmes for the BBC, to regularly appearing on television across the world, which include The David Letterman Show (USA), Sesame Street (USA), The South Bank Show (UK), presenting and performing on Songs of Praise (UK), Commonwealth Games Festival Concert, This is Your Life (UK), 60 minutes (USA), PBS Profile (USA), and many more