Evelyn Glennie, Musician

She is a percussionist, a Scottish master of dozens of mundane and exotic sound-making devices, many of which cannot be called instruments in any normal sense. But she makes music with all of them. Here she is performing at the Moers Festival in 2004.

Glennie at the Moers Festival, 2004.

Of the more than 1800 “instruments” she owns, she says her favorite is the humble snare drum. Hearing her play it, you believe she is the only person who can. Born in Aberdeen, Scotland on July 19, 1965, Glennie spent her childhood near home. Music was prominent in her family and she showed an early interest in the piano. Her father, Herbert Arthur, was an accordionist in a Scottish folk dance band.

German filmmaker, Thomas Riedelsheimer, makes documentaries that reflect his deep interests in the sounds and images of nature. His films, which capture the subtlest intersections of light, color, texture, and sound, create a cinematic landscape that makes you feel as if you are discovering your own senses for the first time. A film of his from 2001 titled Rivers and Tides is an exploration of the artwork of Andy Goldsworthy, who uses only natural elements found in situ. Watching this film you experience the flow of time in nature on a near mystical scale.

Three years later, Riedelsheimer released a feature-length documentary about Evelyn Glennie, called Touch the Sound; like Goldsworthy, she is unique in her chosen art. Hers is not just the art of composed music but of sounds in nature. Here is a trailer of the film:

After she describes how complex hearing can be, and how easily we overlook the symphony of ambient sound around us, she concludes by saying, “We are the sound.”

This documentary is one of those rare films that will alter the way you look at, and in this case, hear the space around you. It is a journey into a world you think you know well, but seen through her, a world where every object and event has the possibility of becoming music, if only we listen for it. There is not much I want to say in advance of your watching the film about this extraordinary woman and of her work, except that, in case you do not already know of her singular place in the hierarchy of classical music, she is not only the world’s pre-eminent percussionist — she is profoundly deaf.

Evelyn Glennie began losing her hearing at age 8 and was near fully deaf by 12. But her ability to “hear” sound through vibrations offers an entirely new sensual experience for the rest of us. Riedelsheimer’s documentary is, at least for now, available on YouTube in 12 parts. If you have good speakers, or better yet, high quality headphones, I suggest you use them while watching.

I know that making a commitment to watching a feature length film on YouTube is not something that comes as a facile recommendation. The image quality is compromised. But the sound (through a headset) is good quality.  Even if you think you already know the music and the life story of Dame Evelyn Glennie, this film will carry you away to a new level of appreciation.  Here is Part One:

The opening shot of a retreating camera, inside an abandoned Cologne factory as Glennie plays a gong, introduces a location that Riedelsheimer will return to throughout the film. It is in this cathedral-like acoustic environment that Glennie and experimental musician Fred Frith will perform and improvise. After this opening there is a cut to New York City and we see Glennie playing her favorite instrument (snare drum) in the central lobby of the then newly restored Grand Central Station while the camera tracks around her.  Her bleach-blond raggedy hairdo, left arm tattoo and dangling bra strap belie her image as an esteemed soloist on the world’s great concert stages. This public space performance reminds me of violinist Joshua Bell’s busking in the D.C. metro, that was the subject of one of my first essays on this site:

John’s Bailiwick—Busking With Bach

In the second part, Glennie arrives at the factory with Frith and they explore the sound potential of sheet metal and plumbing pipes before they stage an impromptu duet. He plays amplified, “prepared” guitars and she performs amidst a haze of incense on Javanese gamelan :

In part three Glennie returns to her ancestral home of northeastern Scotland where we see her amid the ruins of seacoast abbeys while she recalls the story of her childhood’s loss of hearing. There are buffering glitches during the first minute and a half of this part. Bear with it. It resolves shortly after Glennie starts to speak on camera:

In part four Glennie continues to work with a young deaf student explaining to her how to hear with the body, using a bass drum as an example how the deaf can “hear even more” than normal people. Then she returns to the Cologne factory with Frith and performs barefooted, one of the ways she uses her body as a resonating chamber:

Part five begins with Glennie at home in Cambridge Shire engaged in a telephone interview. The film cuts back to New York for an improvised rooftop drumming session that juxtaposes her music against the cacophony of the city, a montage of urban noise that now seems to be part and parcel of the music. This section ends with a lunchtime conversation by Frith about how “breathing” became a new way of hearing for him and how it provided a breakthrough in his own compositions.

The next part begins with Glennie demonstrating how breathing into even a modest toy mouthpiece, like the one she has, can create music. This is followed by a trip to Japan and a discussion with Japanese drummers who discuss breathing as primal life force; they explain to her the concordance in the Japanese language of the words for “breath” and “life.” Glennie then participates in a glorious, impromptu drumming session, her set of smaller Western instruments in perfect harmony with the taiko of their company, Za Ondekoza. Here is a wiki entry for the company:

Wikipedia.org — Ondekoza link

In part seven Glennie visits a Japanese department store, passes street barkers and a pachinko parlor, all prime locations of the visual and aural cacophony that is the essence of the Tokyo experience, part of that urban musical mash-up that we heard earlier in the film in New York City. At a small club she decides to give an impromptu concert using dishes, pans and utensils (chopsticks) as instruments, that next segues into a lush marimba trio with piano and violin. This is the first indication in the film of the Evelyn Glennie that is a classically trained percussionist, the woman who has soloed with the world’s pre-eminent orchestras, and who has had dozens of concert works commissioned by and for her:

Part eight begins with Glennie’s visit to a Japanese karesansui at a Zen temple. I believe it is Ryoan-ji in Kyoto. This garden of 15 rocks surrounded by raked pebbles and moss is a place of contemplation.

Ryoan-ji Garden (karesansui) Kyoto, Japan.

When I was in prep to film Paul Schrader’s Mishima in February 1984, the Japanese camera operator, Toyomichi Kurita, took me to Ryoan-ji a day after there was a light snowfall. As snow melted from the roof, the runoff water spiraled down a wooden rain chain called a kusani doi and into a wooden ladle that, once full,tipped and emptied, striking a stone on the return. At each blow I felt the purest musical tone I had ever experienced—felt not just heard. This memory helps me understand how Glennie “hears.”

Glennie returns to her family farm in part nine to visit her brother, Roger. She finds some “interesting bits” of pipe and sheet metal among the farmyard’s detritus, which she begins to play. This initiates a reverie about her dad’s musical influence and the sight of his powerful accordion.

Two days later the farm burns down. In part 10, back at the factory turned studio in Cologne, Fred Frith on guitar and Glennie on marimba, play a six-minute elegy for the lost farm and for her childhood country seascape. It’s a transcendently beautiful composition written by Glennie titled “ A Little Prayer.”

Part eleven is a meditation on the interdependence of our senses and how they can substitute for one another. The expression of music is a fundamental “need” for humans, and our bodies’ very movements reflect this.

“I believe that we all have our own individual sound… We’re configured uniquely…. We are the sound,” she says. With this soliloquy the final part of Touch the Sound begins. For a musician who has stated and then demonstrated that the snap of the snare drum is her favored musical instrument, it is the deeply moving marimba coda that listeners will carry into their souls; it will resonate there long after the final soft hammer fades from the ear.

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