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The remarkable Evelyn Glennie

Evelyn Glennie is in the city this weekend performing the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra premier of a percussion concerto written by John Corigliano (the Juilliard School professor whose score for The Red Violin won the Academy Award).  The Conjurer, first performed this February in Pittsburgh, is interesting because it wholly foregrounds the percussionist.  It accomplishes this both physically (the soloist is situated in front of the conductor with the full array of instruments on which she will perform, organized as are the movements, by wood, metal and skin) and aurally, since the orchestral setting is reduced to strings only and the melodic and tonal work of the piece is wholly carried by the solo artist.  Corigliano, in a pre-performance talk, explained the challenges of writing percussion-centered pieces, which include the fact that many of the main percussive instruments (like, obviously, the snare drum) do not enable melodic expression, and as a result one often leaves a percussion performance mainly remembering the orchestra and the melody they played and nothing about the soloist except that she or he was running around and expressive.  Relying on the full range of available strategies to combat these tendencies, Corigliano arranges the work so that the soloist is physically in front, aurally dominating, and temporally he arranged each movement to start with a true percussion solo into which the orchestra only slowly intrudes and then fully joins.

I’m embarrassed to say that I had never heard of or encountered Evelyn Glennie, the amazing artist for who the work was commissioned.  I had no idea that she has been named a Dame by the British queen or that she has been a global percussion icon for decades.  Some sense of her contributions are summarized in her biography, available at her website and reproduced in the evening’s concert program:

Evelyn Glennie is the first person in musical history to successfully create and sustain a full-time career as a solo percussionist…  For the first ten years of her career virtually every performance she gave was in some way a first.  Her diversity of collaborations have included performance artists such as Nana Vasconcelos, Kodo, Bela Fleck, Bjork, Bobby McFerrin, Sting, Emmanuel Ax, Kings Singers, Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Fred Frith.  Evelyn has commissioned 150 new works for solo percussion from many of the world’s most eminent composers and also composes and records music for film and television.  Her first high quality drama produced a score so original that she was nominated for a British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards (BAFTA’s); the U.K. equivalent of the Oscars.

Glennie has also won two Grammy Awards and her website also refers to her design work (she makes jewelry) and her multimedia collaborations.  Many online resources are available that showcase her artistry and intellect, including a quite interesting talk she gave in the TED series and YouTube clips from her performances.  An award-winning documentary has also been made centered on her work; I found it mesmerizing.

The press coverage attending her performances doesn’t quite do justice to the experience of seeing her on the stage.  A common theme is that Glennie (as a St. Petersburg Times report put it) “dashes around stage like a woman possessed, darting from marimba to tom-toms to cymbals to bongos to every other imaginable instrument that can be struck, shook, rattled, and rolled” (Variety described her as “bright-eyed, wiry, and pointedly articulate,” not to mention “tattooed and wild-haired”).  And there is some truth in these descriptions, compounded for some when they first realize that Glennie is performing barefoot.  But such labels also deflect from the incredible discipline and precision demanded of percussive performance – drumming accomplished as pure abandonment would be torture, not art or music.

For Glennie, the universe of sounds enabled by the full repertoire of percussive instruments reveal both the primal impulses of human culture (along with its wide variability) but also connect in a fuller sensory way than sound waves hitting eardrums.  In a Glennie performance one is struck by the holistic manner by which sound so visibly courses through her body and gestures, and animates her clearly enthusiastic passion for the acoustic possibilities she evokes.  Whether her connection to a particular instrument is mediated by sticks or whether she is physically fused with it (as is the case of the so-called “talking drum,” which a player holds between the legs and plays with the hands, where the legs themselves by squeezing against the flexible frame can reshape and contort the resulting sound), Glennie reveals how the performer actually embodies the music.  As she put it in an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison, “We have to listen; we have to listen through the entire body, and by bringing all the senses together…  It’s something that I’m refining myself every time I pick my sticks up.  To have that kind of fluidity means that you’re constantly listening, and I don’t mean listening through the ears – listening through the entire body.  That makes a massive difference in how you experience sound, not just music.”

It was only after watching her remarkable ASO performance that I learned something about Glennie that is widely reported but on which she prefers not to dwell:  Evelyn Glennie has been profoundly deaf since the age of 12.   For me this is astonishing, less in the sense of the typical artist overcomes disability sense that one hears so often when discussing Beethoven and others, but rather because here, one leaves with the profound impression that facing her own physical limits has produced artistry that far transcends the historical limits of the percussion repertoire and that curiously would not have been imagined as richly by those who can hear in the traditional sense.

SOURCES:  John Fleming, “The Perfect Touch,” St. Petersburg Times, 24 August 2007, pg. 1E; Edward Ortiz, “A Feel For Music: Evelyn Glennie Hears With Her Body – And Makes Percussion an Adventure,” Sacramento Bee, 2 December 2007, pg. TK23; Amanda Henry, “Percussionist Evelyn Glennie Gets New Emphasis For the Role,” Wisconsin State Journal, 24 March 2004, pg. D1; Eddie Cockrell, “Review of Touch the Sound,” Variety, 20 December 2004, pg. 50; Donald Munro, “Flying Solo:  A Long List of Accomplishments Travels Alongside this Talented Musician,” Fresno Bee, 22 April 2008, pg. E1


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